5 Ways to Integrate With a New Culture

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A common theme that has come up with many of the recent guests that I’ve welcomed on the podcast is interacting with new cultures. I believe that cultural interaction is one of the most critical aspects of any travel experience. As many of the life lessons that I’ve learned while traveling has come from how I’ve engaged with the locals in a different country. Two lessons that come to mind right away are developing greater social skills and having a greater perspective on the world. This was especially the case when I was living in The Gambia for Peace Corps, where I spent two years living with a culture that was entirely different from my own.

Though often times I’ve witnessed other travelers fall short when it comes to cultural interaction. They get frustrated if the locals don’t speak English. Or they’ll get upset when they witness something within a culture that seems unusual to them. Admittedly, I fell into this category for a while. But while I was living in The Gambia, I sought to improve this. And I found ways to integrate with the culture that I was now a part of. As a result, my time in the Peace Corps became one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life.

In this post, I’ll share 5 ways that you can integrate with new cultures whenever you travel. By doing so, not only will you have an amazing travel experience, but you’ll also learn some valuable life lessons as well.

1. Know that you’re a guest

This is where I see a lot of travelers fall short. They travel to a foreign country and seem to have the expectation that the locals are supposed to live up to their standards. As if the locals are supposed to change and adjust themselves for the sake of the tourists who are visiting their country. Keep in mind, the culture of any one particular place has been there long before you were even on this earth. And that culture is not just going to suddenly change just because you decided that you want to step foot in the country.

You are a guest there. Just as you have your own rules, expectations, and values within your own home that you’d want guests visiting you to abide by. That same concept applies when you decide to travel to a different country. Therefore, see what you can learn about the culture beforehand. What are the cultural norms that you can expect to see? Are there certain things that may be considered taboo that you’ll want to avoid doing? Certain things may be acceptable where you live, but perhaps not in other places.

For instance, in Japan people don’t walk and eat at the same time. If you were to do this, you’re likely to get some weird looks. Another example was when I was in Israel. I saw a group of girls try to walk into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Only to be turned away because they were wearing very short shorts. Remember, you’re a guest in the countries that you visit, and it is your responsibility to adjust yourself accordingly with the different cultures that you come across.

2. Speak the language

You don’t have to speak the local language fluently. But make an attempt to speak it as you address cashiers, servers, or other people that you come across. Even if you totally screw it up, you’ll likely find that whomever you’re speaking to would be pleased. This way you could earn their respect and they’ll be more likely to help you if you need it. Chances are they may not interact with many tourists who make the attempt to speak in the local language. Or to coincide with the previous point, they interact with tourists that expect the locals to speak English.

My suggestion would be to carry a small index card with basic questions and phrases. There are also apps like Google Translate that you can use. Lonely Planet also has good pocket-sized phrasebooks that could be helpful on your journey!

3. Be open-minded

To put it simply, when you travel, you’re going to see other people do some strange things! Some of them may be upsetting to you, or perhaps even fill you with disgust. And you may feel a knee jerk reaction to judge them critically for it, or perhaps even try to intervene. But I encourage you to keep an open mind and ask yourself why they may be doing the thing that seems unusual to you or that you don’t like.

I have several examples from my time in The Gambia. I remember one time I saw a man kick a dog to try and get it to go away. Now I love dogs and have had them as part of my family growing up. So needless to say, I didn’t like seeing this man treat this dog this way. But it turned out is that dogs there aren’t usually domesticated animals that people keep as pets. Dogs there can carry diseases that are easily spread due to the unsanitary conditions. So it was likely that this man was trying to keep the dog away for the sake of his family’s health. Of course, that didn’t make me feel happy about the situation, but I understood.

Another example from my Peace Corps service was seeing parents beat their children. I remember a few times when I would walk through my host family’s compound and seeing one of my young host siblings on the ground curled up in a ball while getting beat with a stick by one of my host mothers (sidenote: polygamous marriages are a thing in The Gambia). Once again, my knee jerk reaction would be to step in and intervene, because where I’m from, you don’t do that to children. But there, that’s how parents instill discipline whenever they have a child that does something wrong. For the most part, though, parents still provide warmth, love, and care for their children.

If things seem unusual to you about a particular culture, then ask about it. Of course, don’t do so with disdain or in a condescending matter, do so with genuine curiosity. And you’ll likely find that certain things aren’t as unusual as you made them out to be.

Me and some of my host siblings in The Gambia!

4. Focus on similarities

Many of my previous podcasts guests talked about an important lesson that they’ve learned from their travels. And that is that we’re all the same. Sure, there may be observable differences on the surface, such as culture, race, language, religion, etc. Though unfortunately, many people won’t attempt to see beyond the surface. If they did, they’ll likely find that they may have more in common with people in other places than they might think.

People everywhere are just trying to live happy and fulfilling lives. They’re going to work and trying to take care of the family and loved ones. They like to eat food, listen to music, socialize with their neighbors, and so much more. So seek to look deeper than the differences that you see on the surface and find some commonalities.

5. Smile!

This one may seem a bit unusual, but smiles are universal. It doesn’t matter what part of the world you’re in, smiles need no translation.

To sum it up

This is by no means an exhaustive list. There are plenty of other ways to integrate with a new culture. When you make the effort to integrate with a new culture while traveling. Not only will you improve your social skills. But you’ll find that you’ll return home with a greater perspective on the world. And this can serve you well as you pursue other meaningful things in your life.


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And until next time; be safe, happy travels, and always move forward!

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