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Can Embracing Cultural Differences Make You a Better Person?

After 13 years living overseas, we sometimes forget to acknowledge these differences... these cultural anomalies that make up our national identities.
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What makes us want to travel and explore the world's exotic locales? The cultural differences we encounter, of course.

Being able to understand our fellow humans from the intimate standpoint of where they come from and what they believe -- and where those beliefs come from in the first place -- that's what travel is all about.

Photo: Steenie Harvey,

After 13 years living overseas, we sometimes forget to acknowledge these differences... these cultural anomalies that make up our national identities. Because the truth is that for the most part, despite where we live or what our religious beliefs or the color of our skin or the language we speak, we humans are much the same.

We all want to be comfortable... to have a safe place to sleep and food on the table. We all want our children to be happy and healthy and to have better opportunities than we had.

Still, cultural differences do exist. And for our expat experience to be successful, it's important to acknowledge and understand them.

Sure, some things are apparent. In indigenous communities, a particular style of dress identifies its members. We recognize certain types of music and cuisine as coming from specific parts of the world.

But there are many customs that are "below the surface," values and behaviors we can't necessarily see, but that distinguish us as much as the clothes we wear or the food on our holiday tables.

These include our attitudes toward social status, our notions of modesty, gender roles, approaches to problem solving, views on raising children or treating animals, and much more.

And as expats we need to understand that "different" isn't wrong... it's just, well... different.

For instance, living in Latin America, here are some of the biggest differences we've noticed:

They know more about our customs than we know about theirs. The people we've met in Latin America usually know more about our culture, customs and holidays than we know about theirs. That's probably because of our pervasive pop culture. Through Hollywood movies and television shows, our customs are well known. But beyond a few exceptions, we don't know much about their customs and holidays.

In general, they tend to be more outgoing than we are. They're very curious about us and don't really understand why we would leave our comfortable lives behind and move to a foreign country. Even when you explain that the weather is better, the cost of living is lower and the health care is more affordable, you see the puzzlement on their faces. They ask lots of questions, sometimes very personal.

Our priorities are different. And again, we're generalizing here. But in the U.S. and Canada, our work defines us. It matters to us. A lot. Work, family, community, church. That's the way things tend to skew on the "life priority scale." In Latin America, though, family always comes first, followed by church, community and then work. Work is the least important thing.

In Latin America, children and the elderly tend to be the most respected and well-treated segments of society. While children certainly receive a great deal of attention in North America, too, the older segment of our population is often marginalized. But in Latin America, families take care of their older relatives in their homes. The experience of age is valued. Assisted living centers and nursing homes aren't nearly as common as they are in the U.S. and Canada. Banks and government offices have special lines for older people to get priority service.

Our values aren't the same. Even though our belief in the "system" or the American dream has been shaken in recent years, we still generally believe that our country is the best in the world and because of that, everything will be more-or-less OK. Not so in Latin America, where government policies really aren't to be trusted. Instead, there is an abundant, almost fatalistic faith in God. "If God wills it, so be it."

The concept of personal space is not what we're used to. If 10 people stand in a line in the U.S., you can bet they've got a good distance between them. In Latin America, though, they'll queue right up next to you, elbow-to-elbow, hot breath on your neck. They like the feeling of being close to other people.

They tend to be more touchy-feely
. Along this same line, in Latin America you learn to greet those you know with a hug instead of a handshake. Women always receive a kiss on the cheek. Friends -- male or female -- often walk arm in arm. You politely say hello to people you pass on the street, whether you know them or not. It's a warm, welcoming culture.

In truth, Latino society is more polite and formal than ours. Men would never wear shorts and a T-shirt to do any sort of business. Mothers teach their children the "social protocols" from a very young age: to stand and greet an adult who enters the room; to say not just "por favor" and "gracias" (please and thank you), but things like "con permiso" (excuse me) as needed and "buen provecho" (enjoy your meal) when you pass by a table of diners or to your dinner companions before you dig into your own meal.

These are all generalizations, of course, and mind you, there are more... For instance, the approach to doing business in Latin America is all about relationships. They want to get to know and understand the person they are doing business with... And overall, Latinos are uncomfortable with conflict. An angry outburst will dismay and upset them.

For us, on the other hand, we're often in a rush. We want to accomplish our business quickly and forego the small talk. It's sometimes difficult to keep our emotions in check. But we're getting better about that...

Certainly, living in Latin America all these years has taught us to be patient with and more respectful of those we meet whose backgrounds and customs are different from ours.

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