The Importance of Cultural Competence When Traveling

It doesn’t matter if you’re traveling internationally for the first time or you’re an old pro, you’re probably already aware of the fact that each country has its own distinct cultural flair. Whether you’re talking about the similar-yet-different aspects of Canadian and American cultures during a trip to Toronto or the distinctively different culture of a non-western country like China or India, each place has its own cultural identity.

The Importance of Cultural Competence When Traveling

While you can spend countless hours surfing the internet for the best hot spots or reading up on the language, mannerisms, behaviors, and traditions of another nation, you will never reach a point where you’re fully prepared for every unique experience you may have in another country. Not even No Reservations marathons will get you truly ready.

How to Become Culturally Competent

The fact that you can never be quite fully prepared doesn’t mean you should resign yourself to becoming a stereotypical bumbling tourist who spouts offensive statements and acts in unacceptable ways. Even if you don’t know everything about another culture, you can still arrive at your destination ready to interact with the local people by simply becoming a culturally competent traveler

Cultural competence basically means you’re able to communicate with those from other cultures in a manner that is both appropriate and effective. This competency comes from a few factors that are worth consideration:

Start with Your Attitude

It all begins with your attitude. If you travel with a chip on your shoulder, you’re going to run into issues very quickly. A culturally aware individual is one who shows an appropriate level of deference and respect for the cultural identity of each place that they visit. 

For instance, just because the Bretton Woods Agreement set up the US dollar as the benchmark for world currency doesn’t mean you should flash your cash around as if it’s a piece of gold. Respect the local population by taking the time to exchange your money into the local currency. If you’re in an Asian country like Japan, respect for global financial customs goes even further — you will be asked to pass yen back and forth on trays rather than handing it directly to a person.

Cultural competence all comes down to the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you run into a Chinese tourist in the U.S., you wouldn’t want them to have a haughty attitude as they shove their yuan in your face.

Strive to replace any sense of elitism — and it’s underlying insecurities of discomfort and distrust — with a healthier attitude of open-mindedness, curiosity, and above all, patience. The value of genuine patience when engaging with another culture cannot be overstated. It allows you to replace worry, discomfort, and fear with a desire to understand and empathize with an intercultural connection.

Work on Your Cultural Skills

Along with your attitude, it’s important to do your best to develop a couple of specific skills that are crucial to international travel: adaptability and adjustability.

These skills can help you survive things like culture shock, which requires the ability to adapt and adjust to your surroundings. For instance, if a local restaurant has tables that require you to sit on the floor, it’s important to overcome any squeamish thoughts you may have about germs. 

If a local custom includes accepting seconds at dinner when they’re offered to you, don’t turn them down because you’re on a diet. In other words, be ready to adapt to the expectations of the culture you’re visiting. This ability to adjust and adapt as you go enables you to conform to the expectations of your surroundings, no matter where you are. 

Beef Up Your Knowledge

While we already discussed that knowledge can’t fix everything, researching your destination should still be a key element in your cross-cultural tool-kit. 

For instance, if you’re visiting the UK, it’s important to be aware of how Brexit is affecting both tourism and the local population, as it will help you avoid putting your foot in your mouth while in conversation. With the UK formally withdrawing from the European Union on January 31, there is still much in the air. This includes travelers’ rights. But for the next 11 months, not much will change during this ‘transition’ period.

While it can’t solve all of your problems, having a basic knowledge of the place you’re visiting is a great way to reinforce your attitude and travel-related skills. Just make sure you use that knowledge as a way to connect, not to act as if you know more about the location than the local population.

Mastering Cultural Competency

If you can take the time to become a culturally competent traveler, you’ll be able to head to any place in the world with confidence and excitement. The ability to respect, appreciate, and communicate with another culture yields many benefits including:

  • Expanding your worldview: The culturally competent traveler often gains unique insights they would have missed. Ask any travel blogger or TV tourist: the locals know where the best sites and food are, and if your cultural competence is low, you’re going to miss out.
  • Surviving culture shock: Rather than being overwhelmed, you will be able to thrive in an uncomfortable setting. Don’t let culture shock lead to homesickness. That will just keep you from the best experiences.
  • Expanding your soft skills: Developing the ability to adapt, adjust, and acclimate to change can bear fruit across your entire life, not just when you travel. Not only that, but you will have great stories to tell.

Whether you’re finally taking that long-awaited vacation, traveling as a medical tourist, or hopping on a business flight, as you plan your trip, make sure to keep the concept of cultural competency in mind. Gauge your soft skills, shift your attitude, and research the cultures that you’ll be interacting with. Once you’ve done that, you’ll be able to boldly engage with those you meet and, likely, find a whole new, immensely satisfying dimension to your trip.

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Article Author Details

Charlie Fletcher

Charlie Fletcher is a freelance writer living in the pacific northwest who has a variety of interests including sociology, politics, business, education, health, and more.