Navigating New Cultures

Social interaction is complex. Often, it is filled with social cues and behaviors that can be understood only if you are familiar with the cultural context. Working or volunteering abroad bring more than merely a change of scene: they bring a whole new social environment. The American abroad has to be observant and adaptable if they hope to do more good than harm – and not become a local oddity or a walking faux-pas.

As expatriates or foreign workers, Americans are often unprepared for the subtle and unspoken web of social interactions that greets them when they go abroad. While the U.S. might be a melting pot, the professional world has relatively immutable standards. We live in a country that operates on idea of transparency and the “customer is always right.” Businesses communicate their services and prices clearly to consumers. Customers often eschew greeting shop clerks and expect their needs to be catered to by the workers. Once abroad, these values often change in significance.

Students at the science university in Toulouse, France chant in the streets during an initiation rite.

Students at the science university in Toulouse, France chant in the streets during an initiation rite.

In Togo, prices at markets or for transportation are negotiated. If you don’t negotiate or take a hard line, you can expect to be overcharged. There is little transparency of prices because prices are variable. In France, it is common practice for customers to greet the cashier or other worker upon entering a store and even wait patiently if they are helping another customer or busy. Failure to do so can result in the workers simply ignoring the customer and rebuking them in stern tones.

A flag flies from the top of Bryn Mawr's Towers

A flag flies from the top of Bryn Mawr's Towers

These examples highlight what is called “a silent cultural variable” - a social cue or behavior that is taken for granted but if broken or ignored is viewed as a social misstep. A silent cultural variable is any informal but accepted social behavior within a group of people. They are not limited to international places. For example, I am an alumna of Bryn Mawr College, a small women’s liberal arts college outside of Philadelphia. As a college, it has quite a few silent cultural variables. These include Bryn Mawr Time, which dictates that all classes and meeting unofficially start at least 15 minutes after the announced start time. If an organizer or participant unfamiliar with this silent cultural variable arrives at the official start time or convenes the meeting at the official start time, all/most of the would-be attendees will be absent.

For this reason, the idea of a silent cultural variable is relevant whenever you are entering a new or unfamiliar cultural environment. Any time you leave your familiar haunts, you can expect to encounter silent cultural variables. How you handle them and adjust to the unfamiliar will determine your success and comfort in the new space. The best ways to learn some of the silent cultural variables are also the most obvious and simple. Observe how people around you behave. Do they greet store clerks and workers when they enter a shop? Do they dress more casually at work? Follow their lead but ask questions to verify that these behaviors are appropriate for you. You can also try to do preliminary research on the country or new place. You have the internet at your fingertips – make use of it!

Even with observation, research, and questions, you might not notice some of the silent cultural variables – until they become a problem. Returning to France as an example, people there value face-to-face interaction or, if that is not forthcoming, at least calls over emails. For me, as a study abroad student looking for a volunteer position, I had to suffer through frustration and receiving no response to my emails before I learned my mistake. Once I spoke to other expatriates, I realized that an in-person meeting would solve my problems.

Generally speaking, people in other countries think favorably of Americans. We are seen as bold and friendly. Don’t be afraid to use these positive perceptions to your advantage. Go out of your comfort zone, ask questions, and be approachable. Then, even when you make a faux-pas, others will know from their interactions with you that you have good intentions and are working to adapt to local culture. After all, even the best laid plans go awry. When that happens, be prepared and accepting of the fact that you may be an oddity. Every dog has its day and you’ll push through and have yours.

 

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