Cultural competence is more or less defined as the ability to respectfully coexist with people who come from different backgrounds. This is a term you’ll hear bandied about in a lot of corporate and organizational diversity trainings, but if you like to travel, appreciate other cultures or simply exist as a positive force in society, this is a skill well worth cultivating.
In this sense, cultural competence isn’t merely the ability to superficially get along with someone (or put in the minimum required effort to avoid an HR complaint). It’s about learning to operate from a place of empathy, as well as a genuine desire to understand. It’s also about learning to appreciate other cultures in a way that doesn’t inadvertently do more hurting than helping.
Here are six ways to be a better tourist, language learner and citizen of the world.
Do Your Research Before You Go
Before you pack your bags, set aside a little bit of time for research. This should include fun stuff like all the restaurants, museums and attractions you’d like to visit, as well as the local history and cultural norms.
Even if you only read the cliffs notes version of the national history, you’ll still walk away with enough perspective to better appreciate what you see and learn on your adventures, as well as to hopefully avoid any cringe-y gaffes (like striking yoga poses at Auschwitz).
And if you’re visiting a place where it’s polite to, say, address someone in a specific way or cover your shoulders in places of worship, then that’s a small detail that’ll go a long way toward communicating your respect, even if you don’t really know the language. Which brings us to our second point…
Learn The Language
It’s probably not feasible for most people to become fluent in a new language every time they travel to a new country, but there’s a lot to be said for making a small effort to learn basic phrases.
If you’re an English speaker, then you have a fairly unique advantage in that you’re likely to be understood or accommodated in many countries around the world. But if you’re the kind of English speaker who cares about cultural competence, you’ll probably walk into each trip with a minimum knowledge of how to say hello, how to say please and thank you, how to excuse yourself and how to ask if someone speaks English (as a more polite segue into communicating more efficiently).
However, if you’d like to be slightly more conversational than that, then it’s actually not far-fetched at all that you could study for 15 minutes per day for at least three weeks leading up to your trip and be able to hold a basic conversation with someone. Our app is designed to make this possible.
Be Mindful Of How You Show Appreciation For Other Cultures
It’s not that it isn’t meaningful to mean well, but you know what they say about good intentions. Sometimes they just don’t go very far.
You might genuinely love the henna tattoos you saw on your trip to India, but getting your own hands decorated with a mehndi design at a henna booth designed for tourists might not necessarily be the most astute way to show your appreciation. These symbolic, historical designs have a deep meaning and history within Hindu and Muslim traditions, and they’re not just designed to look pretty.
Without an understanding of what they symbolize, treating cultural garments or artifacts as fashion items places them deeply out of context and cheapens their significance. Additionally — and this especially goes for things you buy at souvenir shops — there’s a good chance that you’re not financially supporting or giving credit to the people who belong to the culture in question, but instead giving money to large companies who are exploiting cultures for profit.
If you’re interested in purchasing souvenirs mindfully, visit locally owned shops and learn about their offerings, finding out where they come from and what they mean to the people there.
Be Mindful Of Where Your Money Goes
This goes hand-in-hand with another important point, which is that we’re always voting with our dollars (or euros, or yen, or pesos).
Part of practicing cultural competence as a tourist involves being super intentional about what you spend money on. This goes for avoiding cheap, mass-produced souvenirs in favor of authentic, artisan-made ones. It goes for not supporting exploitative industries that cater to tourists. And it also goes for avoiding cultural attractions that harm the people or animals involved, such as elephant riding in Thailand, bullfighting in Spain or anything in Long Neck Village.
Make Friends With People From Different Backgrounds
One of the best ways to boost your cultural competence is to make sure you’re always being exposed to different viewpoints and ways of life, even when you’re not on the road.
The connections you make while traveling can stick with you for a lifetime, but nothing compares to having real friendships with people who grew up differently than you did. Actually knowing a person from Germany is one of the best ways to have a window into what it means to be German, versus a cheap stereotype you picked up along the way.
This doesn’t always have to mean being friends with people from other countries either. It can also mean being friends with people of different ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, religious backgrounds and sexual orientations.
Above all else, one of the most important things you can do is simply be open. You don’t know what you don’t know, as they say, and nobody is born with perfect multicultural awareness. But nobody gets there by being close-minded, either.
When you find yourself in unfamiliar territory, practice being receptive. This could be listening more than you talk, or asking more questions and making fewer statements. It could also simply be a willingness to take in what you see, hear and experience without any form of immediate judgment on your part.
Cultural competence doesn’t always have to look like knowing everything there is to know about the world. But you’ll seem a lot more conscientious when you acknowledge how much you have yet to learn.