Understanding Cultural Differences While Traveling
Updated: Jun 19
On my first trip to Peru, I took up the arduous and exciting task of hiking the Salcantay Trail to Machu Picchu: It’s a thirty-six mile, 15,000 feet, five-day trek that truly tests both your physical and mental limits of endurance.
I organized my hike through a local Peruvian tour operator that had a good reputation for professionalism as well as good sustainability practices. I went with a group of 13 others consisting of majority Americans, with a couple of Canadians and three Germans.
After the first day of strenuous hiking in the cold thin air, we all quickly bonded in the evening over coca tea and hot chocolate. Our Peruvian guides, porters, and cooks would often join us in the evening, cracking jokes, practicing English, and teaching us words in Quechua and localized Spanish.
Dinner was served by one of the local cooks named Walter, and I was even surprised to have a cake made and happy birthday sang on my birthday by both the local staff as well as my fellow western hikers. There was a strong bond made in a very short time.
On the last evening before the long-awaited sunrise hike to Machu Picchu, it was time to say goodbye to the porters, cooks, and other local staff. After a late dinner, our guide Felipe led all of us hikers into the next room where he told us a suggested amount for the tip to be given collectively to the entire staff and that they would divide this amongst themselves.
He then abruptly left us on our own to work this out. An ambiguous silence ensued: Two Americans stated,” We want to tip, but we don’t want to be told how much!” The German lady asked, “May I do it privately? One guy from Canada stated, “This is really awkward”.
It wasn’t as if the group didn’t want to tip, but the discomfort was tangible. As globe trotters, we all may experience challenging settings in foreign cultures. Despite our good intentions and many human commonalities, we also have deeply entrenched cultural differences that if ignored and not dealt with, can create miscommunications, misunderstandings, and other pitfalls of potential conflicts.
My experience is a classic example of two cultures colliding. Many cultural theories reference a Volcano to symbolize this cultural dynamic. You only see the calm surface, but powerful chaotic tensions lie beneath.
We observe tendencies and behaviors that are driven by belief systems and societal norms that run very deep. In this example, we see the classic clash of Individualism vs Collectivism. The collective-oriented perspective of the Peruvian staff clashed with the more private, individualistic cultural values of us hikers.
For those of us that come from more individualized cultural upbringings, it’s imperative that we recognize group thought and truly empathize that decision-making isn’t private or autonomous. For those coming from more collectivist societies, respecting values such as privacy and independent decision-making is key.
It’s important to remember not to just give lip service about other cultures, but to stress the need to sincerely and deeply contemplate our own cultural orientation. We must consider our own national values, religious beliefs, and geographic norms so that we can become more inclusive and responsive to the many diverse cultures we will encounter in an ever-transforming globalized world.
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