How to Deal with Cultural Misunderstandings and Have Fun - ExpatJoy

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How to Deal with Cultural Misunderstandings and Have Fun

As an expatriate or world traveler, it’s important to create an authentic understanding of cultural differences while respecting our own unique individuality and special talents. 

 Here is something funny that happened to my family last month related to cultural misunderstanding.

 A little background, we relocated to the United States six months ago. This is our third time moving back here, as a family. But this is our first winter in the New England area, with the kids as grown ups. 


 So, we were coming back from a ski trip, when I saw a large barn by the side of the road. In front of it, there were two large city snow plows.

It was snowing a lot that morning  I looked into the barn and notice a huge pile of something white and assumed it was snow. Went ahead and I asked my husband, who grew up in this area, why they stored so much snow.

 Listening to that he started laughing hysterically. 

Of course, I was taken aback and a little upset. 

How was I, a Brazilian, suppose to know what was that pile of white stuff inside a roadside barn? 

What do you think it was?

I let my “dear” husband laugh a little more and waited till the kids, who were asleep in the back seat, woke up.

 Although two of my kids were born in Boston, they haven’t lived here for very long. Two are teenagers now, and one just turned 21. 

 To my husband incredulous ears, we got the following answers from the kids when we asked them about white piles inside barns: 

 SUGAR, GRAIN and COTTON.

 By this time, “dear husband” wasn’t laughing anymore.

He understood that we were experiencing cultural misunderstanding.

 A cultural misunderstanding happens when something, such as a concept, word, body language, dress code, social context, object, among so many others aspects of our lives, have different meanings in two cultures.

It is as if you are learning a new language. And your native language – suddenly, makes no sense to those around you. 

How can you Prepare for Cultural Misunderstandings

Tip #1: Don’t Assume.

 We all have erred on this one. 

Knowing our surroundings isn’t a luxury we have when living or visiting a new country. 

And, that is the fun part of adventuring into the unknown, right?

So, know that you don’t know. 

Be open to new ways of living and take what is positive from these interactions and disregard the rest. 

Not judging or comparing to the ways back home, will make this processes easier for you. 

No need to worry about letting go of your personal values. Your beliefs will evolve as you do.

Became an inside observer. 

Tip #2: Learning about your new culture is a great way to a successful transition and fun life.

 It’s said that communication is an art. Most of us agree that mastery in any art form comes from continuous effort and persistence. 

In living abroad, our efforts in learning the local language and finding out information on culture and customs are sure to pay off according to Andy Kolinsky’s book Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behavior Across Culture without Losing Yourself in the Process.   ExpatJoy Book Shop

Learning the local language, for instance, will create a ripple effect of positive consequences. 

Locals will appreciate your interest in their language and will be able to better communicate with you.  Even a few words, such as greetings, thank yous and “where is the bathroom,” will facilitate your day to day life, and bring enriching social interactions during your stay.

 If at all doable, familiarize yourself with the most common customs in your new country.   Imagine arriving in beautiful Buenos Aires and having your new male friend kiss BOTH you and you’re your spouse. Knowing that Argentine men kiss each other’s cheeks as a greeting could have prevented an awkward moment. 

 Another delicious way to learn about a new culture is through food. Any country has special dishes for everyday and special occasions. Savor some unusual ingredients if you are open to it. You can also choose to take cooking classes or participate in potluck groups. Potluck meetings, when each participant brings a dish to share, are fun ways to try new dishes, get new recipes, learn and make new friends.

 Tip #3: Make Friends.

 “No man is an island.” John Donne

 We all have a basic need to relate to those around us. Some of us have this necessity stronger than others. 

But, we all have it. 

In the age of Internet, expats and world travelers may decide to just keep in touch with the friends they already had back at home. After all, it’s so easy to call, email, text and be connected through social media these days.

 Don’t fool yourself! 

Making new friends, a mixture of locals and internationals, exposes us to subtle nuances of the our new country’s culture. Share part of this journey with people going through the same experiences – learning to live in a foreign country.  It is an interesting way to navigate in your new environment. 

If you happen to be shy or don’t feel comfortable around new people, it is still worth putting yourself out there. 

As you learn more, your interactions will become easier and you will become confident of your ability to understand social cues in this new place. 

 Tip #4: Don’t Forget to Respect Yourself.

 You might be thinking…

“Sandra, you keep saying that I have to put effort into learning a new language, make friends even if I’m uncomfortable, consider eating weird foods, and NOW you want me to respect myself!!?

Aren’t we a little too late for that?”

 Let me clarify what I mean by respecting yourself.

 As you live your life in this new location, you sure will come across new situations that will be fun, difficult, exciting, frustrating, boring and even fearful. 

 Learning a new language can be fun and can also mess up with your self-confidence, if you allow it to happen. 

 Being referred as a “trailing spouse” can sound diminishing to some of us. 

 Not knowing the local etiquette can get to our nerves.

And this is why it’s essential that you respect yourself. 

You come from a distinct past life – a special one. 

 You are an adult that have had so many amazing experiences in life. 

 If you are learning a new language, it’s because you already speak one. 

 Give credit to yourself for all your past accomplishments.

 Be gentle to yourself and to those around you

 And… finally, relax and enjoy this privileged journey as a world citizen. 

 If your significant other understands the local culture more than you, so be it. 

Roles tend to change in life.

Laugh about the whole thing, learn something new and share with those around you, sure ways to a happier life. 

Sure ways to a happy life.

Have you ever been culturally misunderstood? I would love to hear your story. Please leave a comment, or send me an email: sandra@expatjoy.com

Thanks for reading. 

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SANDRA BISSELL

My name is Sandra Bissell.
I have been blessed with the opportunity to live as an expatriate for more than 2 decades.

Some of my passions are people, my family, good conversations, traveling, ethnic food, dancing and Capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian-Martial-Art-Dance.

Originally from the countryside of São Paulo state, in Brazil, I have enjoyed life in Kanagawa and Aichi prefectures, in Japan, Boston and San Diego cities, in the United States, São Paulo, Brazil, as an expatriate in my own country, Zurich – Switzerland and most recently Stamford, Connecticut, back to the United States.

As you may guess, I feel the most comfortable within the international community.
ExpatJoy - Passionate Global Living with Sandra Bissell

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sandra@expatjoy.com