Understanding Cultural Differences


This is a topic dear to me as I have lived more outside of the US during the last five years than in the US. To say I’ve learned a lot would be an understatement and I think it’s worthwhile to share some insights for those that are looking to travel and/or live in another country given that I would have benefited immensely knowing then what I know now.

Unfortunately, it seems the Internet is flooded with happy-go-lucky travel stories, must-dos, must-see locations, bucket-lists, etcetera, that don’t lay out some real truths when it comes to traveling. Those are all very nice and helpful if you don’t know much about your destination but they won’t tell you about how you will feel when you’re there.

When living as an expat how you feel in a society, meaning how accepted you are, how easily you can relate to others, your shared values and shared likes are all much more important to you and affect your feelings towards a society than what their buildings look like and even what food they eat.

Now, it’s time for a disclaimer. I consider the best way to travel is immersing yourself in the culture completely (eating their food, staying in homes of locals, speaking their language if possible…) that way you really understand them and can have a honest opinion about difficult cultures and lifestyles around the world. If not, you will only see the tip of the cultural iceberg. Knowing those basic culture facts in my opinion won’t grow you as a person or provide enticing conversation pieces for later. Knowing what is below is much more arduous.

For practice, look at each of those items beneath and see how you and your country feel about them and think of a country that treats them in a completely opposite way.


What I mean to say is those items underneath the tip are what matter and what shape the lives of each of us living in our distinct countries. In turn, those characteristics affect the entire world because we are no longer isolated within our own countries. We travel, people move, and we are in contact with people who have conflicting ideas from our own and all of this interaction slowly changes our own culture.

This is why I think it is important to get an honest view of an outside culture, to evaluate its strengths and weaknesses and understand the root causes of societal progress or decline and how we can all continuously improve. To be clear, I sincerely believe the world is getting better, more humane, more ethical and sincere and the data show this as well. But it doesn’t mean that we should be complacent and accept the good with the bad as each and every country and culture can and should improve.

This is all to say that traveling does make you more accepting of others but it should also give you a clear perspective into what aspects of society work and what don’t. The good things are meant to be brought back home, to improve your own society and the bad things are meant to be discussed and understood so that they are avoided.

Though we want to celebrate different cultures, there are some very bad traits in each that should not be celebrated. This could be over-indulgence in America and machismo in Latin America. We can all agree that being sympathetic and good stewards to our communities is a good trait and there are many ways cultures become that way. What is not okay is to be apathetic about the bad traits.

As traveling becomes more and more available I believe it will become a part of our civic duty to understand what is happening around the world and what actions we can take to improve.

So what steps are we to take when traveling?

  • Record what makes you feel good/bad and whether or not that is based off of other people’s actions or societal structures
  • Follow the money: where the locals spend it and how they spend it
  • Evaluate how they spend their time
  • View how they treat others both inside and outside their society
  • Speak with locals to see if your perspective of them matches their own and see what discrepancies may arise
  • Communicate what you have learned with those back home to solidify your ideas

There are many more items that you can analyze but those few will get you started. What I most want to convey is that traveling can be a wonderful vacation but it is also one of the best scenarios for deep learning, not easily experienced at home. It would be a shame to have gone somewhere without knowing who’s land you visited/borrowed and sad to not have learned from their way of live or to have gifted an insight to them about the way you live. I can almost guarantee the trip will be more memorable and have long lasting effects if these ideas are kept in mind.

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