Differences do set us apart, but we often forget that we are all human, and our culture is much more representative of our differing environment than truly different people. Understanding and accepting other cultures is about keeping your mind open and learning, and you'll find a little knowledge is all it takes to truly broaden your horizons.
Method 1 Broadening Your Horizons at Home
- Seek out experiences, foods, and people who seem foreign to you. In almost every single instance, the only thing required to bridge cultural differences is an introduction. This isn't always easy, but the best thing to do is make an effort — go to the international folk music festival, eat in a restaurant where English isn't the first language, and say hello to the new family down the street.
- Local colleges and universities often bring in speakers, artists, and musicians from across the globe. These events are usually free.
- For example, an authentic Mexican restaurant will be a better choice than a fast food place that just so happens to sell Mexican food, such as Taco Bell.
- Single, family-owned businesses, such as grocery stores and restaurants, are great places to frequent.
- Expand your media diet to include other cultures. Even broadening your television palate can help admire cultural differences. Travel documentaries and news from foreign countries, even just the BBC, will give you a much broader worldview from home. Check out some music in another language from the library, read a book that has been translated, and pay attention to world news, not just American.
- No one can understand or pay attention to everything. Follow your interests, looking into and enjoying the new cultures and ideas that spark your interest.
- Invite other cultures into your home. You can accept travelers or sponsor exchange students. Some people open their homes with apps like Air BnB, while others might work through a church or charity to help provide for new immigrants and traveling groups. Even easier, you can simply invite people from other cultures over for dinner. The best way to understand and admire cultural differences is over food and friendship, so extend an olive branch.
- Try a cultural potluck, where everyone must bring food representative of their culture.
- Start a music exchange, giving each other the favorites from each culture and then comparing.
- Get in touch with your local Rotary club to ask about opportunities to host people from other cultures.
- Learn a new language. Language is much more than a simple one-to-one translation from English to something else — it shows how people think, exposes nuances in cultures and people, and allows you to get much closer to understanding and acceptance of complex cultural ideas.
- Some words cannot be translated smoothly, such as the Senegalese word "Tauranga," and are the best at illustrating the unique culture from which they come.
- Remember that even similar people have cultural differences worth learning about. You don't have to fly across the ocean to experience different cultures and ideas. Even families across the street have cultural histories and practices that date back through their roots. Communities in the same cities even have markedly different cultural backgrounds.
- Don't limit yourself to cultures that seem very different. Try to experience the life of those in the "worse" and "better" parts of your home town.
Method 2 Staying Open-minded while Traveling
- Get out and see new places, pushing your comfort zone as much as possible. Go somewhere outside of your town, state or even your country and experience how other people live first hand, as this is the best way to learn about other cultures. That said, not all travel experiences lend themselves to cultural immersion, and some options are better than others:
- Volunteer trips frequently stick you right in the middle of the "action," allowing you to get to know locals.
- Pre-planned trips can be very touristy, but many of them allow "home-stays," where you get to live with a local family.
- The longer you spend in a town, the more of their culture you can begin to appreciate.
- Read as much about the local culture as you can before arriving. It is irresponsible, in many ways, to arrive in a new country or state without knowing how things usually run. It is also the best way to get immediately shocked upon landing, which can make it harder to accept the culture later on. Read online, check some books, and generally arrive well-informed. That said, be ready for some shocks or changes in the real world — but at least having some knowledge beforehand will help with any culture shock. Check especially for:
- Culturally Unacceptable Practices: In some cultures, men and women should never touch in public. In some places, a thumbs up gesture is considered rude. If you want to truly understand a culture, you can't accidentally offend it.
- Necessary dress and clothing: While shorts are acceptable across America, they are frowned upon in some places. Women, in particular, should pay attention to cultural fashion norms, as they may be strict.
- Common greetings and phrases: Even if you don't learn the language, simply greetings can do wonders and open doors to all sorts of cultural experiences.
- Commit yourself fully to the culture you're in, learning by doing. The best way to understand and admire cultural differences is to make yourself a part of them. Help cook meals, go to the local watering holes and join the people at the bar, and take public transport. The longer you give yourself in the culture, the more you will learn and grow. At the very least, make a few friends wherever possible. You'll be surprised how much most people want to meet and talk to foreigners.
- Don't try to impose your own culture on others, or try to replicate your culture while abroad.
- Go with the flow, becoming a part of the culture instead of trying to stick out of it. Don't compare their culture to yours, as this can easily be seen as an insult.
- Understand that the first few days of "culture shock" will pass. Culture shock, or the sudden anxiety and worry about being in a completely new place and culture, affects even seasoned travelers. The good news? It is almost always temporary, and the best way to beat it is to push through it. It is natural to feel nervous in a new place, but keeping yourself moving, talking, and learning is the best way to show yourself that it is not so bad.
- Don't let the first few attempts at understanding deter you — the difficulty will pass.
- Share parts of your own culture and life to encourage others to share theirs. One of the best things to bring while traveling is a set of photos from home, allowing you to bring people into your own life and culture from anywhere. No matter where you are, giving a little bit of yourself is the best way to learn a little bit about others. And learning is the key to understanding and, ultimately, acceptance.
- Keep in mind that not everyone will want to learn about your culture. If someone seems reluctant or disinterested, stop. Don't be pushy about it.
Method 3 Accepting Odd or Extreme Cultural Practices
- Begin from a perspective of study or research, not as a foreigner or outsider. The best way to overcome cultural differences is an open, inquisitive mind. Let yourself wonder why something is happening instead of judging it– more often than not your initial revulsion or lack of acceptance is the cause of ignorance, not some horrible or unthinkable cultural practice.
- Try to look objectively instead of comparing what is happening to how you normally do things. Remember that, for someone unsure of your culture, your methods likely seem odd or weird, too.
- Stop thinking about "right and wrong," as there are very few "right" ways to do things, especially where unique cultural practices are concerned. Instead, think of the "why."
- Try to understand the context of the differences, not just the differences themselves. There is a custom in many Nordic countries that embraces the cold and dead of winter with gleeful hope, instead of the "normal" practice of loving summer and sheltering up during winter. It's strange, but it makes sense in context — these nations have long, cold, and dark winters, and they've adjusted their cultural mindset accordingly. Their differences are the result of the weather, not some cultural whim.
- Remind yourself that culture is a response to the environment, politics, and resources, not something that appears out of thin air. Noting these triggers will help understand them.
- Find the "purpose," or main aim, of the cultural practices in question. There are very few things that people just "do" without a reason. That reason may be something abstract, like spiritual worship or impressing the other sex, but that doesn't mean it is coming out of nowhere. Every cultural practice, including the more extreme or difficult ones, come from the desire to fix or accomplish something, and figuring out what that is will take you a long way towards understanding and admiring it.
- Outside research, asking questions, and careful watching are necessary to get over the immediate shock of certain cultural differences, like walking into a Senegalese house in the fall and seeing a half-skinned goat. However, knowing the religious importance of Tabeski, a local holiday, makes the behavior a lot more understandable.
- Look for the underlying cultural similarities, finding the basic human behavior underneath it all. The men of the Xhosa tribe of Africa paints themselves up and dances once a year, hoping to score a date from the women looking on. It's loud, bright, and crazy, but is it really that different from an American club scene, especially when make-up, high fashion, and attempts at dancing are concerned? We are more alike than most people realize, and the impetus for most of our cultural practices is very similar across cultures, even if the manifestation of that impulse is a bit different across the globe.
- Know that you don't have to love all practices of a culture to accept people at large. People disagree, and if you've done your best to be open-minded, fill in the gaps in your knowledge, and communicate with others, it is okay if you still disagree or dislike a practice. Women still can't drive in Saudi Arabia, a political choice born out of cultural differences between the sexes. While you can understand where this decision came from (historical sexist practices, certain readings of religious texts, etc.), that doesn't mean you have to accept it.
- Don't feel like understanding and accepting is the same thing as condoning the behavior. Your job as a traveler is to be open minded, not to agree with everything.
- Try watching and studying people closely, without judging them. This helps in understanding.
- Celebrate diversity. Life is just too short for crabbing (complaining and criticizing), so learn how to look for the good in everything and everyone.
- Do a social service – not for the work, but for the learning it brings. Help the less fortunate people of the earth, your country and/or your hometown when you can.
- Avoid judging and being unnecessarily antagonistic or disagreeable with others for whatever reasons. Be tolerant understanding that: yes, they differ but they probably think that you are rather odd, as well.
- Avoid stereotyping persons of another culture. Some members of each culture are out of the ordinary and are not typical of the people, but many ideas are old or are tourist attractions.