Why is it important to understand cultural differences?

For international students and foreign workers, experiencing a different culture can be daunting. However, it is vital that you understand cultural differences so as not to make any mistakes, no matter how trivial they may be. 

Students hang out to try Vietnamese cuisines

Students hang out to try Vietnamese cuisines

Let’s look at one such example:

John is an American scuba diver. During a dive, he always uses the hand gesture “OK” (thumb and index fingers join together to form a circle and the other 3 fingers point away from the palm) to communicate to his colleagues that everything is fine. This habit translates into his personal life and he had never run into any problems with this gesture, until his travel to Turkey. His taxi driver was white with rage when John made the “OK” gesture after counting the change and hurriedly shoved him off the ride. John, confused, decided that this trip was the worst and that he would never return to Turkey again. 

What went wrong in this situation?

In Turkey, the “OK” gesture is an extremely homophobic insult. This is also the case for many Mediterranean, Middle East, and Latin America countries. Meanwhile, within John’s American culture and scuba diving subculture, the symbol is widely used for its positive meaning. Thus, if John had studied Turkish body language before his trip and gained cultural awareness, this embarrassing situation wouldn’t have happened.

This example shows us what happens when you fail to notice cultural differences.

Lack of cultural awareness may suggest to others that you do not care enough about your host country. The true reason may be that you simply forget at the time, but some argue that if you truly cherish your time in your host country, you would have learned the social intricacies by heart. If you’re lucky, the situation may only be laughed off with some mild confusion from both parties.

Students learning Vietnamese together

Students learning Vietnamese together

However, in serious cases like the previous example, it may be perceived as a sign of disrespect for the culture, thus be met with a great deal of criticism and hostility. Culture affects many aspects of our lives. Many people consider their culture so important that they make it their life mission to spread their culture to others. For such people, a slight towards their culture is a personal offence, and will not be taken lightly. Consequently, it will sever all possible communication channels between both parties, resulting in forever lost chances and opportunities.

On the other hand, understanding cultural differences brings about many benefits.  

Learning another culture helps you accept and appreciate people different from you. By identifying with others, you open yourself to understanding more about who they are instead of mere names and faces, and start to empathize with them. In return, the more you respect and value others, the more you are respected and valued.

Furthermore, embracing other cultures helps you be aware of your pre-existing cultural biases, such as racism or classism, and help you gain new insights on your own. Living in Japan, a Korean student may realize her preconceived notion of Japanese people has been wrong.  She will learn to disassociate the action from the people and do away with her misconception about Japanese people. People are people, in spite of their skin tone, place of birth, social class, gender, sexuality or educational level. After all, war atrocities could only be done once people are dehumanized into objectives and enemies.

Once you’ve broken free of cultural prejudices, you have opened the door to making new friends and having new experiences. After all, a big appeal of travelling to another country is to immerse yourself in a whole new environment, so study a new culture and don’t let your chances go to waste!

There are as many cultures, beliefs, and values as there are people in the world. Becoming culturally conscious and respectful of others is necessary for anyone preparing to go abroad. Nevertheless, accepting other cultures does not mean forsaking your own culture. You should act on your knowledge to have the best cross-culture interactions while paying respect to both cultures.


What does a truly cultural immersion mean? Read more on our blog!

See how cultural exchange at ABROADER is like, read a wrap-up for exchanging cultures at ABROADER this summer!