Ten Tips for Cross-cultural Success

Ten Tips For Crossing Cultures:

  1. LEARN and OBSERVE — Spend time preparing and learning about the country or culture you plan to enter so that a mental foundation is laid. Any good student would study the subject matter before an exam or presentation, and the same principle applies in the realm of international travel. Also, be culturally aware. Observe cultural similarities and differences and use them to understand the behavior of your international counterpart. Adopting an analytical perspective on cultural norms and values is central to crossing cultures.
  2. SOCIAL STRUCTURE — Expect that the notion of “equality” is not a universal one. Men and women are not treated equally across the world, and likewise, people of differing ethnicity, religious, linguistic and status are often not treated equally either. Learn to suspend judgment in order to function within the host country, and be sure to learn how to distinguish between gender, cultural, ethnic, linguistic, religious or status differences. Often these factors function in tandem with one another, while being distinct. Understanding the social structure of a country will often help in parsing how the structural elements contribute to the social and cultural distinctions.
  3. SUSPEND VALUES — Whatever personal values (see #2 in regard to the value of equality) may be held at home, it is very likely that they will not easily translate into other cultures and contexts. The famed anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, reminds us that if we expect to find “home truths” in other parts of the world, we might as well stay home. Patience, flexibility and tolerance are, thus, requisite qualities for all travelers. Respectfully adhere to cultural norms, even if you do not agree with them, and try not to take offense to habits and customs with which you may not be familiar. Try to function “within” the host country’s culture and social system rather than approaching it antagonistically. In this regard, the old adage of “When in Rome, do as the Romans…” remains golden advice.
  4. NETWORKS– Build a network or personal and professional contacts if you plan to be in another country or culture for an extended stay. Note: Cross-culture expert, Roger Axtell, suggests finding a mentor with experience who can act as a sponsor, help socialize you into the new culture, and in the case of business professionals, even extend your credibility. In many countries, from the most basic functions to the most bureaucratic offices rely upon networks of contacts.
  5. PERSONAL APPEARANCE — Seriously consider the matter of personal appearance and self-presentation. Often considered a “soft” or insignificant subject, self-presentation can be critical to business success by portraying care and professionalism in cultures where appearances are key factors. Appearance can also contribute to safety factors as it can bring unwanted attention to travelers, thus making them targets for criminal activities. Pay close attention to how your international counterparts present themselves in the professional and personal domains.
  6. SELF-PRESENTATION — Thoughtfully take into account the matter of personal behavior and self-presentation. The old adage “just be yourself” is pleasant rhetoric to the ears of fellow Westerners, and especially Americans. While such naturalness and ease may require little effort, it is the single most problematic attitude of international travelers as it demonstrates a gross incognizance of cultural differences. Instead, observe how people in the host country behave and attempt to emulate that behavior with subtlety. Often, small changes such as modulating one’s voice or behaving more formally in status-oriented cultures are sufficient forms of cultural integration.
  7. PARA-LANGUAGE — Pay close attention to “para-language,” that is, gestures and body language in other countries. The way in which Americans nod “yes” (up and down) means the opposite thing in other countries such as India. Hand movements are also critical as they can often denote epithets and other colorful meanings. The Chinese, however, have a complex and esoteric code of hand gestures that are involved in commercial transactions. Do not assume universal meanings as something as seemingly ubiquitous as a smile may not translate the same meaning in other cultures. Westerners assume the smile transmits positive feelings, however, in Eastern cultures, smiling often connotes discomfort or embarrassment. In still other cultures, smiling demonstrates weakness or shallowness. Close attention should also be paid to eye contact, hand shaking and spatial relationships.
  8. PROTOCOL — Give some thought and attention to the matter of protocol. In written communication with people from other countries and cultures, distinctive practices are the norm. Take time to find out about appropriate and polite customs of written communication. In-person communication and etiquette is also key. Westerners, and especially North Americans, tend to adhere to informality in greetings and introductions, often preferring to interact on a first name basis. Other cultures such as Middle Easterners, preference more formal interactions, while Latin Americans pay close attention to titles. Beyond the realm of communication, take time to learn about the status hierarchy. As noted in #3, equality is not a universal value and many cultures tend to be status-oriented. Many cross-cultural experts recommend using bilingual business cards where titles favorably denote status.
  9. PUNCTUALITY — Remember that the notion of time is a culturally constructed one. Try to adhere to culturally-appropriate norms of punctuality. European countries and the United Kingdom have a high regard for the issue and demand precise attention to punctuality, while Canada, the United States, and Australia expect and appreciate promptness. In contrast, the Mediterranean countries tend to have a more relaxed attitude toward promptness and in Latin America and Africa, time is a very fluid consideration!
  10. DRINKING AND DINING — Think about culturally distinct norms of dining when traveling or living in another country. Table etiquette should be considered. Although Americans tend to cut meat with the right hand and then flip to fork use with that very hand, Europeans and many Latin Americans unwaveringly use the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right hand. In Asian cultures where chopsticks are used, learning how to efficiently use these utensils in advisable. Pay attention to where utensils are placed on the plate during and after eating as the cues of etiquette evolved in order to signal to waiters and attendants when more food was requested or when one is finished with a meal. Travel also involves consuming foreign and exotic foods. Although your first impulse may be to refuse to eat the sheep’s brain offered in the Middle East or pig intestines offered in South East Asia, remember that these foods are considered delicacies at home and are likely offered in the spirit of honor. When serving meals to people of other cultures, remember to consider religious restrictions (Muslims and Jews do not eat pork; Hindus do not eat beef; and various denominations of Christianity and Islam do not drink alcohol). If you are the person with a religious or dietary restriction, simply explain that fact to your host while noting that you have no objection to others partaking the particular food or drink.