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.
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.
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?