Cultural Differences

Photo by Providence Doucet on Unsplash

It is late in the evening. Eight hours or so before the ball of energy, a.k.a. my three-year-old son Luke, wakes up. I do not have the privilege to decide on my wake-up time anymore. Going to sleep starts to seem like a pretty good idea. I ask my South-African-born husband Brian if he is going to bed as well. He answers “I will come just now”. I go to bed. An hour later he has still not come to bed. This happens over and over again. It is so frustrating to me. Why is he lying to me? He could just say that he wants to stay up late. One day he shows me a video about South Africa. A woman explains the difference between just now, now-now and right now. It turns out just now means any time after now. Literally any time. Could even be three months later.


Cultural differences can lead to misunderstandings. How often do you say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ by just nodding or shaking your head? We actually do it more often than we think. In my opinion, it has something to do with the fact that kids first learn to use gestures and then learn to speak. The fact that in most countries a nod means ‘Yes’ and in Bulgaria it means ‘No’ can definitely lead to misunderstandings. My husband Brian lived in Bulgaria for six months. His first Bulgarian phrase learned was “Govorish li angliiski?”. He would ask shop attendants if they spoke English and they would nod enthusiastically and say “Ne”. This left my husband confused and somewhat frustrated as he could not tell if the person he has asked could or could not speak English. The bottom line is, do not rely on gestures alone. Gestures might mean something completely different to a foreigner.


Cultural differences can be really peculiar. I spent a couple of years in Denmark. I can talk for hours about the peculiarities of the Danes. One thing that stands out vividly in my mind is how you can find unattended prams with young babies in them standing outside homes in the middle of winter. The parents warm and happy inside their homes, while their beloved daughter or son is napping in front of the building. You might find it weird but for them, it is completely normal. They even believe that this is what people do everywhere. After all fresh air helps you sleep better. I tried it with my son, it did not work. Apparently, it only works if you are a Danish child. The bottom line is people find it difficult to say what is peculiar about their own culture. What they do is quite normal amongst them.


Cultural differences make the world an interesting place. Imagine if everywhere you went everything was identical, people had the same traditions, or ate the same food. I know there are people who could eat the same food every single day. But what is the point in traveling if you expect to find the things you have at home? Let’s take rice, for example. Something as simple as rice can be prepared in various ways. Think about the creamy Italian risotto, or the taste of the nourishing and vibrant seaside Spanish paella, or the explosion of flavors in the Indian biryani, or the ultimate comfort food – the Korean bibimbap, which literally means mixed rice. Same same but different. The bottom line is cultural differences bring variety and make our world more diverse and interesting.  


Cultural differences are a tangible reality. We live in a world where intercultural awareness becomes more and more important. We travel more as traveling has become affordable in recent years. There is lots of migration due to different economic, political, and lifestyle reasons. In some places, it is quite normal to work with people from different countries. Take my team, for example. I work at a team of around 20-30 people. We have people from over ten different nationalities. Ultimately, it is your choice whether you find cultural differences a pain or frustrating or you find them interesting. I personally find them fascinating.