Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Understanding cultural differences

Did you know that while in Thailand, you should never pass anything over or touch someone’s head? The head is considered sacred. Did you realize that in some African countries, wearing red casts you as a witch?

It's a wide world out there, filled with a variety of cultural customs and attitudes. That’s why it's so important to learn as much about your destination when embarking on a trip overseas. That advice is especially important for U.S. students studying abroad or professionals traveling on business, since they are typically trying to establish important interpersonal relationships.

Local Laws

Before traveling, you should gather information about a country's politics, relations with the United States, customs and laws, courtesies, and religious practices.
Most importantly, you need to know about the local laws -- and respect them. It's not just good manners; it's good sense. Make no mistake, if you disobey any local laws, you will go to jail. The laws of the United States won’t protect you on foreign soil. In addition, many foreign legal systems don't include the concept of bail. If you get arrested, you may be sitting in jail for a while. Be especially mindful of the drug laws. In many countries, these are strictly enforced and carry heavy penalties.

Social Norms

The best advice about foreign travel is to let good manners and good taste guide your behavior. Try and keep a low profile. Dress and behave conservatively, lest you generate resentment.

Good manners demonstrate consideration. At the same time, remember that behavior acceptable in one culture may be inappropriate in another. It's largely a problem of interpretation. That's why it's so important to do research before you travel. If possible, try and learn at least a little of the language. It's courteous, and you will find that the locals will be much more helpful.

Language involves body signals as well as spoken signals. Learn what various gestures mean. In some countries -- Bulgaria, for instance -- a nod means "no" while a head shake means "yes." In other countries, an innocent hand gesture like the "V" for victory or peace sign has an obscene meaning.

Business Norms

When traveling on business, understand that some business norms differ significantly across the world. These involve negotiating styles, attitudes about business relationships, and ideas about punctuality. If you enter into an important meeting ill prepared, you could hurt your company's chances of establishing profitable working relationships. Be flexible. Here are some things to consider:
• In some countries, people conduct their affairs in a blunt and direct style. Other countries value a much more subtle style.
• Some countries, such as Japan and Germany, place great value on strict punctuality. Many Latin American countries are more relaxed about being on time.
• Greeting styles vary across the world. In the United States, a handshake is customary. In other countries, a hug or even a kiss is more appropriate.
• In some parts of the world, it's customary to offer a host a gift on first meeting. In others, it's an insult.

These are only the tip of the iceberg. But before feeling overwhelm, do your research. You will feel more comfortable, and your stay will be less challenging. If you’ll be traveling soon, get background information on your country of destination.
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