Chapter 3

Watch, Listen & Learn

You’ve begun an adventure that takes you to a foreign country. Many people say you’ll experience culture shock when traveling abroad. To avoid that frustration, it helps to be prepared.

Learn about different ways of life. Even simple daily activities are not going to be the same as what you do at home. To fit in with local culture, observe and listen. Pay attention to habits and try to follow suit.

It will be better if you don’t spend your entire trip comparing everything to the States. You will be home before you know it, so take the opportunity to love where you are. Live as a native and you will get more out of your experience. Then you can return to the U.S. with no regrets.

so get some culture

You went abroad to learn something. So take full advantage of the situation. Learn everything you can about the culture and people who live there. Even if you are not studying, be a student who wants to understand everything about the place you are visiting. Don’t be the tourist who tries to impose the American way on others because you think our way is better. The world is full of interesting and exciting things, people and places you may have never heard of. Take some of it in.

follow the locals

You want to have the best trip possible, you want to see everything, do everything and have some great stories to tell when you get back. The way to do that is to get along with the locals. Whether you become best friends or not is beside the point, but you want to get along or you will spend your whole time wishing you were home.

First, get a feel for your host country. Before you go, read travel book after travel book. Pick up some of the music and the literature of the country. You may even want to rent some movies from that country (subtitles aren’t that scary). Go online and search around for information about the places you want to visit. That sets the groundwork. You have to learn from experience. You won’t learn half as much from a book as you will from just going out into the world and seeing it for yourself. Step away from the travel guides and walk out into the streets. Look around and watch. Listen.

play nice

There’s a saying in Columbia: “When visiting, try to behave the way others behave.” Take it to the next step: do what the locals do and go where they go. This is the best way to learn about a new culture. Don’t just go see the top 10 tourist attractions. Make your own list; find the top 10 favorite local hangouts. Then find your own favorite spot. These are the things that make the place you’re visiting unique. Hang out with local people and participate in their daily activities. For instance, you may love sports. Chances are locals have a favorite team. Find out about the sport, the team, the players and the fans. Go to the local bar or gathering place and cheer on the team.

learn something

Think back to high school. Remember American History at all? Well students in every country have a history book that they have to read to learn the ins and outs of their country. All people, even if they hated their history class, know how important the history of their country is. If the subject comes up, be interested. Maybe even know a little bit about it before you buy a plane ticket. History affects the way the country is today, so you may gain some valuable insight. People will be pleased to see you take an interest in their country. This will also help you be aware of cultural differences and customs to prepare you for how to behave.

swap information

Never assume people are aware of the things that are important to you, whether it is pop culture or political affairs. Teach each other about issues of importance. Just remember that other people have a lot to teach you. It often seems like we know everything by the way the American media portrays other countries, but in reality we don’t. Nobody likes a know-it-all. Just be someone who would like to know more. There is a big difference between having seen something and having understood it. So you may see a protest against the U.S. in a foreign country and you might be upset. But do you understand why that protest was taking place? Your goal should always be to understand the reasoning behind what goes on in other world cultures.

manners count

We all know how to be polite, say hello, goodbye, please and thank you. That’s a good start (assuming you say it in the right language). If you are impolite, you won’t get a chance to experience or learn anything about a culture. Always be as polite as possible and people will be more willing to help you. If you are in Latin America, you will notice that they are extremely polite. When you call someone, you should say, “Good morning, I’m sorry to bother you, but…” instead of “Hi, this is Sara. Could you…?” Most Latin people would interpret the latter as rude, but in our culture those are typical phone manners. Small adjustments in your language or delivery method may be all that you need.

no ugly american here

There are some stereotypes of the “ugly American” that you will hear when abroad. There is some truth behind the rumor. Some of our seemingly normal behavior may offend people. And if someone who was not as aware of these cultural differences has traveled there before you, people may have a negative impression of us. For instance, people often talk about how loud Americans are. Try not to be this easily identified – be aware of the decibel of your voice and respect the quiet nature of some other countries.

Culture questions


What kinds of television programs are shown? Do they serve a purpose beyond entertainment?


What is the normal work schedule? Is it flexible?


How are children disciplined at home? In public? In school?


Are children usually present at social occasions? At ceremonial occasions? If they are not present, how are they cared for in the absence of their parents?


How does this society observe children’s “coming of age”?


What’s local public transportation? Who uses it?


Who has the right of way: vehicles, animals, pedestrians?


Is education free? Compulsory?