Finding ways to bridge the culture gap Sensitivity: When encountering people with different customs and languages, travelers should try to adapt to local behavior.

June 09, 1996|By Harry Shattuck | Harry Shattuck,HOUSTON CHRONICLE

During our business or leisure travels, we sometimes encounter cultures quite different from our own. And this joy of discovery can prove among the richest of rewards.

But so much of what we reap depends upon our approach, our attitude, our willingness to try to understand the unique makeup of an individual or society, whether in our back yard or halfway around the world.

At a recent gathering of travel journalists, I was moderating a panel aimed at helping travelers bridge culture gaps, when one participant, an American Indian who lives in the Santa Clara pueblo near Santa Fe, N.M., began speaking from her heart.

"What happens to these people you are trying to grasp things from?" Rena Swentzell asked. "How can they live a normal life when 20 people a day come into their communities asking them why they dress like they do, why they build their houses like that, why they live the way they do?

"Native Americans in the pueblos are becoming more and more like the outside world," she said. "We're having contact with your values and belief systems, and it's undermining our own. Every time you come into our world, it has an effect on our lives."

Her audience was spellbound by her words. She represented one person's opinion and was concerned with one specific culture. And her remarks were directed at men and women who not only travel frequently but also share their experiences with millions of readers, and who thus must proceed with a diligence that can be interpreted as intrusion.

But Swentzell's questions give all of us pause. How do we find ways to learn about a culture, to make friends and open windows of communication, without displaying an insensitivity -- however unintentional -- toward people whom we find fascinating but who may adhere to values and customs and objectives different from ours?

Certainly respect for our fellow humans is paramount. But what specific actions can we take to enhance our satisfaction while at the same time reassuring our new acquaintances?

Marybeth Bond, author of the award-winning book "Travelers' Tales: A Woman's World" (Travelers' Tales, $17.95) spent two years touring the world alone. Bond, who participated with Swentzell on this particular panel, offers 10 suggestions:

Read. Do your homework.

Consider doing volunteer work.

Travel like the locals. In the Himalayas, travel on foot; consider horseback in Mongolia or Morocco, rickshaw in the Orient, bicycle in Holland.

In dress and behavior, blend in. Take clues from locals. It's better to dress conservatively and begin with modest, polite behavior.

Learn a few phrases of the local language: Hello. Goodbye. Beautiful. Delicious. Boy. Girl.

Do what the locals do when they do it.

Get inside homes for teatime, meals and overnight. But be aware of cultural taboos and courtesies.

Give yourself time to wander the back streets (safety permitting) and sit in cafes.

Interact with children. They can be your window into families and cultures.

Pack small items that break the ice with children and adults.

Smile. Talk to people. Walk into a school. Accept hospitality.

Pub Date: 6/09/96

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