Learning about a country's customs and culture guides you through foreign waters, without leading to embarrassing faux pas. For instance, it is not uncommon for a well-dressed Japanese gentlemen to make loud slurping noises while he downs his soup in a noodle shop. In some cultures, that would be considered rude, but in Japan it rude not to do it.
Knowing in which countries direct eye contact is appreciated and where it's considered impolite, or where pointing with your finger is considered insulting, may make a big difference in a local's attitude when you are asking for directions or advice on where to get a good meal.
Culture guru Dean Foster suggests that savvy travelers do a little research on local customs, cultures and attitudes before setting out for a new destination. Most business travelers know to study local customs and culture before visiting a foreign place, but those traveling for pleasure don't always do the same.
For more than 20 years Foster has been sharing his cultural knowledge with Fortune 500 companies, including Volkswagen, Heineken and Bank of America. He writes the CultureWise column for National Geographic Traveler and is the author of five books – along with several iPhone apps – that provide tips on global etiquette.
I was in Israel a few months before writing this piece, so I downloaded and looked at his app for that country to better prepare myself. I found it to be very informative on various aspects of life in Israel, offering some good tips for business travelers, including a very basic Hebrew dictionary geared toward first-time visitors.
My TripSavvy colleague, Martha Bakerjian, who is an expert on all things Italy, felt his Italian CultureGuide app needed a serious update however, as it was lacking in some key areas. Be sure to check current reviews before downloading.
Why View a Culture Guide Before Visiting a Foreign Country?
Foster says, "Business travelers, of course, need to understand cultural differences because money is on the line: bad behavior causes misunderstandings, and misunderstandings can kill the deal.
However, leisure travelers need to understand culture also for several reasons."
Those reasons include:
- Getting out of the antiseptic tourist bubble: you can't fully understand what you're experiencing unless you experience it from within "their" context, not your own. Most tourists rarely get beyond the superficial "awe" factor when they experience a different culture; understanding the culture provides a far more enriching, deeper experience.
- You may not ever become fluent in all the languages of all the countries you visit, but you CAN become culturally-fluent quickly enough to connect with the locals in a way that cultural ignorance, coupled with language ignorance, can never provide.
- In a global world, we are all "ambassadors" of our own culture, and leisure travelers – like business travelers – have a responsibility to present their country in the best possible light. Reinforcing local negative stereotypes of your own country through behaviors that reflect ignorance of the local culture while abroad is as irresponsible as environmental ignorance.
- If your'e a more enlightened traveler, chances are you'll gain more from your experiences as well.
Where to Find Guides to Customs & Cultures in Foreign Countries
Dean Foster has several CultureGuides apps for the iPhone, iPad, and Android phones.
He says, "These are great for the business traveler and the casual traveler. Each country app has a significant section on dining etiquette, food, toasting, local specialties, and staying healthy when dining abroad - and we all need to know how to conduct ourselves in a restaurant!"
"We provide a real depth of information, more than just "do's and don't's," the apps cover values, beliefs and historical reasons for the behaviors you see. They're also easily organized and you can manipulate information specifically for you. The apps cover everything from a country overview and greetings to how to behave when invited to a private home, as well as gift giving etiquette.
"The Words and Phrases section contains dozens of terms for use in greetings and conversations; names of people and occupations; common expressions; and standard business terms.
All words and phrases can be saved to a favorites list. The CultureGuides offer web-accessed tools along with the extensive content: maps, up-to-the-minute weather reports, and currency exchange rates making your trip more productive, enriching and exciting."
If you prefer looking at books, Culture Smart books focus on the attitudes, beliefs, and behavior in different countries, so travelers get an understanding of what to expect before they leave home. The books describe basic manners, common courtesies, and sensitive issues. CultureSmart books re available as ebooks too.
Know What Locals Are Saying After Free Language Lessons
Free language lessons are another route to befriending locals more easily. There are many websites where you can learn any language from Chinese to Italian, and dozens of others as well. Picking up a new language often offers great insights into a foreign culture as well, plus it makes navigating through that country much easier too.
New technology is also making it easier to communicate while traveling too. For instance, the Google Translate app for iOS and Android can do realtime translation of 59 different languages, which can be extremely handy for frequent travelers.