Traveling abroad? Odds are you’ve done ample research on the top destinations to visit, restaurants to eat at, and the hotels at which you’ll be staying. You’re ready to go, right? Not exactly.
A good trip can quickly go south (figuratively speaking) based upon the treatment you receive from the country’s locals. Many assume rude behavior of others is entirely outside their control. Cross-cultural training expert Dean Foster would disagree.
“Americans, whether traveling internationally for work or leisure, carry this U.S. ‘cultural gene’ which says that people are all the same, and this is fundamentally wrong. Americans fervently believe this, however, because inherent to U.S. culture is the value of equality coupled to the immigrant experience: no matter how different I may be from you, we are both equal, ergo, the same. People who come from cultures that do not have immigrant histories or values of equality, do NOT believe that people are basically the same everywhere,” says Foster.
Taking the time to educate yourself on your destination’s specific cultural intricacies can make all the difference in the outcome of your experience. That’s why Foster has offered his expertise in the creation of the recently launched Dean Foster Culture Guides iPhone apps.
I recently got that chance to test out the Brazil guide (currently sitting high atop my to-visit list). The following were some of the top cultural highlights:
- Brazilians don’t like waiting in line (they will pass you like you don’t exist)
- Cleanliness is very important (several showers daily)
- Giving someone the “ok sign” is asking to get punched and/or stabbed, and to a lesser extent, so is standing with your hands on your hips
- If someone offers you coffee, accept it. The gesture of acceptance is important.
The depth of information is adequate without being overwhelming, including a rough country overview, greeting and communication styles, how to behave in public, and dress, amongst many other categories. It’s written simply and includes suggestions for both the business and casual traveler.
Overall, for the $9.99 price tag, the app is a fair value, especially if you anticipate a good amount of interaction with locals. Other Dean Foster Culture Guides currently include: Japan, Dubai/UAE, Ireland, Turkey, Kenya, Italy, and Germany, and he is planning to release 40 more guides in the near future.
We caught up with Foster to learn more about his background, the biggest travel mistake to avoid, and the future of the Culture Guide apps.
Tech Cocktail: How long have you been an avid traveler? Tell us a bit about your background.
Dean Foster: Last count, I’ve traveled, lived, and/or worked in over 93 countries. I just got back from Shanghai a week or so ago, and in two weeks on to Stockholm. I have worked in most of these countries, as I travel mainly to locations that my clients need me to go to – usually on-the-ground teams of locals and expats who are having problems with mutual cultural misunderstandings. It becomes my job as the client’s “cultural guru” to go in and help them make sense of the cultural misunderstandings that both sides have of the other. I help them figure out the best practices for moving forward, leveraging the cultural strengths of each side to the goals of the team. Whew.
I know, I should work for the UN! Beyond the fun of this work (you should see the “a-ha” light bulbs come on when each culture begins to “understand” the others’ real intent and behavior), the international nature of the work gets me weekends – and sometimes weeks – to travel to places I only dreamed I would ever be able to visit. This started a long time ago: yes, I was one of those kids who would go home from school and instead of going outside to play ball with the gang, would hole up with maps of the world. By the time I was 9, I knew all the capitals of all the countries and had a collection of flags from around the world hanging on the walls of my room, where other kids had posters of baseball greats. Yeah, a real geo-geek.
TC: What’s the number one faux-pas Americans make when traveling abroad? Both an instance of the casual traveler as well as a business traveler.
Foster: Number ONE, for both, is traveling with the incorrect assumption that the people they will meet, deep down inside, will really be just like them. It’s the number one faux pas because Americans are constantly surprised that things are truly different when they step off the plane (“Wow, they really do speak French in France! Really!”), and, perhaps more importantly, constantly irritating the locals by insisting that they behave the way the Americans expect them to…whether in the café, the store, or the boardroom.
My #1 “tip” to counter this: STOP. Whatever you are inclined to do, pause first. Then ask yourself whether you know enough about the culture you’re in to be sure that what you are about to do or say will be understood as you mean it (it probably won’t be).
TC: If forced to pick one (yes I’m about to go there), what is your favorite country to travel to?
Foster: Easy! La France. Love it. Love the French. And it’s not just the food, the wine, the cute little Parisian streets. For me, it’s the whole thing, and the exquisitely refined aesthetic that infuses every aspect of daily life. This uniquely French insistence on living life with an turbo-charged aesthetic creates a level of living that is unmatched anywhere in the world. Except maybe Japan. Japan is to Asia as France is to the West.
TC: Are there any updates we should be looking forward to with new iterations of the Culture Guides?
Foster: Sure, we are constantly editing and updating all our cultural information, whether in our programs, my books, or our smartphone Culture Guide apps. Our plan is to roll out an initial total of 50 Culture Guide apps (that’s 50 countries), and then we’ll start re-visiting and updating the cultural information in the existing apps before moving on to the next 50 countries. The good news for us is that while travel info changes minute by minute (hotels and restaurants open and close all the time), cultural behaviors change more slowly, and while other travel guides may tell you where to go and what to do, our Culture Guides are the ONLY travel guides that tell you how to get along when you get there.