How to respect different cultures you visit when you study, travel abroad

March 07, 2017

Eleanor Sturt

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     Sitting on a cold pavement as a woman is frowned upon and discouraged from a young age in Crimea.

     I learned this the hard way after sitting on a sidewalk edge in Crimea. A translator asked if I planned on having children when they saw me. There, it is common knowledge that sitting on a sidewalk makes a woman infertile.

     While this old wives’ tale has little to no scientific base, it has a strong cultural tie. I have heard multiple reasons behind why this tale exists, most of which relate back to discouraging women from sitting on pavements like prostitutes.

     In any case, the roots do not matter. But respecting the culture of a country while visiting it does.

     My family has always traveled, and I was taught from a young age how to respect the customs of foreign countries.

     If you are looking to travel for fun, or are considering studying abroad, here a few things you may want to do.

     Do a little research. I like because they have history about the countries and the current political situation.

     Political tension is something you want to know before travelling. It will change the way the culture acts and even the way you are treated.

The Carpathian Mountain in Ukraine in summer of 2016. Photo by Eleanor Sturt: The Scribe

     Learn some simple phrases in the language of the country you may visit.

     Understand greetings, how to say thank you and, the phrase that will come most in handy, “I don’t understand.” Do not assume that everyone speaks English.

     When you travel, you should be invested in the people you are visiting. By learning some of the language, you are showing that you are putting effort into your time there and the people you are with.

     You may be surprised how happy it makes people when you just try.

     Also be aware that not all cultures will greet each other in the same way; a handshake is not universal and may even insult your hosts.

     If you cannot find any information on appropriate greetings, ask. People tend to be understanding and will gladly help if they see you are putting in effort.

     Also be aware of body language and special awareness. In America, we leave a good 2-3 feet between the people we speak with. Most European countries are not the same and have a smaller proximity gap. You may feel that they are invading your personal space, but to them, it is the cultural norm.

     Know that being loud in public places can be extremely rude. I have caught myself many times laughing or speaking loudly in public transportation, and it is hard to stop at first. But by quieting down, you are showing respect to the people around you.

     Finally, try new things, especially new food. Many cultures show respect to guests by offering food. Turning food down can be considered extremely disrespectful and insulting to the hosts.

     You can learn more about a country’s culture through its food than any tourist attraction can ever teach. If you are not willing to try the food, considering traveling to a different country.

     The easiest way to travel without offending people is by being respectful. Understanding that your native culture is not the only culture is very important.

     It is ignorant and rude to travel and expect the people of that country to adapt to your ways.

     You made the choice to visit them so learn and adapt. That is one of the best parts of traveling. As you dive into a new culture, you may be given a new lens on how you perceive your own culture.

     Plus, what is the fun in traveling if you are not really giving the culture a try?