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How To Understand A Foreign Culture

When preparing to travel abroad for leisure, Americans can often be heard saying that they want to “soak up the culture” of whichever country they are visiting. Often, they mean going to museums, seeing the historical sites, and sampling the local cuisine. Sometimes, they may even try out a few phrases from a language book. And they might leave the country after a week or so, believing themselves to be culturally literate in a foreign culture.

While this experience may be the definition of tourism, it is of limited use for someone needing to understand a culture in order to do business there. Understanding a culture requires a significant investment in time and energy. It also requires a certain mindset. It requires the ability to step out of yourself and try to look at the world through the eyes of the other. While there is nothing inherently wrong with tourism, tourists often experience another country the way that they experience certain animal theme parks. They go in, they observe, they find certain things interesting, and they leave.

To really be immersed in a foreign culture, one has to really be able to speak the language. However, this is often not a real option for most people. Despite what one might hear from certain linguistic training programs, it often takes years to truly master a language. Even the military language school immerses the students for a year, and these students do nothing all day but study the language. But apart from this, there are still a lot of things that one can do to truly understand the foreign culture.

1.) Change your mindset.

When people go abroad, it is often natural to observe what Culture X does and compare it to your home culture. Some folks have a tendency to judge and assume that how it’s being done abroad is wrong. This mindset misunderstands what culture is. A culture is the distilled experiences of hundreds, or thousands of years. A given cultural practice is in place because at some point in time it did work. Also, cultures are a set of deeply connected practices and assumptions. If you change one, you can impact many others. The mindset to have when one is seeing a cultural practice that makes no sense to you is to assume that there is something that you are not seeing. A certain practice might make no sense and might have a bad result if done in an American cultural context. But in the context of another cultural system, it might be the best thing one can do. By assuming that there is something you are not seeing, you can try and find out what that is and deepen your understanding of that culture.

2.) Read, Read, Read.

Understanding a culture requires a lot of reading (and maybe some well researched and in-depth YouTube videos). To understand a culture, you have to understand the experiences that shaped it. And that means understanding a lot about the history of the culture, which will go a long way towards unraveling the cultural mystery. When I moved to Switzerland to work, one of the first things that I did was to purchase a small book on the history of Switzerland. This contributed immensely to my understanding of the culture, even though I spoke the language and was working there. Spending a few weeks learning the history, the geography, the politics, and even the cultural anthropology of the country in question, will go a long way in a short time toward giving you a certain amount of cultural literacy. Today with the internet, we all have the information necessary to be cultural experts.

3.) If possible, meet with people who are from that country.

Meeting with people from that country is an excellent way to get an insider perspective on it. However, it is important to talk to the right people. While anybody who has lived in that other country can give you some insight, the relevance of the insight deteriorates the longer the person has lived away from there. In my experience, a person who has lived outside of their home country for 7 to 10 years often doesn’t understand it any longer. They may have understood what it was 7 to 10 years ago, but circumstances change rapidly with modern technology. And not being on the ground over there and in touch with everything around them, means that they sort of lose part of the cultural thread. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t talk to them, as they will be able to give you some insights. It’s just that you should bear in mind that what they are telling you is dated, and that talking with a native who has lived there more recently is important to complete your cultural picture.

4.) Beware of the “Big City Bias”.

One of the potential pitfalls in trying to learn about the culture is to rely too heavily on the major news sites for that country. Most of the news is going to be from the perspective of the major city/cities, usually the capital. Even in relatively free countries where the media isn’t controlled by the government, this can be an issue. Many of the people writing live in the big city, and this may or may not be representative of country as a whole. Another issue may be that tourists who visit the one or two big cities think they have a grasp on the country. One needs only imagine a foreigner coming to the U.S. and visiting New York, D.C., and Los Angeles (the media and political centers of the U.S.), to understand that this individual would have a skewed, thoroughly incomplete view of what America and American culture is. I once had friend tell me that he had recently moved from Russia to the U.S., to which I responded that he had actually moved from Moscow to the U.S. I explained that Moscow is a country that is entirely surrounded by another country called Russia. Another time, I was in Argentina in Buenos Aires. It was a first world country in every way, until you got outside of the city center and found yourself in a completely different world. This is not to say that you should ignore the major news sources. They do give you a certain perspective. Just understand that in order to get a full picture, you will have to dig deeper and look for other, geographically diverse sources.

In short, to understand a culture, you will need to approach the culture from several different perspectives. While learning a language might not be possible, taking the time to develop expertise on the country in question will be worth your while if you are going to do business there. Not only will you likely not experience the culture shock that some do, but you will understand your business associates in that country and increase the odds of a successful business outcome.

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