Thursday, June 26, 2014

How Do You Learn About A Foreian Culture

Source:  "Tips On How To Experience A Foreign Culture"

How do you learn about foreign culture. Of course, you were lucky enough to be born into a culture and learned it at your mother's knee, in the streets, at school, from the media, and lots of other places. But what happens when you find yourself in the midst of a different culture?

Of course, that depends on how you do so. As a tourist, you may be protected and instructed by a tour guide, but in any case you will almost surely be dealing with people -- hotel and restaurant staff, travel agents, airline and railroad employees -- who are trained to deal with foreigners and experienced in doing so. You will not be expected to understand the culture very well, and you will generally be excused any gaffs you might make. Still, why travel if you don't try to use travel to learn about other people and their cultures.

As a business traveler, you should be briefed by your employer, and perhaps accompanied by local staff familiar with the culture who will help you. Business culture is a subset of national culture, simpler in my experience, and more international. Moreover, your counterparts are likely to be used to dealing internationally and thus understanding of cultural differences with visitors. Still, they are likely to be positively impressed if you have done your homework and show sensitivity to their culture.

When I first went to live abroad (as a Peace Corps Volunteer) I was fortunate enough to get three months intensive language instruction and a fairly serious, graduate level course in Anthropology that included field practice in rural USA and in Mexico. The training was a big help.

I lived in my first foreign country for something like two and one-half years. In that time I spent some time living and interacting with dock workers and their families, taught a couple of classes in universities, worked in the computer center with staff there, and cooperated with a couple of faculty members offering services to local industry based on the then novel computer services available at the school. I read a lot in Spanish and spoke Spanish several hours a day, both doing business and chatting with friends and associates.  I had the chance to travel for a couple of weeks in country, and later for several weeks in Latin America.

A couple of years later, with more professional experience and more graduate work under my belt, I went to live in another Spanish speaking country. I stayed for another two and one-half years. While the cultures of the two countries were far from identical, they shared the same language and many other similarities. I began working as one of three foreigners working with a team of (highly trained and experienced locals who themselves had international experience); as the other foreigners left, I found myself the only foreigner on the  team, working almost entirely in Spanish. Team members became friends, and the work involved interactions with people outside our group on a regular basis.  I also taught, both short courses and thesis students. I read a lot, especially about the health sector as I was working on a WHO project. I got interested in local archaeology and spent time talking with others interested in archaeological artifacts.

Five years living in two Spanish speaking countries I think was a good way to learn to be somewhat humble about my lack of cultural understanding, and yet to pick up some ability to learn about other cultures. It was a background that helped a lot in the following decades in which I worked in more than 30 other countries, and also worked in multinational organizations.

Today it is easier, I think, to learn about other cultures than when I started out. Surely it is easier now to learn languages; instruction is better and computers are around with good language instruction software, and even translation software to help you over the hard parts. You can take an online introductory course in anthropology and/or in the history and geography of the country that interests you. provides a great way to find books on the countries whose cultures you wish to learn about. Use Google to search the Internet and you can easily find guidance on local culture for visitors to those countries. Travel is easier and faster. There is of course no substitute for getting to know people from the culture, but today you can do so via social networking sites without leaving the comfort of your home. Thus when you arrive in a foreign country you can be reasonably prepared to continue learning about it, its history, its people and their culture.

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