Knowing in which countries direct eye contact is appreciated and where it's considered impolite, or where pointing with your finger is considered insulting, may make a big difference in a local's attitude when you are asking for directions.
Culture guru Dean Foster highlights why savvy travelers choose to do a little scouting on local customs, cultures and attitudes before traveling to a country. Most business travelers know to study local customs and culture before traveling to a foreign country, but casual visitors should do the same.
For more than 20 years, Foster has been sharing his cultural knowledge with Fortune 500 companies, including Volkswagen, Heineken and Bank of America. He writes the CultureWise column for National Geographic Traveler and is the author of five books and several iPhone apps on global etiquette.
I was in Israel a few months before writing this piece, so I downloaded and looked at the Israel app. It was informative about various aspects of life in Israel, had some good tips for business travelers, and included a very basic Hebrew dictionary geared for travelers. My About.com colleague, Martha Bakerjian who is the Guide to Italy Travel, felt his Italy CultureGuide app needed a serious update. Here's her review.
Why View a Culture Guide Before Visiting a Foreign Country?Foster says, "Business travelers, of course, need to understand cultural differences because money is on the line: bad behavior causes misunderstandings, and misunderstandings can kill the deal. However, leisure travelers need to understand culture also for several reasons.
- Get out of the antiseptic tourist bubble: you can't fully understand what you're experiencing unless you experience it from within "their" context, not your own. Most tourists rarely get beyond the superficial "awe" factor when they experience a different culture; understanding the culture provides a far more enriching, deeper experience.
- You may not ever be able to become language fluent in all the languages of all the countries you visit, but you CAN become culture-fluent quickly enough to connect with the locals in a way that cultural ignorance, coupled with language ignorance, can never provide.
- In a global world, we are all "ambassadors" of our own culture, and leisure travelers, like business travelers, have a responsibility to present their country in the best possible light. Reinforcing local negative stereotypes of your own country through behaviors that reflect ignorance of the local culture while abroad is as irresponsible as environmental ignorance. Travel enlightened."
Where to Find Guides to Customs & Cultures in Foreign CountriesDean Foster has several CultureGuides apps for the iPhone, iPad and Android phones. He says, "These are great for the business traveler and the casual traveler. Each country app has a significant section on dining etiquette, food, toasting, local specialties, and staying healthy when dining abroad - and we all need to know how to conduct ourselves in a restaurant!"
"We provide a real depth of information, more than just"do's and don't's", the apps cover values, beliefs and historical reasons for the behaviors you see. They're also easily organized and you can manipulate information specifically for you. The apps cover everything from a country overview and greetings to how to behave when invited to a private home and gift giving etiquette.
"The Words and Phrases section contains dozens of terms for use in greetings and conversations; names of people and occupations; common expressions; and standard business terms. All words and phrases can be saved to a favorites list. The CultureGuide© offers Web-accessed tools along with the extensive content: maps, up-to-the-minute weather reports and currency exchange rates making your trip more productive, enriching and exciting."
If you prefer looking at books, Culture Smart books focus on the attitudes, beliefs and behavior in different countries, so travelers get an understanding of what to expect before they leave home. The books describe basic manners, common courtesies, and sensitive issues. CultureSmart books re available as Ebooks, too.
Know What Locals Are Saying After Free Language LessonsFree language lessons are another route to befriending locals more easily. There are many Web sites where you can learn any language from Chinese to Italian, and dozens of other languages free. Her are some tips for learning languages more easily.
If you want to have someone guide you on your trip and help you "on-the-spot" with local customs and the culture, here are tips on choosing a private guide.