Idiots Abroad: Lessons on Culture

Had Mark Twain encountered me in Europe as he wrote his 1869 travel chronicles Innocents Abroad, he might have called his book Idiots Abroad.

Upon learning that llamas actually spit
Upon learning that llamas actually spit

I don’t wish to play the victim-card here, but growing up in America isn’t always an advantage, especially when it comes to learning multiple languages. I learned only one: English, and by English, of course, I mean American. Imagine my surprise to find that the Germans, French, and Italians have languages that are completely incomprehensible to me, almost like they didn’t want me to know what they were talking about.

The stress of trying to do simple things during a recent work and pleasure trip to Europe—like ordering off a menu—would have driven me to drink had I not found it so difficult to drive over there.

Our hamster-powered auto
Our hamster-powered auto

Crossing from France into Germany, I had the scare of my life when I looked down at my speedometer and realized that I was driving 130 kilograms per hour. I didn’t even know that speed had weight. More than once I went the wrong way on a one-way street, because, I swear, the arrows were in a different language. A few times I drove on a pedestrian-only street (a.k.a., sidewalk). One time I got in the wrong lane and ended up in a tunnel that spit us out in downtown Marseilles in a taxi and bus-only lane where I had to zig and zag my gnat-sized car between city buses while half-expecting a tourist to hop in the car and ask to be taken to the airport.

The GPS proved to be of little use as a navigation tool, because I couldn’t get used to her prim and proper British voice saying things like, “At the roundabout, take the 4th right.” I burst into a stunning rendition of that old Yes song while whipping around in circles for so long that my wife turned green.

It fascinated me to see how different cultures behave behind the wheels of their own automobiles. When I nearly collided with another car in France, instead of mouthing “vacuum” or reaching for a crowbar, the driver shrugged in indifference. German drivers purse their lips slightly when upset. And I never saw a brake light in Italy. Italians tend to speed their way around potential accidents instead of slowing to avoid them.

The French seem to worship dogs much like the Egyptians worshiped cats. Dogs freely enter shops and restaurants with their owners. While eating in one particular cafe, I found myself under the gaze of a lap dog wearing the intense look of a Jedi trying to levitate my croissant off the plate. The Germans show their love of dogs by making sure that they leave the places where their pups relieve themselves actually clearer for them having defecated.

But you don’t have to visit another country to experience another culture. Look around your neighborhood, your office, or even your kitchen table. Aren’t you frequently surrounded with people from different generations or parts of the country (or world) whose cultures seem to you like the cantina scene in Star Wars?

Whether you’re on foreign soil or in a meeting with people from diverse cultures, here are some tips to avoid looking like an idiot:

1. Learn Names.

My name is Scott, rhymes with cot. Pronounce Scott so it sounds like scoot or rhymes with coat, and I won’t even know you’re talking to me. Not every person enjoys a shortened or sounds-like nickname. Growing up, my Japanese friend with the last name of Hashimoto did not like to be called Hashi. That nickname made him feel degraded as a proud Japanese-American.

In France, I took special note that names like Franck, Philippe, and Harald aren’t spoken with the English pronunciation that is familiar to me. By taking the time to listen to how they called themselves and practicing to get their names right, I avoided embarrassment to them and me. Years ago Dale Carnegie wrote, “Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”

2. Attempt Communication.

One of my new friends in Rome
One of my new friends in Rome

I can’t say that I learned how to speak fluently with shop owners in their

native tongues, but I did learn to say basic things like coffee, bread, coffee, cheese, milk, coffee, etc. And I learned how to ask, “Do you speak English?” in several languages! Besides that, I conveyed my desire to communicate through my eyes, smile, and the few words of salutation I knew like Bonjour, Buongiorno, and Guten Morgen. In all my time abroad, I had only one shop owner rebuff my attempts at communicating. The majority of people engaged with me and became friends, and I took photos with several of them.

This approach works equally well with cultural differences at work, too. I recently found myself talking with an extremely extroverted millennial. As a seasoned (i.e., old) introvert, my first reaction was to back away a little and fake an injury to escape. Not really, but you get the point. Instead of shutting down because of any perceived cultural differences, I smiled and kept good eye contact. I listened to track along with the entire conversation. When I didn’t understand an acronym used, I didn’t bluff with an insincere nod of bogus understanding. I asked him to explain. And I found that by the end of the conversation, he felt like a colleague and a member of the same tribe instead of an outsider.

3. Lose Stereotypes.

One of my professors, a graduate of the venerated Sorbonne in Paris, told me 20+ years ago that many French nationals come across as cold to outsiders. I entered the country half expecting a chilly reception. Nothing could be further from the truth. If that stereotype held any merit in the past, it’s completely false today. In all of my travels, the people of South Dakota and the people of France are the friendliest folks I’ve encountered!

Someone told me that Europeans drive like maniacs. Their roads and lanes are much narrower than ours in the U.S., so driving takes much more precision than it does in our culture where we have a phone in one hand, an egg McMuffin in the other, and we direct the steering wheel with a knee. You ever try to parallel park a stick-shift on a steep hill with clearance from the other cars of only 6 inches (which is roughly a 6 kilograms, I think)? Maniacs can’t do that.

While people of one culture share some general traits, refuse to oversimplify people by painting them all with the same broad brush. Doing so causes you form a fixed perspective that lacks understanding and dimension.

Wondering if the pork is fresh...
Wondering just so very many things…

4. Push Yourself.

A friend of ours suggested that we try this special type of cheese found only in the Alsace region in northeastern France. Armed with that knowledge, my wife ordered pork that came liberally doused in a special cheese sauce. When the server brought us our food, the odor was so pronounced that I believed our waiter had been replaced by Goat Boy. Honestly, I could hardly suppress my gag reflex the entire time that plate stayed on our table. But do you know what? That meal was a highlight of the trip. Had my wife ordered a ham sandwich on rye, the meal would not have been memorable or an experience to share with others.

When was the last time you ate lunch at work with people you didn’t know well? When was the last time you left your comfort zone to reach out to people from different departments, backgrounds, or cultures as a way of having a new experience? Every friend you have today was at one time an absolute stranger. What changed is that somewhere along the way you pushed yourself to get to know that person.

I can’t wait to return to Europe, this next time as merely ignorant instead of an outright idiot. If you find yourself traveling abroad or just across your office building today, ask this:

How can I challenge myself today through a new experience—to appreciate something I might have simply written off in the past as foreign?

One Comment Add yours

  1. Mayra Rexroade says:

    Hi Scott, so glad to see your blog again!
    As always, I enjoyed it very much. Spot on…

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