As we grow, we get exposed to new opportunities, activities, and cultures. They present amazing moments of learning, personal growth, and sometimes new and delicious food. However, how we handle these instances of cross-cultural interaction can reflect maturity or childish carelessness. Done correctly, successfully navigating an engagement like this can forge new bonds and create fascinating dialogue.
Here are six tips on handling cross-cultural events and interactions.
If you know someone, ask ahead of time about things you should know.
Many times your first introduction to another culture comes through a friend or acquaintance. If you’re in a position to ask someone from within the culture about what you should know ahead of time, try to do so. Going to your first wedding that is a full Catholic mass? Ask your friend what outfits are considered appropriate and what cues you should be listening for during the ceremony.
Received an invitation to a quinceañera? Inquire whether there are traditional gifts and what some of the differences between that and a traditional sweet 16 are. Your friend will fill you in on what they think is the most important stuff for you to be aware of, and you can feel more prepared for the event.
Do your research if you have the time.
Sometimes you will be invited to an event or cultural fair, and you may not have a strong connection to someone involved. In that case, do a little research. For example, did you know that in Thailand, they use the spoon much more in their eating than other Asian cultures? Knowing little things like this fact can make a big difference in a cross-cultural situation.
The internet makes it easier to learn about other cultures and their expectations. When looking up facts and information, try to go to primary sources. Rather than looking at a blog written by a professional tourist, find a video made by someone from within the culture. Make sure you use good sources and walk into the experience armed with a little knowledge.
Take note of how other people are conducting themselves.
When you go into another country or cultural event, take the time to observe how everyone else is behaving. Are they talking low or talking loud? There are countries where both happen. Are they dressed a certain way? What kind of deference are they paying to older individuals? How are other non-natives conducting themselves, and how are the local people responding?
Making small observations like that can be the difference between bumbling your way through a cross-cultural encounter and handling it with poise and efficiency. There are some things you will only learn through careful observation within the culture. Sometimes the best way to learn is to watch others and practice.
It is okay to admit you don’t know or are not sure about something.
I am really bad at using chopsticks. Really, really bad. I have come to accept this fact about myself. Practice hasn’t really helped either. In situations where I need to use chopsticks, I don’t sit there and pretend I’m good at it. In many ways, just embracing my lack of dexterity with utensils has saved me the embarrassment of trying to look cultured and failing.
It can be tempting to look like a world traveler who is well-versed in all things foreign. The simple truth is that it is impossible to know everything about every culture. When asked to do something or engage in an activity, it is perfectly acceptable to admit you don’t know enough about that activity rather than mess it up because you were pretending.
If you’re expected to pronounce foreign words, try your hardest and do your best.
There is this silly notion that if you are struggling with a foreign language that you should either fake it or just play dumb. That is absurd. Are you annoyed when someone who doesn’t speak your native language makes a sincere effort to speak it, even if they struggle? Of course not. People are actually very understanding that not everyone speaks multiple languages – in fact, most people around the world only speak one.
What people don’t appreciate is if you make fun of or degrade their language and culture. If you do your best to pronounce words and use them correctly, you will be much better off. Be polite and sincere, and that will shine through your bad grammar and poor accent. A little humility will result in a gracious understanding that you’re trying.
Most people can tell when you’re being fake. It is an almost universal talent that people seem to inherently have. While from time to time there is someone who seems to be able to lie their way through life and change their personalities on a whim, usually people can tell when someone else is not being themselves to try and blend in.
No one expects an American to just become a German. No one from Ghana expects a visitor from China to understand and adopt everything about their way of life. Someone from Brazil is not going to be shocked and horrified that a French-Canadian doesn’t have a good Portuguese accent. Just be yourself while respecting the culture of others.
Having cross-cultural experience is important; having said that, everyone makes mistakes when they enter into those situations, even if they lie and pretend they do not. Being as well-informed as possible is the foundation of cultivating a positive engagement, but knowing when to admit your blindspots and weaknesses will open more doors for learning and opportunities to forge new bonds.