Walk Softly and Carry a Big Stick

By Jessica Pearce

If you are considering taking a vacation in a foreign country, there is a certain ethos you may want to adopt early in your planning:  “Walk softly and carry a big stick.”  In this case, the saying refers to ways of proactively approaching the culture and situations you may face in your vacation spot of choice. 

You’ll want to learn as much as you can about the culture in this country ahead of time, especially what the people are like, their values and the way their society functions.  Doing so ahead of time can save you from making some awful American gaffes when you arrive.

Learning the many nonverbal gestures in the culture you’ll be visiting can be very enlightening. If visiting India, for instance, you may want to get a grasp of the many meanings of the Indian “head bobble.”  This gesture can imply anything from “I hear what you are saying” to “I am pretending to agree with you.”  These distinctions can become very important, especially when bargaining at the local market.

You may also want to know what is considered “polite” in the culture you will be visiting.  In the country of Ethiopia it is actually impolite to eat everything on your plate.  If you are visiting someone’s home, the family will continue serving you food portions for as long as you continue to eat.  Whatever you leave on your plate (or in the serving vessel) is what the family will eat for dinner after you leave.  If a visitor were to follow the old American adage of “eating everything on your plate” out of politeness, he would actually be taking away from the family’s next meal.

In any country you visit you’ll also want to know the preferred method of “getting things done.”  The American standard of “The Customer is Always Right” just may not hold true in your vacation spot.  Many cultures uphold the value of the common good rather than what is good for one individual.  Understanding this cultural difference could help you refine your approach when you reach the airport and your flight is overbooked or delayed, for instance.

When people-watching at an airport in Frankfurt I once observed a flamboyant tourist yelling and gesturing wildly at the gate agent to demand that his plane situation be rectified immediately.  Instead of creating a stir that produced results, the tourist only succeeded in causing the gate agent to adhere more strongly to the rules and regulations that governed the airline.  The agent calmly stated that there was nothing to be done, and the tourist stormed off.  Had the tourist known a more culturally-appropriate way to respond, such as asking the agent for the correct procedure to rectify his ticket situation, he may have gotten further.

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