As you get older, you’ll meet a wider range of people from diverse cultures – not just from around the world, but sometimes within your own town or country! If you haven’t met many people whose backgrounds are very different from yours, it can be hard to know how to respectfully engage with their culture. This guide offers some tips for learning more about them, and about yourself.
‘Culture’ is a complex idea. We often use the term to refer to things like food, holidays, clothing, music, and religion, but it also goes much deeper than that. Behaviours, customs, beliefs, and values are also part of your culture. So when we meet people from different backgrounds, we can sometimes find that there are big differences in how we see the world, even if we dress in a similar way or speak the same language.
Know your own culture
One of the best ways to understand other people’s cultures is to first examine your own. Most of us take our background for granted and don’t even realise that our customs and beliefs might seem strange to someone else. If you think of your own way of life as the default and everyone else’s as a strange variation, it’s hard to approach those differences with respect.
What are your beliefs about the world, and about how people should treat each other? Are any of them informed by your own culture and the way you were brought up? What behaviours define you, and would any of them seem odd or unusual to someone with a different culture?
For example: do you take your shoes off when you go inside? It’s a simple thing, but it’s a huge marker of culture! In Japan, you would never go inside without swapping your outdoor shoes for slippers, whereas in the United States, many people don’t bother taking their shoes off when they come in.
These aren’t always easy questions to answer, but stopping to think about them is so important to understanding your place in the world, which will help you understand other people better too.
Maybe you’ve recently met someone from a different culture, or you’re curious about how different people live. Here are some ways to learn more.
- Make friends. Get to know your friends’ families and see how their customs and traditions differ from yours. You might be surprised to find how culturally different two people living even in the same town can be!
- Talk to people. When you meet people from a different culture, ask them about their lives. But be polite about it and remember that they don’t owe you an answer, and might not want to give it – not everyone wants to explain everything about their culture, and if they’re a minority in the area, they might get asked the same questions a lot. Only ask if you have genuine interest in them as a person, not just as an example of their culture.
- Read. Seek out books by and about people who are different from you. Memoirs, biographies, and other non-fiction books are an obvious way to learn about the facts of a country or someone’s life, but also try to read novels that have been translated from other languages or written by people who might have a very different perspective on life in your own country.
- Watch movies. Like with books, you can watch documentaries and non-fiction series; check out other kinds of films, too. You get a more varied and nuanced perspective on a culture by seeing the kinds of fictional stories they tell.
- Listen to radio shows and podcasts. Radio and podcasts often feature people in more informal conversation, which is another great way to get an insider’s perspective on a different culture.
- Explore. Immersing yourself in a completely different culture through travel is an amazing way to understand how different other ways of life can be. But even if you don’t have the time or money to visit different countries, you can find pockets of other cultures in your hometown. Wherever you live, there are probably immigrant communities or neighbourhoods with their own cultural heritage.
The more you learn, the more accustomed you get to greeting cultural differences with curiosity rather than suspicion.
Sometimes, learning a lot about a different culture through books, movies, or even travel and friends can lead you into a different trap: stereotyping.
You may think you know a lot about a culture or place, and sometimes that can make it tempting to show off your knowledge when you meet someone from that background… but it’s a problem to assume that everyone from one particular culture has the same perspectives and experiences. These assumptions can be pretty small and harmless — for example, not every Jewish person was raised observing kosher dietary restrictions, and not every English person loves football — but they can also be harmful if your assumptions about someone’s traditions or beliefs lead you to pre-judge or discriminate against them.
These assumptions make people feel like you don’t see them as a human or an individual, just as a representative of an exotic culture. You’d be annoyed if someone thought they knew everything about you based on where you’re from or who your parents are, so don’t do it to other people, even if you think you understand their culture really well.
Appreciate the differences
Differences between us are what make life so interesting. So embrace the differences between yourself and your friends from different cultures, but remember that what might be a fascinating difference to you is just their normal life!
The best way to respect people from other cultures is to strike a balance between curiosity and appreciation: ask questions if your friends are open to it, but also learn how to just silently observe and appreciate the differences that make us unique.