When you are traveling across countries and cultures, miscommunications, unexpected challenges, and outright mistakes are bound to occur. Some of them are of your own making and you really have no one to blame but yourself (although it would probably feel much better to have an easy scapegoat).
In this category I count 1) grabbing a lookalike suitcase at the Puerto Vallarta, Mexico airport and trying to go back into baggage claim, attracting the stern attention of many very upset guards 2) hopping in the wrong taxi in Quito, Ecuador and practically being held hostage until I managed to escape with my suitcase but little dignity intact and 3) reading the schedule wrong and having to spend the night on a bench in the London train station, accompanied by several ( bordering on ex-) friends.
But then there are other instances that can best be attributed to “you don’t know what you don’t know.”
When it comes to cultural differences, there are a number of dimensions that cultural anthropologists have identified that vary widely from country to country, according to the Cultural Intelligence Center.
These include how we view:
Identity: Individualist versus Collectivist Culture. Individual needs are subsumed to what is best for the community or those in a common group.
Authority: Low versus High Power Distance. This concerns how we treat those who are perceived to be in either more or less powerful positions than we are.
Risk: Low versus High Uncertainty Avoidance. Some cultures are more prone to risk-taking–others not so much.
Achievement: Cooperative versus Competitive. This orientation determines how much value we place on working together versus individual achievement.
Time: Punctuality versus Relationships. Certain countries are governed by the clock and “being late” is a big no-no. Others look at time and deadlines in a more flexible way.
Communication: Direct versus Indirect. In some, cultures rely less on words and more on other factors such as context and body language.
So how do these differences play out in day-to-day travel experiences? Of course, these are generalities–there are certainly differences among individuals even within the same culture on all of these dimensions.
Also, our orientations are impacted by how much interaction there is with other people from other countries and cultures such as when you are employed by a multinational company.
However, they do go a long way in helping me understand some of my own intercultural experiences.
It would explain, for one thing, why anytime I scheduled a meeting with one Chinese student, no less than five students would show up.
As a collectivist culture, they do most activities in groups. (It would also provide insight into why, on my solitary walks around campus, I would be besieged by concerned students asking me if anything was wrong.)
And when we met friends for dinner in Buenos Aires, arrived promptly at our 6 p.m. predetermined time, we waited another half hour for the rest of our party to arrive.
In fact, this was typical with most of our dates in almost every country we visited in South America. They might have been dealing with a family situation or they had an unexpected visit from a friend. We were all about punctuality, while they had other priorities.
Finally, I have the pleasure of working with many Japanese students, teaching them English via Skype. They are unfailingly polite and conscientious.
But because they are a “high power distance” culture which treats teachers with the utmost respect and relies heavily on indirect communication, they rarely mention when they would like to have something changed regarding the lesson or if they are displeased in any way.
Each experience I have with different cultures helps me improve my cultural intelligence and learn more about the extraordinarily diverse world we live in. It’s an invaluable education I wish for all of us.
Do you have an intercultural snafu you’d like to share? How about some hard-won wisdom? We’d love to hear from you!
by: Eileen Brill Wagner