The Importance of Intercultural Competence While Traveling

Women on Ski Lift

Travel is an enlightening and enjoyable pursuit. I have been privileged to travel for both business and pleasure. I lived in Newfoundland and Panama as a child. I lived in Germany and traveled to 17 countries for business and pleasure as an adult. Meeting and interacting with people from other countries can be fun and challenging. My early life and upbringing, and my subsequent adult experience taught me that attitude is the key element when traveling.  

I thank my parents for teaching me to travel with a positive attitude, to respect others and to travel with an open mind. I learned to enjoy the experience of learning new things, experiencing life beyond my local culture, and appreciating the differences between how I lived and how others lived.  

Something I hadn’t counted on during my time in the Army was meeting and interacting with people from other countries (Canada, Australia, South Africa, Egypt, Ghana) who were attending some of the classes I was taking. Most of my travel and interaction with non-Americans occurred before I ever consciously thought about cultural differences. I was always respectful of folks from countries outside the US, but I really didn’t think very deeply about the cultures that they came from. Prior to the 90s, we didn’t have access to information on the internet, and television was not as international and universal as it is today. What we learned was from encyclopedias or anecdotal.  It has been interesting to talk about intercultural competency with my daughter, Kira Lemons. I wish there had been more knowledge of this when I was doing the bulk of my travel.  

I attended a German class when first living there. I had a lot of fun and adventure as a result. I made the attempt to always learn a few key phrases in the predominant language of the country I was visiting. I ended up speaking German with an Italian on a ski lift in Austria. Because of my job, I dressed a little more formally than the typical tourist. I found that the majority of those I encountered appreciated my attempts, or at least were polite enough not to scowl at me. I picked up information about how things were done and cultural expectations, but never really put things into perspective. At one point, I chafed at restrictions placed on me because I was a woman. But I never considered that my way of thinking was the best way and that other countries were backward because they weren’t like the US. They were just different.  

I think sometimes about how the world has changed because of our increased interconnectedness. I wonder what effect this will have on our national cultures. I recently looked through some of the information provided on the Hofstede Insights website, and found it very interesting. The discussion of National Culture explained a lot of what I learned in my travels. I also found their ideas about Organizational Culture applied to the dozen or so different organizations from healthcare to the military to education that I worked in.  

Approach travel with a sense of adventure and enjoy the experience.  

Two articles I read that provide some insight to preparing yourself for international travel include How to Recover from a Cultural Faux Pas. This article recommends “. . . make a habit of observing how people in the culture behave . . .” which is good advice but a little hard for those of us who are introverts and were taught not to stare at people. You just have to make yourself do it. And Important Cultural Things to Learn About A Country Before Visiting has good references about where to find information on the countries you will visit. 

Another good article related to the concept of interconnectedness reminds us that we need to be intentional about learning how people from other cultures think: Lurie: Cultural Disconnects Complicate Global Interactions.

Image Library: Lora’s Travels

Great Wall

Holy Loch Dunoon

Street in Turkey

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Lora Lemons
Lora Lemons
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Lora Lemons (BA Sacramento State University, MEd George Washington University) is a retired Army officer (Transportation Corps) who has lived in four countries and visited 19 countries for business and pleasure. She has taught and tutored mathematics and served her community as a Library Desk Assistant and computer teacher. She lives on the Northern Neck of Virginia with her husband of 38 years and has two daughters. She is two states shy of visiting all 50 states.

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