One of the things I love most about being a slow traveling digital nomad is getting insights into other cultures that I have wouldn’t otherwise been exposed to. Staying in a place longer, especially if we’re house sitting, gives us a lot more insight than just being a tourist. That’s awesome, but it also comes with its own helping of culture shock, which is a very definite thing.
We were quite stunned to realise that—as Australians—the place we’ve felt culture shock the greatest was Scotland. We’d lived by then in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Brunei Darussalam and had visited pretty much every country in South East Asia and the Middle East with a smattering of the USA, Africa and Europe thrown in (Greece, we love you!) but Scotland was the place where we felt the most foreign and like we didn’t fit in. It was an excellent learning experience. I’ll write more about that later, but for now here’s a list of the ‘rules’ we’ve come up with to help us deal with culture shock in our travels. It’s not bullet-proof (nothing is!) but we’ve found they help us get by with the least mortification and a minimum of cultural gaffes:
“Don’t assume anything.” Do your research, ask questions if in doubt. Hell, ask questions anyway because most people love sharing their culture with genuinely interested people.
Be aware of the clichés. Every country, race and culture comes with a whole suitcase of clichés and in general, you’ll find that at least 80 percent of them are incorrect… in most cases. As an Australian who has lived in over twenty places in my home country, I can honestly say I have never thrown a shrimp (we call them prawns) on the barbie. Never. (Although I’m not adverse to eating a barbecued prawn if anyone wants to grill me one!) And I’m definitely not tanned, bleached blond and good at surfing. (I’m rather pale with Cruella de Vil hair and I sink like a rock when confronted with water.)
Research the socially unacceptable words, phrases, gestures and topics in the place you’re going. Here are a couple of examples for you that we’ve discovered the hard way:
In a lot of south east Asian countries speaking loudly or enthusiastically is seen as shouting and being angry. Worth keeping in mind If you’re a person with a booming voice or someone who turns up the volume when you’re excited.
If you’re in a Muslim country during Ramadan, it may be illegal or just socially unacceptable to be eating and drinking around people who are fasting. (Don’t worry, you can eat and drink in the privacy of your own home.) However, going out and about in the evening during Ramadan and seeing everyone celebrate as they break their fast well and truly makes this time of year special.
Talking about money is seen as gauche and taboo in a whole lot of cultures, while in a whole lot of other countries it’s seen as normal. It helps to know which side of that coin you fall on!
Some countries don’t queue. Others do. If you’ve come from a non-queuing culture and end up pushing in front of a British person, be prepared for a lot of cold, disproving looks. Inversely, if you’re standing patiently waiting for someone to notice you waiting to get on a bus in Egypt while everyone pushes in front, you’re going to be there a very long time.
Be open to the food of the country you’re in. Being a digital nomad is going to be difficult if you only eat five things you can get in your home country. Go to the local restaurants rather than international fast-food chains. Learn to cook and use ingredients you can get cheaply in whichever country you’re in. You won’t regret it. Asparagus in the springtime in Germany and Switzerland is out of this world, the chickens on sale in the Middle East are super tasty, the bread, cheese and summer vegetables in France are mouth-watering and the berries in the UK are amazing. Try incorporating local foods and flavours into your daily life. This goes if you’re vegan too! Each country we’ve visited definitely has legumes and vegetables that are super special at different times of the year and you’ll develop a palate for different rice flavours if you try the local varieties.
Learn enough of the local language to at the very least say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’. It’d be great if you can learn more, but sometimes that’s hard. Generally we’ve found that people are super polite if you make an effort.
Following on from language, try learn about the local holidays and customs before you go— enough that you won’t be surprised when someone’s offering you haggis, neeps and tatties at the Burns Supper, or if your lovely Persian host is offering you her diamond ring because you’ve complimented it. (Don’t take the ring! She’s taaroffing and you’re meant to turn it down.)
Personal space is different in different countries. This is something to be super aware of. In some parts of the world, standing right next to you and staring at you is just something people do. In other parts of the world, people like to have a good foot or two between themselves and others. If you’re aware of this, you’ll feel a lot less awkward when you’ve got over thirty people staring at you as you walk down a street in India or you’ll know why that Texan is getting shirty when you’re standing so close to them in line for the cinema.
And finally, understand that every country and culture has its share of assholes. Just because an Uber driver, or taxi driver or the staff at a café were rude, it doesn’t mean everyone from that country is. People are people wherever you go. Most of the time that means people are generally great! Sometimes you’ll encounter the odd sod who makes you feel uncomfortable. It’s all a part of the experience and we tend to find the awkward moments make for brilliant stories later on!