So many times I’ve read or heard people who have visited 50+ countries and claimed to know so much about the various cultures of the world. However, I’ve also met so many people who haven’t had the chance to travel so much but are great intercultural specialists. So what’s the deal here? What’s better for your cross-cultural intelligence development? Will you adjust to the expat life faster and easier if you’ve traveled a lot before?
My viewpoint is that there are various components of cross-cultural intelligence and tourist experience helps us develop different parts than living abroad for a longer period of time. And therefore no, I don’t think that there is a direct correlation between travelling and easier adaptation to living and working in a new environment. It can influence and enhance it if done in the right way though.
So what are the differences between both experiences?
Expanding knowledge about a given culture, customs and language
Knowledge of behaviours
Going abroad both for a short trip and long-term will develop your knowledge about a given location. Whether that’s local customs, behaviours or familiarising yourself with local interesting places. Of course, the longer you are in a given country the more you get to know it, but often even just a two-week stay can be very informative. Especially if the place you’re visiting is very different from where you live the differences tend to be more easily visible.
What I’d like to challenge however is the notion that you know the culture after a two week holiday somewhere.
Let’s say you’ve been to Italy for a two week holiday, somewhere by the seaside, and made three day-trips during your stay there. What you might notice and say to your peers when you go back home are things like: The Italians eat so late! They spend so much time with their families! You always see people chilling in the parks or by the fountains! Everything closes for 2-3 hours during the day for siesta and there’s no chance you can buy anything then! What it is however is a description of noticed behaviours. You clearly got some insight into how the lifestyle generally looks like, technical knowledge about when should you do your shopping not to starve during siesta etc. Is it really understanding the culture? It’s the first step, that’s for sure. However, you need to get to the bottom of these behaviours to truly grasp the culture and what’s below the surface.
There’s a chance you can interpret the frequent socialising as just that all Italians are super outgoing (“slightly” misleading conclusion), but in fact it might be related to the values and a very strong commitment to the value of family and close relationships. Such an interpretation might help you understand why they wouldn’t go out with you if there’s something going on in the family or someone asked them for help. Family celebrations, even if it’s not the closest family, can still be more important. That in itself is a generalisation as well, but gives you an idea of how the underlying values might influence the interpretation of behaviours. You can only get to the bottom of it by being there for slightly longer and experiencing the nuances.
Another thing that falls into the knowledge bucket is language. It can be that during your stay you will learn a couple of words in the local language, which will likely make the locals more friendly towards you (isn’t it great to see that someone is at least trying to make the effort to speak your language? 🙂 ). You probably won’t be able to grasp the nuances of the language though.
I remember myself when I was arriving to England pretty confident about my English – I’ve been learning it for a long time, didn’t have much trouble communicating with others, I was watching films in English, reading books and working in English as well. The problem was I didn’t really have that much opportunity to work with the native speakers of English. And here’s where my confidence started to drop as I needed to learn new phrases, pronunciation, slang, understanding jokes related to tv shows etc. That’s where the language stops being only a communication tool and starts being a cultural intelligence skill, helping to understand the local culture deeply. Again, this can only be achieved when being (or working with a given culture) for longer than just a couple of weeks.
Revise your attitudes
Depending on what type of traveler you are, you might come back from a trip and either say ‘They are so weird! They do this and that three times a day!’ or ‘That was so interesting! I didn’t realise this happens in there. I need to learn more about it!’. In the second case you show a learning mindset which is great for nurturing the non-judgmental approach to other cultures, whilst in the first one you appreciate the experience, but stop at the ‘awareness’ stage and still perceive your reality as the only right point of reference.
Travelling to multiple countries, but for short periods of time can definitely open the eyes for the diversity that’s out there and trigger the curiosity and openness towards other people. What it can’t let you do is to deeply experience one given culture. So you can gain an amazing knowledge and awareness of the differences, but can’t quite experience the process of adjustment yourself.
Notice what your business trips look like as well – do you travel to all those international destinations, but only stay in hotels or your company’s local offices at all times? Or maybe you do make the effort to either explore yourself, or ask local colleagues to show you around in case walking alone (or alone as a woman) is not safe enough?
Put the knowledge into practice
The last and I think most important component of the cultural intelligence is the skills, which allow you to work or co-exist well with people from other cultures. Once you start transforming your knowledge and attitudes into action you start to see the amazing benefits of adjusting and opening up to the new ways of thinking. You also start self-reflecting a bit more and discover which values are really close to your heart.
The combination of the right knowledge, attitudes and skills leads to behaviours that are acceptable by people from all cultures in question and allow for an effective cooperation.
Is expat experience better than traveler’s?
I think that it all depends on what your goals are and what situation you are in. If you are an expat you probably will need to spend more time on adjusting and understanding the values and behaviours of your new environment. Otherwise, it might be hard for you to lead a happy life there. In that sense it probably is a deeper experience where you really get to know a given culture far better than with a two-week stay. You also need to set yourself up there legally, find a place to live, pay bills, do the shopping etc, which you wouldn’t necessarily need to do during business trips to that location.
However, if you need to work with people from around the world relatively often, gaining knowledge about the cultures you’re working with can turn out to be really helpful in building meaningful relationships with your business partners. It doesn’t have to be through living in all those places. Myself, being an expat and working in a very international environment, I find the insights from travel blogs extremely helpful to build an image of how life looks like in the countries of the people I work with. I talk to them of course to learn their perspective, but reading others’ views can be really helpful in developing the awareness of the existing differences and similarities. It is also helpful to increase your cultural intelligence by enhancing your knowledge of what can be cultural and what might simply be just a personality clash.
Whatever your motivation, there are plenty of opportunities to learn about other cultures. And learning about them is extremely important in today’s world. Expat experience is definitely deeper, much more focused and related to more day-to-day challenges than a tourist visit, but both groups can learn from each other in creating a tolerant world by sharing their experiences.
What are your ways of learning the most about the local culture when travelling somewhere even just for a little while?