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Do Not Go Clueless Into That Strange Culture!
by Ysabel de la Rosa

Return to International Freelancing · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

As a writer in this globalized age of communications, you could make a cross-cultural journey at a moment's notice. Interviews, reviewing press materials on the internet, and researching new ideas often launch us on journeys, virtual or otherwise, into another culture. If you land a job as a foreign correspondent, knowing how to find and interpret cultural clues will provide you more and better contacts, as well as provide you an extra margin of personal safety.

Below are six things you can do that can keep you from traveling "clueless" in a foreign land.

History Helps

Read as far back into the history of a country or culture as you can. There and only there will you find answers to some of your persistent questions on the differences between "your" culture and "theirs."

Reading history books on Barcelona, Madrid, and Spain, going back to pre-Spanish Iberian days, I found answers to questions such as why Spaniards stand very close to each other when talking; why loud speech is a custom, not an expression of emotion; why many people dress in somber colors (not the dramatic red and black in all those ads!); and why (excuse the indelicacy, please) one frequently used (and totally accepted) expression is "Well, I s--t in the ocean!"

None of the contemporary resources I checked answered these questions. It's important to understand why certain customs, attitudes, and habits exist. This understanding diminishes the disorientation that accompanies culture shock. The less disoriented you are, the more free you are to enjoy your trip, and the more able to concentrate and establish an efficient work routine.

Historical knowledge can also keep you from tripping a verbal "mine" in an interview. For example, I now know never to bring up the Spanish Civil War with any Spaniard whom I do not know extremely well.

When in Rome, Don't

But beware. Although I now have a better understanding of certain cultural habits, this doesn't mean that I, as a foreign resident, should adopt them. I have toned down the colors I dress in, for example. But the fact that I know how to utter local indelicacies doesn't give me a license to use them. The question to ask yourself is not: can you say a particular expression, but should you? I've heard only Spanish men verbally pollute the ocean, which gives me, a foreign female, a definite clue!

Linguistic Clues

What you know about a language can be as important as knowing the language itself. Each language's structure and its speakers' usage habits provide a wealth of cultural information.

Spaniards and Spanish-speakers, for example, have a reputation for being warm and outgoing. The fact that Spaniards stand close to each other in conversation and kiss each other upon greeting supports this cultural assumption. Yet the Spanish language provides a critical clue to the contrary. Spanish always places an "a" ["to" or "at"] before a person's name when used as a direct object. In Spanish, I cannot know Cecilia. I can know "a" Cecilia. I cannot hug my neighbor. I can hug "a" my neighbor. What does this tell us?

In spite of the outward signs of extroversion, there is always a barrier between one person and another. If you know this, then you won't be hurt when someone you've known for three years and who greets you with a kiss in public has yet to invite you to their home. And you won't necessarily interpret an "abrazo" (hug) as a sign of deep and lasting friendship. This one little, ever- present "a" informs you that the "outgoing" Spaniard wants to keep his or her boundaries intact, wants to respect the boundaries of others, and that physical closeness is not synonymous with emotional intimacy.

What do the following language patterns tell you about their accompanying cultures?

  1. Spanish speakers frequently prefer to use passive instead of active voice. In French, the active voice is usually preferred.

  2. In Japanese, the word for "house" can also mean "person."

  3. The Sioux language has no word for "late" or "waiting."

  4. English places adjectives before a noun; Arabic, Spanish, Italian, French, and Portuguese place them (usually) after the noun.

  5. Mandarin Chinese has no equivalent word for "the."

  6. A Chinese expression frequently used to express thanks is "I have caused you some trouble."

  7. To give someone a "rough time" in French is to make someone go through "a rough 15 minutes."

These linguistic items offer important clues about their respective cultures' attitudes toward responsibility, authority, and intimacy; their perceptions of time, of patience and limits; of what constitutes gratitude; and of their speakers' descriptive priorities and categories. The more you perceive about the "unspoken" customs hidden within the language, the better your cross-cultural relations will be. As writers, we have a wonderful tool at hand, simply by looking at sentence architecture.

Reverse Research

Find out as much as you can about what's been written or publicized about your home culture in the country you are traveling to or living in. What my Paraguayan house guest knows about American petroleum development in South America, from both local media and first-hand knowledge, was news to me, and not pleasant news at that. It's important to have an idea of how the other culture perceives your home culture, and why. This knowledge can help you avoid difficult or embarrassing encounters and help you prepare for how you may or may not be received -- or trusted -- in a foreign setting or when writing in a cross-cultural environment.


Most of the following items are handled differently in different cultures. These should be on your "constant check list" to research before entering a foreign country or culture: Colors, Gestures, Religious Holidays, Table Manners, Tipping, and Dress. It's also wise to find out how a culture handles mobile phone etiquette.

If you're unsure of the appropriate/inappropriate gestures in a particular culture, keep your hands together and close to the center of your body while talking.

If you're unclear about what certain colors mean in a country, don't give flowers as a gift. Have gifts wrapped in the store where you buy them.

If you're unsure about dress customs, then prepare accordingly: Be prepared to wear long pants instead of shorts and short- sleeved instead of sleeveless shirts/blouses. Women should be prepared to wear a dress or skirt instead of pants and should always have a scarf handy. Your personal style is of secondary importance until you know the dress "parameters" of the culture you are entering.

Buy a current magazine(s), even if you can't read the language it's printed in. Study the ads and photographs. Look for your own clues regarding the "specifics" mentioned above. Also look for local publications in your native language. Airports and hotels are natural places to find these. You can also contact your embassy for suggestions of helpful publications. And, naturally, you can follow this same procedure online, if you have a computer with you.

Key Values

Even more important than specific habits are key cultural values. Where religion is important, for example, you will often find that reverence in general is equally valued, and is a value that overrides differences between world religions.

Conversations about current events have the potential to "bring up" conflicting values, while a culture's historical achievements are usually safer territory, and equally as interesting.

Make an effort not to overlay your culture's key values on the other culture. For example, in my home country, hospitality implies freedom for my guests. I provide a base of operations, but don't make decisions for them. In other countries, hospitality implies that the host becomes responsible for his or her guest. Although equal in generosity, these two kinds of hospitality do not provide the guest the same privileges, and imply a different relationship between host and guest.

Always learn the words for please, thank you, hello, and good-bye in your host culture's language. With just these four words, you'll be able to greet and acknowledge another person, as well as express gratitude and respect -- key values in every one of the world's cultures.

Helpful Sites:

About.com World News

Cultures, Ancient and Contemporary


The History Net

Nicholas Brealey Publishing(Great source of intercultural books)

Journeywoman (information for men, too)

World Press Review Magazine

Copyright © 2000 Ysabel de la Rosa
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Ysabel de la Rosa is a writer and graphic designer whose work has been published in 40+ print and online publications in the U.S. and Spain, including ArtNet, Everything Art, Apogee Photo Magazine, and Madrid's Broadsheet and Guidepost magazines. She has also worked as a magazine and textbook editor. Visit her website at http://www.ysabeldelarosa.com.


Copyright © 2019 by Moira Allen. All rights reserved.
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