The somewhat different intercultural communication blog

Category: Culture (page 2 of 2)

Intercultural Communication 101 – How to prepare for your trip abroad

Back in 2011, one of my first international assignments brought me to Bangladesh. I was part of a team evaluating a livelihoods reconstruction program, which was implemented after Cyclone Sidr had hit the country, killing thousands, and destroying homes, crops and livelihoods of many more.

Ahead of the trip, I prepared everything meticulously: the technical details of the program I was going to evaluate, travel logistics, medical and security considerations, etc. Everything? Well, if only I had thought about the implications of working in a very different socio-cultural context than my own. In all my enthusiasm for the new project, I overlooked one tiny but crucial point: culture. The consequence? For starters, I didn’t bring culturally appropriate clothing (such as T-shirts covering my behind, or a scarf to cover head and shoulders – it is a majority Muslim country after all). I also committed a faux-pas during my first interview with a local farmer: I heartily shook his hand to greet him. What’s wrong with that, you might think. As I learned afterwards, Bangladeshi men do not generally shake hands with women (out of respect). You can imagine we were off to an awkward start.

Conducting interviews in affected areas

These 6 intercultural communication tips will help you avoid cultural pitfalls on your trip abroad:

1 – Do your homework – on sights AND culture
This might sound like a no-brainer, but once you’ve bought your Lonely Planet, have a look at the History & Culture sections in the back of the book in addition to reading up on places and sights to see. This will give you an initial idea of what to expect and some basic ground rules.

2 – Talk to people who have been there or – even better – who live there
Talking to locals or people who are very familiar with the place you are travelling to will help you get an even better sense of important dos and don’ts, especially regarding dress code, gestures and general behavior.

3 – Learn the language
… or – if you’re staying only for a short period of time – at least a few key words and basic phrases like “Hello, how are you?” and “Thank you”. It shows that you care and will earn you smiles and friendly reactions.

4 – Watch movies and read literature
… from the country you are going to. Immersing yourself into local arts will open up your horizon to local issues, politics, and different points of view.

5 – Be prepared for culture shock
… especially if you’re staying for a longer period of time. Read my earlier post to learn more about it.

6 – And finally: Be flexible and patient
No matter how much you prepare, you will encounter situations which do not quite go as you had planned them. This is normal. An open and friendly attitude will go a long way, and get you out of most dilemmas. And at the end, you’ll have learned something new.

Finally appropriately dressed

In case you were wondering, my trip to Bangladesh went fine in the end. It was an extraordinarily enriching experience, not the least thanks to my local colleagues who helped me out by lending me appropriate clothes and guiding me through the cultural mine field.

Do you have any other tips to share? Which cultural pitfalls have you run into?



Culture Shock – Making sense of your experience in a foreign cultural environment

I just came back from spending 3 weeks in Bali, Indonesia. Bali is a hugely diverse island with a rich Hindu animist culture. Its landscape offers anything from stunning beaches, lush rainforests, and impressive volcanoes and waterfalls. Its culture is deeply rooted in Hindu beliefs, and Balinese people are very tolerant and welcoming to foreigners and people from different cultures.

While all of these are prerequisites for a perfect holiday destination – and don’t get me wrong, I had a fabulous time there – I did find myself exhausted at some point halfway through my vacation. Exhausted from trying to decipher the unfamiliar ways Balinese people behave, interact and communicate. I felt lost, unable to orient myself in an unfamiliar social and cultural environment. All I wanted for breakfast was my beloved coffee and croissant instead of Nasi Goreng. Then suddenly it hit me: I am experiencing culture shock!

Have you ever felt disoriented, lost, even irritated when you were on holiday, or living, studying or working abroad? If so, the culture shock model will help you understand why, and make sense of your experience.

What is culture shock?

The Oxford dictionary defines culture shock as disorientation experienced when suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture or way of life. The term culture shock was first coined by anthropologist Kalervo Oberg in 1960. To this date, it remains one of the most powerful and practical concepts to explain behavioral reactions that occur when people attempt to live, work, or study in unfamiliar cultural contexts. Here is how it works:

When you expose yourself to a foreign culture, you go through 4 phases.

1 – Honeymoon: You will feel excited, fascinated and stimulated by the newness of everything: new food, different pace of life, people’s habits. The differences are intriguing; you see the new culture in an almost romantic light. However, as with most honeymoon periods, it doesn’t last.

2 – Distress or Crisis: After a while, the differences between your own and the new culture will become more apparent and start to wear you down. The initial excitement gives way to feelings of frustration, maybe even anxiety or hostility. Language is often a major barrier, which can make it difficult to manage common day-to-day activities, such as shopping or transportation. You might feel homesick, longing for familiar food and surroundings.

3 – Recovery or Adjustment: Slowly but surely you will get used to the new culture and develop abilities to cope with and adjust to the differences. The culture begins to make sense to you, and you start appreciating where you are. The fog is being lifted.

4 – Adaptation or Feeling at Home: From here on, you’ll really start to adapt to the new culture, embrace its differences and accept what it has to offer. You’ll feel confident and comfortable, and are fully able to participate in the new cultural context, even making friends, building social relationships.

Moving through the stages of culture shock is completely normal and can be a great personal learning experience. It’ll make you more aware of aspects of your own culture and broadens your horizon. If you understand the phases of cultural adjustment, it can help you cope with stress and negative emotions when you are travelling, working or living in an unfamiliar culture.

Has this been helpful? Have you recently experienced culture shock yourself?


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