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Cultural Differences: Coping with the Unfamiliar When You Travel

Women on the Road
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Cultural differences are a reality of travel. Often, they're what makes travel so fascinating.

For women who travel solo, these can also be disconcerting and however much you've crammed, you're bound to find your cultural etiquette a little less than perfect.

Coping with Cultural Differences

Wherever you travel, customs and rules will differ, at times slightly, and at other times you'll wonder whether you've actually left the planet.

So how do you cope in countries where people don't see the world the way you do?

  • Look at the women around you. What are they wearing? How are they behaving? Do the same and you'll be helping smooth out some of those cultural differences. One friend noticed a radical change in attitude towards her in India when she swapped her Western clothes for a local salwar kameez
  • Err on the conservative side. Showing skin may act like a magnet in certain cultures. This may not be what you're used to, but, unfortunately, you'll often be judged by what you wear.
  • Learn about body language. Nodding your head may mean Yes in your culture, but it means No in Greece and Bulgaria. The circle you make with your thumb and index when you mean OK is extremely rude in several countries. So is crossing your legs, touching someone on the head, eating with your left hand, or showing the sole of your shoes or feet. Make sure you read up on these cultural differences before you go.
  • Look at yourself from the outside in. Don't underestimate the power of television, which in some countries is the only window into Western culture. If you dress or behave like actresses on TV, men will think you also do everything else they do. Even looking a man in the eye or touching his arm may mean 'I'll sleep with you' in some parts of the world so beware local customs. It may offend you to abide by these rules - and I often don't - but knowing they exist will help you decide wisely.
Foreigners may have erroneous ideas of other cultures - posters of Desperate Housewives doesn't mean all US women are like thisFor all you know this is what foreigners might think you really are (Wikipedia)
  • Check out the country's style. Not in clothing, mind you, but in character. Cultural differences affect behaviour - what you consider as being direct and open may be interpreted as a direct come on or totally inappropriate. The same goes for most public affection displays. Don't be aggressive - most societies don't think highly of that trait. Punctuality is another of many habits to observe - in certain countries be late (or early!) at your own peril.
  • Beware the status of women. In many (most, actually) parts of the world, women are considered less important than men, however galling this might be to you. This translates into certain attitudes, often the simplest ones, like ignoring you when you ask a question or giving the answer to a male friend, if you happen to have one along.
  • Talk to other women, in person or online. Seek out women who have been where you're going. Try to get first-hand information. If you don't know anyone familiar with your destination, hit the best travel forums and ask questions. Most good forums have sections on solo travel, women's travel, or specific destinations. Ask, ask, ask - and you'll find other travelers are usually generous and share plenty of information online.
  • Simply be aware. Your best bet is to be informed before you go. You can't expect to know everything: What if drinking a soda in the street makes you appear 'loose'? You can't know, unless you've read up on cultural etiquette and on the status of women at your destination. Look around you when you arrive, observe your surroundings, and ask questions if there's anything you don't understand. People love sharing information about their culture and homelands!

The good news is that as a foreign woman, you'll probably be forgiven a few lapses in cultural awareness. Laughter will get you out of most scrapes caused by cultural differences, and you'll learn your hosts' habits as you go along.

That doesn't mean you should follow blindly, though. I have worn veils in Algeria and Iran, but I would never condone the wedding of an eight-year-old, as happened in Saudi Arabia, or the beating of women because it's culturally acceptable. That is crime, not culture.

Have you ever encountered cultural differences you just couldn't handle?

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