We are generally aware that the first step in managing diversity is recognize it and learning not to fear it. Since everyone is the product of their own culture, we need to increase both self-awareness and cross-cultural awareness. There is no book of instructions to deal with cultural diversity, no recipe to follow. But certain attitudes help to bridge cultures.
Look through history books or travel guides on specific cities to understand its beginnings, population, and various cultural quirks. Another great option is taking advantage of other people’s experiences around you. Ask friends and family who have been abroad about their trips and what they would recommend doing (or more importantly, not doing). Ask about where they would suggest visiting and other fun stories about their visit. People love talking about their trips, and more importantly, bragging about all of the cool stuff they did. They would be happy to talk about it with anyone willing to engage!
Learn more about cultures, starting with your own. Assess your own cultural competence. Use the self-test included in the supplementary packet. Read about the language, customs and health beliefs of the people you see most frequently, but remember that culture is dynamic, and that acculturation is always influencing those beliefs. Remember that culture is not homogenous. There is great diversity among individuals, even in the smallest cultural group.
The adventure of being in a new place, surrounded by people who in many cases have had vastly different life experiences from your own, is an undeniably special one. It opens your mind and heart to those who you may not previously have shared an understanding with. This cross-cultural exchange is among the most beautiful, complex, and exciting aspects of traveling in areas you’ve never been to.
The most important thing when it comes to acting in a culturally sensitive way is that you remember to ground each interaction you have with others in the understanding that their background, experiences, and values naturally vary from your own. This will help you to lead with understanding and empathy, rather than judgment, which is an incredibly important shift.
Now that you know how to gain cultural awareness of the country you’re visiting, why is it so important? To begin with, it enhances your respect of other countries. If you actually know the reasoning behind why someone is the way they are, you inherently garner greater appreciation from them. Another reason this awareness is so important is because it will increase your experience in the country. One example of this is hand gestures. These greatly vary throughout the world and you really don’t want to be somewhere and put your hand up thinking you’re politely saying “thank you” (much like in America) but actually be giving an entirely different vibe. A great movie to check out to learn more about this is called Gestures from Around the World.
Learning about other cultures will also increase your global depth and your communication skills, which in turn can positively benefit your future. You will need to learn to get past language barriers and cultural differences in order to communicate. Having this ability will be super beneficial in working for an international business, simply traveling for work-related purposes, or even in job interviews. These cultural differences and language barriers will also test your ability to adapt to new situations. Finally, if you are specifically studying abroad, it will give you an entirely new way of learning. You may be taking classes in a different language, or your courses may be significantly smaller or bigger than your current ones, or you might not even be in a classroom at all. Either way, it will be new and give you a completely different experience than you’re used to.