Paulo Coelho is right on the money when it comes to the importance of understanding other cultures:
“Culture makes people understand each other better. And if they understand each other better in their soul, it is easier to overcome the economic and political barriers.”
A lot of people would love nothing more than to explore different cultures.
However, we often treat all cultural experiences as similar or equivalent. In reality, there are huge differences between them. As someone who has lived in different cultures without her family from the age of 15 on, I have a few thoughts on that.
In my experience, understanding another culture fully requires immersion. It's nothing you can do from the outside or from within your own culture.
For instance, if you truly want to understand German culture (such as our strong need for privacy), it's not enough to just read some books or talk to a German friend (such as yours truly) about it. Instead, you will have to spend some time in Germany and immerse yourself in the experience.
People also often assume that tourism is their only option for exploring another culture. This is simply not true. Below, I will detail non-touristy ways in which I have explored 7 different cultures.
I will also describe how difficult it was to organize these and compare their relative costs (you will be amazed about how cheap some of these were!).
If you think you’re too old for the options I mention, make sure you check out my section at the end of this article where I discuss alternatives.
One option I have not included in this list is the option of becoming a digital nomad. While I'm technically location independent and have enjoyed running my business from different countries, I don't think this really helps with understanding other cultures as much as the other options on my list. I also think location independence is somewhat overrated.
However, having a virtual business is still great for many other reasons and if you want help with that, check out my course on how to start your passion business.
One caveat about these ways of understanding other cultures better
Before we get started, I want to get one thing out of the way: my adventures have been helped by a few things, most notably my amazing parents, my socioeconomic background, as well as European/German culture which is extremely supportive of cross-cultural exchanges.
Some of what I mention are things I couldn’t have done without those specific privileges that you might not share. At the same time, I want to reassure you that I know people who grew up under very different circumstances who've been able to have similar experiences.
The reality is that we almost always have more options available to us than we think we do. If you really want to do something, it helps to change the question: "Can I do this?" to "How can I make this happen?"
For instance, as we go through the list, you might see that some of the options I mentioned hardly cost anything (all you have to do is be proactive about making it happen).
By sharing some of the options I’ve tried out, I want to help you get a sense of which ones might work for your unique situation.
7 options for understanding other cultures better (tested by yours truly!)
Alright, let’s jump right in. I will be running through these experiences in a chronological order.
And, because a huge part of cultural experiences is making fun of your own and the other culture, I will include some quotes or comments that might come across as sassy. No disrespect intended.
1. Self-organized student exchange (1 month, England)
“If you want to eat well in England, eat three breakfasts.” — W. Somerset Maugham
When I was 15, I spent a month in an English school. My parents and I organized this privately, by asking English friends of theirs if I could stay with them and getting permission from my German school and the school in England for the exchange.
Attending school for a month was enough to get a sense of what it’s like to be a student in England but not long enough to really become a part of the local culture.
From what I recall, it wasn’t that difficult to organize this. Since I only missed German school for a month, it was relatively easy to get back into the rhythm. Because I was staying with friends of my family and didn’t have to pay for the school, it also was a really inexpensive experience.
I did have to buy an English school uniform and learn how to tie a tie which of course was part of the fun and the cultural experience.
→ What I took away from my time in England is that tea time is awesome and that an English accent has the magical power of making everything sound more intelligent than it really is.
2. Rotary-organized student exchange (1 year, Canada)
“The Canadian military is like Switzerland’s. Without the knife.” — John Wing
At the age of 16, I spend a full year abroad — like about 1/3 of my class…because apparently going on an exchange year is a quintessential German experience.
This exchange was organized by Rotary which meant that in exchange for them sending me abroad, my parents also had to host foreign students at their house.
As a result of that reciprocity, it was much less expensive than a commercial student exchange.
Spending a year abroad while attending school was absolutely amazing.
I fell in love with Canada (to this day, I can sing the Canadian anthem) and got a really good insight into the culture of my host country. Not only that, but I also ended up with two high school diplomas (one Canadian, one German).
→ What I took away from my time in Canada is that ice hockey is the coolest sport ever (pun intended), that snow shoveling is a real workout, and that you should apologize when someone steps on your toe (it took me years to break that particular habit!).
3. Language school (3 weeks, France)... this is less about understanding other cultures and more about improving languages
“How can anyone govern a nation that has 240 different kinds of cheese?” — Charles de Gaulle
When I was 18, I spend 3 weeks enrolled in a language course in France. Overall, it was a really good experience.
I remember enjoying the beautiful scenery, making friends with people from the language school and exploring the nightlife (hey, this is Europe with a low drinking age, after all).
Due to the combination of language classes and actual immersion, my language skills improved rather rapidly to the point where I found myself reading novels in French during my stay.
Being a language student was a very different experience than being an exchange student in that I didn’t feel like a part of the local community. Staying with a local family helped a bit but ultimately, it was clear to me that I was just visiting the country, not becoming a part of it like I had as an exchange student.
Being a language student also was different than being a tourist. Unlike a regular tourist, I had a schedule and and a structure to fit into. There was a place where I was expected to be each morning. The emphasis wasn’t on sightseeing, it was on learning about the culture and the language.
From what I remember, organizing a language school stay required less time and energy than a student exchange. I assume that is because the language school was run as a business, not as something more akin to volunteer work.
As a result of that, it also was more expensive when compared to a student exchange. In terms of improving my language skills, I got much more out of a few weeks stay than I would have as a simple exchange student.
→ What I took away from my time in France is that dipping croissants in café au lait is a perfectly acceptable breakfast. I neither drink coffee nor cow milk anymore but perhaps I will find a substitute one day.
4. Internship (1 month, Belgium)
“Every car in Brussels has a built-in parking spot” — my driver while stopping the car in the middle of the road and pushing the hazard light button
At age 19, I spend a summer month as an intern in Brussels.
I lived in a shared flat that I had found based on someone’s recommendation while still in Germany.
I’m not sure if this was just due to the fact that I lived in Europe’s de facto capital where pretty much everyone does something that relates to the EU in one way or another…but while I really enjoyed my time there and my internship, I didn’t really feel like I became immersed in the local culture.
The only costs associated with my internship were housing and my trip to get there so it was fairly affordable.
→ What I took away from my time in Brussels is that interns can save a lot of money by dressing up, weaseling their way into exclusive evening events, and partaking of the buffet. (I kid you not, I’m pretty sure that was a favorite pastime of interns in Brussels back then.)
5. University student exchange (1 year, Spain)
“For one person who likes Spain there are a dozen who prefer books on her.” — Ernest Hemingway
During my law studies, I spend a year abroad in Spain.
It felt less immersive than attending a high school, in part because going to university meant I had more freedom and in part because I wasn’t living with a local family but with a Spanish flat mate.
This was a pretty cheap exchange: I didn’t have to pay to attend Spanish university and received a small stipend through the ERASMUS-program which allows European to study in another European country.
(However, I was a bit annoyed to find out that while German students, like me, only received ~ 70 Euro/month at the time, my Greek friend got about 10 times that amount through the program. Something something…supply and demand.)
→ What I took away from my time in Spain is that 2 am is a perfectly acceptable time to start cooking dinner or go to a club, that extreme heat in the summer turns people into vampires who only go out at night…and that you’re never too busy to take a siesta.
6. Working abroad (3 month, Vietnam)
“A country that has been through as much as Vietnam has to have some crazy music somewhere.” — Henry Rollins
A few years ago, I spend 3 months working in an American law firm in Vietnam.
It was one of my best and more transformational experiences in a while. Vietnam is an incredible and culturally interesting place.
Because I spend a lot of time around my Vietnamese colleagues, I felt quite immersed into Vietnamese society.
In terms of expenses, my main extra costs were a visa, all sorts of random vaccinations, and the flight. Since I would have to pay for housing even back in Germany, this form of exploring a different culture was pretty inexpensive, despite eating out most days.
→ What I took away from my time in Vietnam is that you can always fit one more person on a scooter (although you probably shouldn’t) and that vegan Pho is the world’s best comfort food.
7. Cross-cultural marriage and immigration (4 years and counting, USA)... this goes way beyond understanding other cultures
“If our Founding Fathers wanted us to care about the rest of the world, they wouldn’t have declared their independence from it.” — Stephen Colbert
Obviously, marrying someone from another culture is the most culturally immersive thing you can do. It’s also the only thing on this list that you can’t plan so I’m only including it in this list for the sake of comparison and completeness.
When you marry someone from another culture (whether or not you move to their country), you will be irrevocably changed.
Congratulations, and, erm, condolences!
Blending cultures via marriage is both a beautiful and an extremely challenging thing.
It will make you question your assumptions, turn your world upside down and have you ponder difficult questions about the nature of “home.”
Like any good European, my husband is now learning a third language, while I find myself asking the heretical question if German parents really need one full year of paid parental leave.
Needless to say, these are changes you won’t get from just spending a few months in one place.
Costs: which one is the most affordable option for you?
If we consider the costs of option 1–6 relative to the amount of time spent in the country, attending a language school is the most expensive thing you could do.
Unlike commercial high school student exchanges, self-organized ones with family friends as well as Rotary-organized student exchanges typically don’t result in extra living expenses and thus are a great option.
The same goes for internships, university student exchanges, and working in another country. You would presumably have living expenses anyway (regardless of where you live), so why not do an internship or work in a different country instead?
Takeaways from my experiences for your own cultural adventures
Of course, not all of these ways of exploring another culture may be feasible in your situation.
However, if you are interested in understanding other cultures, I want you to be aware of the many ways you can go about exploring a foreign place.
Becoming a tourist really doesn’t have to be your only option! In many cases, it’s not even the best or most appropriate option for your goals.
When deciding what you would like to do, keep in mind that not all cultural experiences are created equally.
While the time spent abroad is a really important indicator of how much you can learn about your host country, the type of experience you choose also has a huge impact on what you get out of it.
For instance, you simply won’t get the same depth of experience from attending a language school as you will from some of the other options I mentioned.
Ask yourself what you really want when it comes to understanding other cultures
If you want to go deep into other cultures, find a way to participate in everyday life.
In my experience, the most immersive option out of 1–6 is to do a high school student exchange where you actually live with a family. The second-most immersive option is to work or study in a foreign country.
The best approach for you depends on a number of factors, including how much money you want to spend, how important it is for you to improve your language skills, and how much time you have at your disposal.
Get clear on what you really want and then research how you can make it happen. The ways I described above are just some of the options available to you.
Additional options for understanding other cultures
There are other possibilities for understanding other cultures better that I haven’t included in my list above because I don’t have personal experience with them. For instance, I can think of international fellowships and volunteer programs that people I know participated in.
After having finished university, a lot of people I know have also gotten a graduate degree in another country. For instance, in the legal field in Germany, many people get an LL.M. abroad after they finish law school. This not only enables them to learn about another legal system, it also improves their technical language skills.
International companies may also offer opportunities to spend some time abroad. Again, I’ve spoken to a few attorneys who do a Secondment in another branch of an international law firm.
How can you explore another culture when you’re not a student anymore?
In some ways it may seem that the variety of ways one can explore a culture decreases as one gets older. For instance, participating in a high school student exchange is simply out of the question after a certain point.
However, often other options open up as people progress on their life and career path.
The lawyers I know who do a Secondment (temporary transfer to another position) in another country typically have to wait a few years before they can do this. Similarly, a friend who’s working abroad as a doctor had to finish his studies and get some work experience before getting this opportunity.
I’m also aware of a woman who, despite having retired from a very well-paying job, seriously considers an internship in a hotel in another country. While she doesn’t need the money, she’s interested in what she could take away from the whole experience.
My point here is that you have more options than you realize and that it’s never too late to explore another culture.
Wishing you all the best on your journey, wherever it may take you!
What's our favorite way of understanding other cultures better? Please leave me comment below!
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