Differences between countries are often greater than a simple distinction in language. America, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom are all English-speaking countries but it would only take a few moments for any wanderer to discover the critical cultural differences that lay between these nations. Each country is shaped by their history and this can include anything from religion, sports, politics and even the weather.
Hailing from the UK myself, I’m reminded of the comedian Bill Bailey, who stated that because 52% of British days are overcast we’re infused with “a sense of wistful melancholy”. By all accounts I think he’s right on the money! But I don’t want to write about my own culture (sorry Anglophiles!), instead I’d like to talk about elements of cultures that have been entirely foreign to me. Some have been extremely surprising but they’re all a part of why I love to travel.
The last time I went to Japan, I was sporting bright red locks. Very clearly dyed and akin to something you might see in a superhero film. In terms of alternative fashion, this is very tame in the UK (after all, you can still go to a job interview without raising many eyebrows) so I was shocked to find that many people in Japan seemed to be intensely staring at me. More than once I caught people pointing and, much to my surprise, someone stopped me in Kyoto to get a picture with me. It was very surreal and I couldn’t work out what was going on, all I know was that people kept pointing at my hair. The answer came when I wandered into a Japanese drug store. There was a huge section devoted to hair dye – all of which was black or brown. Staring at an entire aisle of black and dark brown hair dye reinforced to me that a) dying hair traditionally dark like the Japanese features all kinds of additional problems and b) presumably colourful hair is not accepted in the mainstream. I felt very lucky that my intense red locks had been so easy for me to purchase and create (local superstore without any pre-treatment). Worth remembering if you have extreme hair and want to travel to Japan!
I’ve already mentioned that English speaking nations have their own cultural distinctions but, as a traveller, I’ve found that the art of giving directions varies hugely. There’s a saying that goes: “A Briton thinks that 100 miles is a long way, an American thinks that 100 years is a long time” which reinforces the short distances a Brit usually needs to travel. England is a tiny island and is festooned with complicated roads that can get…. creative. This means that it takes us a relatively long time to travel comparably short distances when looking at America and Australia. A travel time of 3+ hours will make many Brits baulk unless it’s a long holiday but I met Australian’s who were happy to travel 4+ hours for a day trip.
The way this pronounces in giving directions is that each culture has a distinction for what they’d consider a “long way”. If you tell a Brit to “Drive a bit and turn left.” they will interpret that to mean the very next left. I learnt (to my detriment) that, in Australia, “Drive a bit and turn left” often meant driving for more than 10 minutes before coming upon the turn I needed. This meant I spent the whole time eagerly awaiting a sudden turn, not realising that 10 minutes is literally no distance at all in Oz (it’s the average length of a car journey in the UK). Get directions that include distances in miles wherever you can because vague terms like “in a bit”, “coming up” and “straight on for a while” can all be tricky creatures!
South Italy Loves To Hear You Try Their Language…. North Italy Not So Much
I love Italy and their language is one of the most rhythmic and fun to speak, in my opinion. As a teen I used to count from one to ten in Italian just to enjoy saying the words. In south Italy I would be praised for my clumsy attempt to order drinks and the praise would intensify as I attempted to apologise for my butchering of their language. I was excited when a trip to Verona gave me another opportunity to practise one of my favourite languages.
I was immediately shocked by the snobby interactions I soon encountered, especially with waiting staff. Feeling flushed and embarrassed, I quickly switched to English for fear of offending anyone but I soon found that this also produced the same reaction. Throughout Verona and Venice, it seemed as though my attempts at the language produced nothing but scorn. However the moment I stopped trying I think I was immediately written off as a lazy tourist. That said, I did discover later that I was pronouncing gnocchi as “guh-noh-chee”, which is just humiliating after the fact! No wonder I received some judgemental looks!
Iceland is Better With Nudity Than England
England is a place of contrast when it comes to nudity, we still have topless women in our newspaper but we are a distinctly reserved nation. Personal nakedness, even amongst your friends and family, is considered shocking, which is why I had problems during my first trip to Iceland. I was 14 years old, the height of the awkward teen phase, and in Iceland you must shower naked thoroughly before visiting their geothermal pools. I was stunned by the communal showers, just shower heads in a wall with no private cubicles. It may seem bizarre but I considered simply abandoning the swim rather than taking my clothes off and showering amongst a group of people who really didn’t care about my nakedness. After a few instances, I grew more accustomed to this showering method and even had a chance to see how irrational my fears had been. Towards the end of my trip I was showering after leaving the pool when a group of English teenagers arrived (presumably on a school trip). When they saw the showers they were almost hysterical, far beyond the call of not wanting to be naked around school friends. They were offended by the very concept of showering like this, with the righteous indignation that my country is famous for. I’m glad I was able to get over my fears, not all cultural lessons are worth retaining.
The United States has a global reputation when it comes to their relationship to food but it’s still shocking for a foreigner upon arriving in the country. Everything is overly sweet or salty, including items like bread (bread really shouldn’t taste that sweet!) and this means that you may feel the need to drink constantly.
Portion sizes are also a common issue for non-Americans, as the meal sizes can seem decadent at best and wasteful at worst. Enjoying a breakfast at Dennys (because I love pancakes) I happened to be sat next to an American family who ordered a huge meal between them. Milkshakes, icecream, pancakes, full breakfasts and side dishes. I didn’t think anything of it until I walked past their table to leave and saw that they’d left a third of everything. This was when I realised that American food focuses on the visual pleasure of seeing a full plate. It’s not necessary for you to eat it all, it’s for you to want to eat it all, the ultimate appeal to your eyes rather than your stomach. Eating in America has always been a real challenge for me and I’d advise any travellers to find a fresh food market and get as much fruit as possible to snack on throughout the day rather than giving in to the intense marketing you’ll see elsewhere. Also, never buy an adult ice cream because I guarantee you won’t be able to finish it!
But whilst there are many cultural differences that divide up nations, there are also similarities that you will find wherever you go. As any lost traveller knows, the kindness of locals willing to go to impressive lengths to get you to your destination is a constant no matter where you are. I particularly remember a Japanese woman who, upon realising that I simply couldn’t understand her directions, walked me for 15 minutes to the train station I was seeking. Her selflessness got a foolish tourist to her destination but also epitomised the people around the world who make travel easier. People who will laugh at language barriers and engage you in a fun game of conversation charades, those who will offer to help you before you can even work out how to ask in their language. No matter where you go, the kindness of strangers is beyond any distinct culture, it’s entirely human in nature.
This is a guest post by Kayleigh Herbertson, a blogger working from the UK with two dedicated blogs under her belt. Her random thoughts and travels live on her personal blog and she also enjoys reviewing literature at Articulate and Intricate.