Rules of the Road: Adapting to Cultural Norms Abroad

Have you ever done something that made you stick out like a sore thumb but didn’t realize it until much later? As my friend Mike Cobb says, “You don’t know what you don’t know.”  And when it comes to assimilating into a new culture, this statement couldn’t be any truer.

I was recently chatting with a friend from New York who asked me what I found to be the most interesting thing learned while being abroad. While there are tons of fun facts I picked up from walking tours, museums, and guidebooks, what has had the most influence wasn’t so much an object or historical date.  It’s the experience of the cultural norms, the way the locals live and behave, that have had the biggest impact. These lessons are hardly taught in the classroom, but rather experienced.  It can be anything from the traditional cuisine of a culture to the way holidays are celebrated.

For example, in New York, seasoned subway riders know to stand off to the side as people exit the subway before trying to enter. In the southern part of the U.S., “bless your heart” can be used as a term of endearment, but can also be condescending.  And in Colorado, if you don’t regularly wear flannel and jeans (the typical resident uniform), you’re not a real Coloradan.

If there is this much regional variation within the United States, imagine how different it is across our borders! And if you’re an outsider, these cultural norms may not be so obvious – resulting in a mishap or faux pas.  Remember, with a little humility and a good sense of humor you’ll enjoy the ride.

The first time I became aware of “cultural norms,” I was sixteen years old and in France with my French step-grandmother (Colette), grandfather, and sister. We stayed at Colette’s sister’s house, and on the first morning my sister and I woke up to the sound of people presumably eating breakfast. We went downstairs and were each given a nectarine. Coming from a culture where we are taught that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” we patiently waited for the rest of the meal, only to realize it wasn’t coming. Breakfast was a nectarine and we’d eat again at our big lunch. You can bet later that morning we headed to the grocery store to pick up cereal and snacks.

Adapting to Cultural Norms Abroad

A lunchtime gathering with our French family!

I didn’t fully understand this concept of cultural norms until spending a semester in Spain during my junior year of college. We had a mandatory “Surviving Seville 101” class, and the professor gave us a few candid tips for how to “blend in.” Now, the norms may have changed over the last 7 years, but the following 3 always stuck with me:

  1. Coffee is to be enjoyed in a coffee shop, and food in a restaurant. You do not eat a breakfast sandwich while running through the street.
  2. Gym clothes, whether clean or sweaty, are only to be worn while working out, not while meeting up with friends at a café.
  3. When walking on the streets or riding public transportation, keep your phone away.

The professor said something along the lines of, “If you do any of the above, you might as well have “American” tattooed on your head.” Not really what we were going for when trying to integrate into a foreign culture.

As I continued to travel after France and Seville, I always kept in mind the bigger picture – being cognizant of a new culture while in a new location.  However, there have been many mishaps along the way, and there are three that have stayed with me.

Nicaragua

It was 2010, during my first trip to Nicaragua, and I was in Granada. We had some free time and I wanted to pick up some coffee, chocolate, and jam to bring back to the States. There was a Palí down the road, so we made a beeline for it. Now, let me inform you that Palí is one of those budget supermarkets, the kind where you’re getting a great deal, but the expiration date may be a few months passed. At the cash register, the clerk scanned the items, pushed them down the conveyor belt, and gave me the total. I paid and went to collect my items but noticed they weren’t bagged. I grabbed my goods and a few plastic bags from the end of the belt and walked out. From behind me, I heard the security guard yelling. I had no idea at who or why, so I kept walking. He kept yelling and caught up with me. I left without paying for the bags, and I needed to return to the store, he informed me.  Oops.  I was oblivious to the fact that the bags had a surcharge.

Singapore

My sister and I were in Singapore visiting a friend after spending a couple of weeks backpacking in Thailand. One evening, our friend told us we were going to meet up with a few of his friends at a local establishment – he encouraged us to “get dressed.” We managed to pull together an outfit, but the only shoes we had were sandals or sneakers. Agreeing that sandals were the better choice, we went downstairs and our friend asked if we had anything other than “slippers.”  My sister and I looked down at our shoes, confused. We had our nice sandals on!  Apparently, there is an unspoken, understood dress code when spending the night out on the town, and sandals are not a part of that… this was quite different from Bourbon Street! Our friend frequented this establishment and had to do some smooth talking to get us in.  It was embarrassing to say the least.

Adapting to Cultural Norms Abroad

Singapore skyline from the Country Club.

Thailand

Earlier this year, I was in Phuket for a friend’s wedding (the same friend who asked if we had anything other than slippers in the Singapore story). Both he and his bride are of Indian descent, and the wedding was a traditional 4-day-long extravaganza. My sister and I have very limited understanding of the traditions, so we tended to follow the crowd.

The afternoon of the third day was the religious ceremony: the actual wedding. We understood this part to be one of the longest (about 3 hours), and for those who didn’t speak Hindi, the least exciting. The ceremony took place outside on a rolling hill. It was a stunning venue with fresh flower arrangements lining pathways and brightly colored décor spicing up the mandap.

We took a seat with some of the other American guests, and no more than 5 minutes after the bride came out, the first set of guests started leaving. Maybe they were part of the wedding party, we thought. But as the ceremony continued, more and more people started leaving.  About 45 minutes in, the number in the audience decreased from about 400 to 35, at most. We were shocked, but also curious. Where was everyone going?

My sister and I got up to consult with one of the groom’s cousins. They were all congregating around the high-top tables at the summit of the hill…eating, drinking, laughing, and paying no mind to the monumental ceremony occurring right down the hill. He informed us that because weddings are commonplace in their culture, and tend to be long, it is customary to have a space set up for the guests to escape the heat and enjoy some snacks and beverages. They weren’t being rude, they were just enjoying each other’s company while the bride and groom performed their religious duties. Well, knowing that new piece of information, we stayed in the air-conditioned space and enjoyed some refreshingly cold coconut water.

Adapting to Cultural Norms Abroad

The bride and groom in the Mandap!

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An introduction to a new culture is a beautiful moment. With different traditions, language, cuisine, and art, you can transform the way you think, understand, and act. There is also a learning curve, and that is expected. But in the meantime, experience the cultural norms and have fun!