By Vicki Barnes
While people all over the world are very much the same, we are all in different circumstances that create some differences that must be understood.
When traveling abroad, you should get to know the countries where you will be staying so you can understand the people you meet. You should learn about their customs, their politics and their religions. All it takes is a little time to research the basic facts. A little research can open doors you might not have known about and help you create lasting friendships wherever you go.
For the business person, a lack of understanding of the culture of the people with whom they are engaging can mean a loss of financial reward or worse, but for the vacationer or adventure traveler, the lack of understanding of the people they meet can mean a loss of opportunity to discover the local treasures or even cause them to pay “tourist” prices for daily items. At it’s simplest, a visitor ignorant of the local customs will appear, well…ignorant.
Even if you don’t speak the language (you should make an effort to learn the basics wherever you go), take the time to get to know the customs. Find out what kinds of food they eat, know the national politics (know who the national leader is and if there is strife in the government), know if there are clothing expectations (for example, a woman stand out – or cause an uproar – in a pair of shorts and a tshirt in a country where women are expected to be more modest). Make sure you understand the role of religion and of family in each place you visit. In some places, religion is something that is a mere tradition – understood, but rarely practiced. In other countries it is the focus of everyone’s life and their ceremonies are a part of every day life.
Recognize the country’s flag.
The internet is a good place to begin your research. The CIA posts factbooks about all countries which gives a good overview of each nation with sections about the geography, the people and society, the government and the economy, energy, communication, transportation, the military and transnational issues. It takes no time at all to study these tiny synopses. A little goes a long way toward understanding.
When you visit a country, it’s important to know a little about social situations. A big bear hug and a slap on the back might not be acceptable when meeting for the first time. Would it be OK for a woman to directly address a man – or vice versa? Is the waiter being rude or does social custom prevent him from looking you in the eye? These sorts of things might be good to know before you put yourself in such situations.
Check out sites like Culture Crossing, the BBC Country Profiles , the US State Department’s Bilateral Relations Fact Sheets or even sources aimed at kids like the National Geographic Kid’s Find People & Places site has enough basic information to get you started.
You don’t have to have a master’s degree in the culture of the places you are visiting to be prepared for your visit, but get a basic overview in order to be ready for the people you meet. You will soon learn that even middle and high school aged children in other countries know a lot about other nations. Try, at least, to be smarter than a fifth grader when you visit.