Understanding Cultural Norms while Abroad

Dear Molly,

One of the hardest things that I’ve found while traveling and living abroad is understanding what is “normal” or acceptable in different places. Especially if you are just going somewhere new for the first time, it is important to realize that the way you do things back home might not be how people do the exact same things while abroad. And while this makes for an incredibly interesting experience, it can also make understanding what is going on around you more difficult.

Now, I want you to know that the feelings of confusion (and maybe even discomfort) when you don’t really understand what the norms are for certain situations happen to most of us. In fact, even though I have lived in multiple cities, countries, and cultures over the years, I still have difficulty accepting the unexpected as normal at first. Luckily, there are things that you can do to help you understand what is going on around you. Therefore, if you are planning on traveling, studying, or moving abroad, today I want to share my top three tips on how you can better prepare yourself to see what might feel strange as normal:

Hay cosas que necesitan tiempo . There are things that need time—a sentiment that means different things in different places.

Hay cosas que necesitan tiempo. There are things that need time—a sentiment that means different things in different places.

1.) Read up a bit or ask someone before you go:

Although I am personally really bad at preparing for a situation before I go, many people find that it is beneficial to do research into the customs and cultures that you will find in a place. This could entail anything from reading books about how people are to reading blog posts written by travel bloggers to talking to someone who has already been there. With this preparation, your goal should be to have enough information about your destination that you don’t get too shocked when you arrive. Therefore, this research is good for people who get anxious about being in new situations or worry about doing things “wrong*.”

At the same time, don’t take everything you read or hear about as an absolute truth. The beautiful thing about culture is that, while is does impact entire societies, it tends to have unique implications for different individuals. That means that most people in a place you are going, say Spain, will probably kiss you on both cheeks as a greeting if you are a female. However, if someone has experience with foreigners or you find yourself in more of a business setting, you might find that people will go to shake your hand. In addition, you will probably find people who give you a big smack on the cheek (and literally kiss your face on both sides) and people who just barely brush the side of their face against yours.

A respected colleague of mine recommended the Culture Shock Series of books. I am linking the one to Spain because, although I haven’t personally read it and the reviews go both ways, if you want to gain insight into different societies, you have to start somewhere. I will warn you that it is probably over generalized and includes some stereotypes, but everything anyone tells you will have their own spin on the situation. That’s why, even if you prepare yourself, you should also be ready to have a different experience when you arrive.

Pro-tip: Prepare yourself before you go, but allow yourself to be surprised when you arrive.

2.) Watch other people and how they interact:

I always remember the advice (of some forgotten movie) of eating with the same fork as your neighbor if you go to eat at a fancy restaurant or a special party. I tend to apply the same—although often toned-down—reasoning to interacting with people in a new place. I say toned-down because you never really know what the relationship is between people that you see in the street or in a restaurant, so if you see extravagant behavior, you might not want to follow suit. However, people around you are often a better guide for how societies function in today’s world than most books or blog posts, and this is because they are live versions of the culture.

In addition, consider that while people tend to talk about subjects like “cultural norms in Spain,” you will often find that different regions or even cities will have different greetings, ways of showing affection and disgust, etc. This means that by constantly being a little bit more aware of how people are interacting around you, you will more likely be able to act appropriately to the norms in the place.

Pro-tip: Expect norms to change from region-to-region or even city-to-city.

3.) Pay attention to how people react to you and adapt accordingly:

This last tip might be the most important because even if you have read up on the rules and are aware of how people are acting around you, you have to remember that you are a foreigner. This means that you might have missed subtle cues on how things should be done and/or that you don’t follow the same social rules as people from a place. Therefore, if someone goes to interact with you in a certain way, following their lead might be your best bet for understanding what the norm is for you.

Watching people waiting for the tram in Helsinki is nothing like people waiting for the bus in Granada.

Watching people waiting for the tram in Helsinki is nothing like people waiting for the bus in Granada.

Watching how other people act around you can also help you understand when you have committed a social faux paux. For example, when I first got to Helsinki, I stood too close to someone on a tram. Now, by Spanish standards I wasn’t near to the woman, but by the look on her face I instantly understand that in Finland, people tend to give each other more space unless there is no more room. By watching how she interacted with me, I was able to adapt my behavior for future interactions in social spaces.

At the same time, it can often be confusing because as you become more aware of how a culture works, you will understand the norms in a nuanced way that is difficult to grasp after just a few days. And, in fact, the way people interact with you might change as you become more adapted to the new place. That is, you might get a handshake the first couple of times you meet someone, but soon they might be pulling you in for big hugs and a kiss. Just because you think things are one way, doesn’t mean they cannot change.

Pro-tip: Adapt your behavior and expectations according to how you see people interacting with you, an outsider, in order to understand the social norms.

There you have it, my top three tips for understanding social norms while you are abroad. I hope they have provided some value to you and I am looking forward to hearing about your experiences in the comments.

Sincerely,
Spain


*While we all seem to have pretty strong ideas about what it right or wrong, travel will teach you that oftentimes you will find people from other places who believe the opposite to be true.