Understanding culture matters everywhere. It matters in an organization. It matters in a sports team. It matters when you travel. It matters in your country. It matters in other countries. Understanding culture at destinations you travel to, particularly in a professional capacity, enables you to better understand local activity, body language, behaviors typical to the local population and ethnicities, social cues and etiquette, underlying meanings, the importance of what is and isn’t being said or done, business conduct; and many other things.
If you can open the door to understanding culture, then your ability to achieve big results on your professional travel increase by a decent margin.
And why wouldn’t you want every advantage, right?
Why understand culture?
Understanding culture when traveling for leisure is a smart and respectful move, allowing you to enjoy the culture you’re in and be a respectful guest in someone else’s country. However, when you’re traveling in a professional capacity, then not only is it smart and respectful, it is what opens doors for you, and who are opening those doors? People. Understanding culture is about understanding the people, their traditions, behaviors, what is important to them, what it is that they like and dislike, their world views, their food, the way they gather and conduct themselves in social situations, the way they prefer to conduct business; it is understanding what makes the people tick and what moves their country forward daily.
In the world of military intelligence, we are taught to understand culture, not just those cultures of other countries, but the cultures of our own country, the cultures of our own organizations and the culture of the people that make up any gathering of people that we may interact with. Why? Because it helps to build relationships, gauge responses, understand meanings, ask the right questions, predict actions and reactions; and the list goes on.
We strive to understand culture wherever we encounter it, because it provides a competitive edge; especially if building relationships is critical to your endeavors.
How can that benefit me?
In its simplest sense, understanding culture can benefit you in two primary capacities: improve your interaction with people and improve your situational awareness of the environment/s you’re about to step into.
From a people perspective, understanding the culture of the destination you are visiting is what will form the foundation of how you build relationships. But why? Can’t you just be a nice person? Sure! That goes without saying. However, being a nice person and not understanding the culture of someone can portray an aspect of ignorance on your part. It will lend to the perception that you understand common courtesy and pleasantries, but you care little (and you might well care, but never thought to learn a little) for what makes people in that city/country/region tick. Am I saying read every history book about the country and become fluent in their language? Well that’s up to you, however learning a little can get you a long way. It shows that you’ve taken the time to learn, observe and understand. It shows you are interested in the people and way of life of the country. It shows that you are forthcoming with learning customs and social conduct. The other side to this is that you will understand what the sensitive issues are in that city/country/region, and let you steer clear of them if it is socially unacceptable or rude to discuss or conduct activity based around those issues. This will smooth your path to forming meaningful relationships, particularly in a professional capacity.
From a situational awareness perspective, understanding culture will help you attune your senses to the environment by giving you some background knowledge on how day-to-day activity is conducted. Learning about the social norms of a country will allow you to make better sense of what it is that you are observing around you. Activities that might look out of place where you’re from might just be a daily norm for where you are going, but when you understand what it is that you’re seeing, you’re likely to reduce the chance of any nasty surprises. Situational awareness is key when you travel anywhere (see: https://www.deciport.com/single-post/2019/02/07/Situational-awareness-in-a-new-environment). Whatever the situation, you’ll be able to navigate easier if you have a bit of understanding!
Doing your homework
As I said above, whether you read the history books and get fluent in the language is up to you. But how else can you bring yourself up to speed if that isn’t really your thing? One of the absolute best ways to learn about your destination is by speaking to someone from there! Sounds obvious, however the benefits can outweigh limiting yourself to just looking on the internet. Talking to someone from the destination will allow you to efficiently learn, ask questions and if they are a local, get as close to a ground truth as you can without having been there (be warned though, if they haven’t been back for a while, then take on board what they say, but be aware that things change over time; and you want the up-to-date stuff too!). Put your destination name into your favorite search engine and get digging! A little bit of time now to understand a bit about the culture of where you’re going will go a long way.
Being respectful vs. appropriating culture
Knowing what you’re looking at and what is occurring is a good thing. Throwing on traditional dress may or may not be a good thing. That’s up to you to find out. Many countries have cultural aspects that are sacred to the people of those countries, and not understanding this about a country is a sure-fire way to get you into some trouble. Learn what is acceptable and what isn’t before you arrive, that way you’ll get yourself off to a good start.
So, there you have it! Understanding a bit about the culture of the destination you are traveling to is a fantastic way to set your trip up for success. It will build a great foundation for you to form strong relationships based on respect and courtesy, and enable your situational awareness that much more by allowing you to identify the social activity around you.
Deciport LLC conducts full Risk and Threat Assessment reports, as well as Live Travel Security Consultation sessions, for anyone traveling either in a professional or leisurely capacity to anywhere in the world, and we cover culture of your intended destination as a critical element of all our consulting and report products.
If you’re looking to travel for professional purposes, to heed your calling, to make a difference in someone’s life, to make people’s stories heard, whatever the reason, if you’re wanting to travel and require Travel Security and Intelligence Support; email me for a free consultation at:
To get you started on how to understand the situation at any destination, I have a pocket guide that you can download FREE, and it uses intelligence and security processes to be as efficient as possible when it comes to getting your head around a situation anywhere in the world. Not only that, it contains some very handy travel hints and tips! Click here for your free copy now!
About the author
Marcus is the founder and director of Deciport LLC, a security and intelligence consultation agency for traveling professionals. Marcus’ recent experience includes diplomatic security in Baghdad, Iraq, as a Project Intelligence Officer contracted to the Australian Embassy. Marcus is a former military intelligence operator with the NZ Army and NZ Special Operations. Find Marcus on LinkedIn at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/marcusaupuni/