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Travel blog

June
11

How culture shock broadens your global perspective by Rick Steves

Many Americans board a plane for an overseas destination without fully realizing that they are flying into a completely different culture. Some experience culture shock: a psychological disorientation caused by immersion in a place where people do things — and see things — differently.

 

Most cultural groups develop separately, with their own logical (as far as they’re concerned) answers to life’s basic needs. While every culture is ethnocentric, thinking “we do it right,” it’s important for travelers to understand that most solutions to life’s problems are neither right nor wrong. They are different. That’s what distinguishes cultures. And, for a traveler, that makes life interesting.

 

Americans, like all groups, have their own peculiar traits and ways of doing things. It’s fun to look at our culture from a wider perspective and see how others question our sanity. For instance, we consider ourselves very clean, but when we take baths, we use the same water for soaking, cleaning and rinsing. (We wouldn’t wash our dishes that way.) The Japanese, who use clean water for every step of the bathing process, might find our ways strange or even disgusting. People in some cultures blow their nose right onto the street. They couldn’t imagine doing that into a small cloth, called a hanky, and storing it in their pocket to be used again and again.

 

Once when I was having lunch at a cafeteria in Afghanistan, an older man joined me to make a point. He said, “I am a professor here in Afghanistan. In this world, one-third of the people use a spoon and fork like you, one-third use chopsticks, and one-third uses fingers — like me. And we are all civilized the same.”

 

Toilet paper (like a spoon or a fork) is another Western “essential” that most people on our planet do not use. What they use varies. I won’t get too graphic here, but remember that millions of civilized people on this planet never eat with their left hand. (Some countries such as Turkey have very frail plumbing, and toilet paper jams up the WCs. If wastebaskets are full of dirty paper, leave yours there, too.)

 

Too often we judge the world in terms of “civilized” and “primitive.” I was raised thinking the world was a pyramid with the U.S. on top and everyone else was trying to get there. I was comparing people on their ability (or interest) in keeping up with us in material consumption, science and technology.

 

My egocentrism took a big hit when my parents took me to Europe. I was a pimply teenager in an Oslo park filled with parents doting over their adorable children. I realized those moms and dads loved their kids as much as my parents loved me. And it hit me that this world is home to billions of equally precious children. From that day on, I was blessed ... and cursed ... with a broader perspective.

 

Over the years, I’ve found that if we measure cultures differently (maybe according to stress, loneliness, heart attack rates, hours spent in traffic jams or family togetherness), the results stack up differently. It’s best not to fall into the “rating game.” All societies are complex and highly developed in their own way.

 

Just as we have a stereotypical view of most of the world, most of the world sees us as a version of Uncle Sam. To the average Abdullah on the street — who’s seen plenty of American movies, TV shows, and tourists, and has read countless news stories about those crazy Yankees — we are outgoing, hardworking, informal, rushed, overconfident, and unconcerned with class distinctions and authority.

 

Some of these traits are positive and others aren’t. Remember, there is no absolute good and bad when it comes to comparing lifestyles. For instance, while we may proudly ignore class ranks and think of our friendliness as a virtue, someone from India might be shocked at our “class ignorance” and a Frenchman might see our “good-old-boy” slap-on-the-back warmth as downright rude.

 

If a prescription could be written to cure culture shock, it would include instructions to:

  • Learn as much as you can about your host culture.
  • Assume “strange” habits in this “strange” land are logical. Think of these habits as clever solutions to life’s problems.
  • Be militantly positive. Avoid the temptation to commiserate with negative Americans. Don’t joke disapprovingly about a culture you’re trying to understand.
  • Make a local friend, someone you can confide in and learn from.

 

Most importantly, remember that different people find different truths to be “God-given” and “self-evident.” Things work best if we give everybody a little wiggle room. And that goes for more than just travelers.

 

What have you learned about other cultures while traveling? Share your stories by posting in our comments section.

 

Rick Steves (http://www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and radio. E-mail him at rick@ricksteves.com.

Comments

  • Wow, Steve, your points are true, and very salient in this era of global travel. To be honest, I'm not sure this is said enough in North America, and your parents raised a wise kid indeed, in that you got the lesson they were trying to teach you by taking you abroad.

    It's so important for ourselves and our kids to see other ways of living - and that goes far beyond an insulated hotel stay on a beach somewhere in a foreign country, not learning anything about the locals or their culture - we need global perspective to heal ourselves and our planet on so many levels.

    My husband and I tend to make friends on every trip we take, and because of our curiosity and openness, more often than not these friends tend to be employees or servers rather than other hotel or cruise guests. Our world is so rich and full of diversity - staying curious is how we soak up the 'real' experience of visiting another land and/or meeting new people from abroad.

    Thanks for thinking to bring this subject to light and invite discussion.

    Happy trails,

    Shauna Arthurs

  • i am so pleased that i found this blog i live in a small city (town) usa where there are very many misconceptions of the outside world.Butt i have seen with my own eyes that we are all just the same in more ways than we are not and that just amaizes me everyday i wake up and walk out my door.i was born and raised in rural africa

  • Wow, what an incredible post! I once met a man while on a trip overseas that told me that the best degree someone could ever receive is the degree in LIFE.

    Many people stress around their environment trying to be the best they can be in it. While if they just move a couple of miles they will find out that the best you can be there is something else.

    One thing that I hope more and more people will understand in life is that being able to enjoy, appreciate and learn from our differences is what the degree in LIFE is. And just another thing, I agree with the man.

  • Steve, thanks for your nice article. I'm working in the tourism field and I saw many cases too. Yes, but in this morden world, people will go round and round and more, so to avoide  that, the preparation will be most important.

    Have a good cultural shock!! -:)

  • An american friend of mine, when visited India, pointed at two guys holding each other's hand and asked if they were gay. Like you pointed out, he was just trying to apply American "culture" here. There is a certain need for people to learn about the "forgien" culture

  • Much of this applies to travel within the U.S. as well. I'm from the South but have spent a good share of my life in the North and out West. So many people seem to think the Beverly Hillbillys was a documentary that it's amazing. Culture shock and disapproval exist within our own borders, too.

  • We have moved from an English-speaking country to the USA, and I would add that just because people speak English, doesn't mean the culture (or even language!) is the same!  

    Trying to teach our kids a broader perspective through travel, and it's eye opening for us, as well.

  • "while we may proudly ignore class ranks and think of our friendliness as a virtue, someone from India might be shocked at our class ignorance"

    Most educated people hate class/caste system in India in current times. It was meant to provide a structure to society in old times. But now, it just unnecessarily divides people. Sometime it amazes me how we manage to progress despite division on the basis of race, class, caste, language and religion within the country.

    Great article, travel definitely opens your eyes to the world. Ignorance, and arrogance towards other cultures is not good.

  • "Many *Americans* board a plane for an overseas destination without fully realizing that they are flying into a completely different culture." - Should replace *Americans* with *people* if BING is a truly international search engine.

    Everyone who travels from their home to another place receives some kind of 'culture shock'.  I'm at Bayswater, Western Australia and don't know if I could survive the 'culture shock' of going to America .. :-)

  • Rick,

    Your perspective on "culture shock broadens your global perspective" sounds very American.

    Americans have always looked at other cultures in the way you describe.  The recent movie "Borat" is a tremendous example of how tolerant and broad minded Americans are to foreign cultures.  A foreigner in the USA can get away with much more "rude and insulting behavior" (as thought in our culture) than would be possible in the reverse case.

    My question to you is how often do you find this global perspective among the world's other cultures ?

  • I experience shock culture too when I was in San Fransisco, US. I'm from Indonesia, and definitely feel "lost" in US. There was one time, at San Fransisco, I shot a pic of street attraction (those people are like blue man, but this time they are silver colored). I don't know if I have to pay tips for taking a pic (not with me inside the pics). They started to drag my bag, and shouting at me, insulting me " you're a dog or something". I was so shocked, and get frightened. I don't know those cultures, I'm so upset. I'd prefer that they can tell me in more gentle way instead of shouting at me and embarrassed me in front of public.Since I experienced it, I'm quite afraid to go back to US for traveling :(

  • I got a rude culture shock in China when I saw people coughing up phlegm and spitting them everywhere, I was not talking about a few people but most of them do that! I was so afraid to step on them that I didn't really go around much on that vacation.

    I also heard that you are not suppose to give gifts like clocks there.

  • I guess you have to see and feel it for yourselves!

  • those point are very true when go on vacation its a wonder what the items we use daily actually are from their history.

  • Very interesting thanks for sharing your experiences

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