Know Your Bias
When you enter any new country, your first observations of it will come from your own very specific cultural framework of judgments about what is right and wrong, rude and polite, professional and disorganized. If you want to understand your new environment, it's important to recognize that almost every observation you make is lacking some key piece of context. While your first interactions in new places will be confusing, frustrating, and sometimes even offensive, the act of nonjudgmental observation will help you to learn and adjust quickly.
The easiest way to learn about the cultural mores in your new destination is simply to encourage your own curiosity, and to observe local behavior with a goal of understanding the reasons behind it. If you're not sure what to look for, here are a few cultural practices that vary widely:
- Shoes off or on? In Thailand, Japan, and many other cultures, shoes are never worn inside the house. You may even be expected to take your shoes off inside a store, or switch them out for fancy slippers in a bathroom or restaurant, so watch what people do with their feet in every entry or exit into a new space.
- Right of way: Even if the little man in the crosswalk is green, a few countries cede the right of way to vehicles in practice, if not in law. Before you stride out into any crossing, make sure you've watched how closely local pedestrians pay attention to oncoming traffic before crossing the street.
- Queuing and Personal Space: Westerners will have to get used to the idea that in some cultures, queuing is anathema. Although you may be tempted to get huffy and defensive of your personal space and your spot in line, in some cases it's just more efficient just to shoulder your way through, once you've observed that it's not considered rude.
- Summoning the check: Eye contact with your server at a restaurant is a good idea in any country, but pay specific attention to whether the bill is automatically presented at the end of the meal or whether patrons have to ask for it. Otherwise, you may be waiting a long time! In some countries you'll also find that you're asked for your order soon after receiving the menu. To avoid frustration, you might want to decide on your meal immediately, and get it out of the way!
- Parenting: Different cultures have very different ways of instilling values and/or discipline in their children, from authoritarian to "free range" approaches. In most cases, the effect on you is minimal except that a little patience will go a long way.
- Dress: When in doubt, dress modestly. Showing a lot of skin is disrespectful in some countries. It always helps to bring along a sweater to cover up if you need to. Also pay attention to when people take off or don their hats, as it may be rude to wear your hat inside.
- Money Handling: Money is not exchanged between hands in some countries. In these places, you'll often see a little dish at the cash register. Pay attention to whether you're expected to put your money into the dish or receive your change from it. It may also be a good idea to research whether or not there are any stigmas against using your left hand in public interactions and eating, and whether it's considered polite to hand over bills face up.
Although it's inevitable that you'll make a few mistakes along the way, keep in mind that people are generally kind and forgiving no matter where you are, especially if you acknowledge your mistakes with grace and an apology in the local language.
It helps to be polite in every encounter, and to avoid yelling or speaking too loudly. Some cultures are very reserved, and will appreciate your efforts to avoid being disruptive.
Photo Credits: Menina Mundo