Cultural Awareness for Traveling the World

Perhaps this has happened to you. You arrive in a culture without having learned about certain beliefs and practices, and you do something really bad in the eyes of the people within that culture. Cultural awareness for traveling the world is essential for bridging the sometimes large gaps that occur when traveling to foreign places. In Thailand for example, you never want to touch a child’s head, for it is a part of the body deemed sacred. In other cultures, wearing short shorts, or revealing a lot of flesh is not only inappropriate, but insensitive to the beliefs and perceptions within cultures such as Malaysia, and Indonesia.  There have been studies to suggest that the cultural differences are not just perceptual or psychological, but also biological as in different brain patterns. Clara Moskowitz of writes:

It’s no secret culture influences your food preferences and taste in music. But now scientists say it impacts the hard-wiring of your brain….

Previous psychology research has shown that American culture focuses on the individual and values independence, while East Asian culture is more community-focused and emphasizes seeing people and objects in context. This study provides the first neurological evidence that these cultural differences extend to brain activity patterns.

Cultural awareness research is still in its infancy, but with new technologies emerging in the biotechnology world, cultural differences can be explored through a biological context. This is really fascinating, and illuminating, for it will help people all over the world begin to understand and perhaps value cultural differences. In a recent article, Debra Shapiro for the Washington Post writes:


According to professors P. Christopher Earley and Elaine Mosakowski in a 2004 Harvard Business Review article, it is essential for individuals to approach CQ from three aspects — head, body and heart.

Head — Be aware that behaviors and preferences are influenced by culture to prevent negative reactions to differences.

Body — Make sure your behaviors match or mimic those around you.

Heart — You have to have the desire to improve your cross-cultural skills. Seek out opportunities to interact with others who are different than you, even if you’ve committed culture gaffes in the past.

CQ stands for cultural intelligence. In an earlier part of her article, Shapiro defines what CQ is:

Typically, we experience differences with behavioral norms or values, such as the way we address others, how we dress, what we eat, holidays we observe or how we deal with conflict. But these differences could just be unique to individuals. They are “cultural” when they are common among a group that has shared experiences. Understanding when interpersonal differences are culturally guided (and not merely idiosyncratic) is one of the first attributes needed to show “cultural intelligence”—or more simply, “CQ.”

The Brain

Cultural awareness is important whether you travel the world or not. Awareness builds bridges between cultures that comes by way of understanding and the desire to know what differences  exist.  Cultural awareness for traveling the world is important to explore before you travel. Read Debra Shapiro’s article about improving cultural intelligence for business here.

You can also read Clara Moskowitz’s article about how cultural differences alter the brain’s hard wiring here.


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