Sunday, July 29, 2012

The wonders of cultural differences

Cultural differences. That endless source of misunderstandings, good laughs and unending conversations. When traveling a lot you get used to adapting to the ways of whichever country you are in at the moment. Naturally meeting new cultures also results in misunderstandings now and then. Misunderstandings which at their best lead to a good laugh or at their worst to serious consequences. I have been lucky enough to avoid anything all too bad, but then again I am very open minded, which in my opinion is something very important. Being open minded is the very foundation of being able to travel. Sure there are travel agencies, who organize all inclusive travel packages, where you don't even have know how to speak anything but your native language. No english is required to survive, let alone any knowledge of the local language, whatever it is.

For me traveling is something completely different. Certainly I have taken one or two of these travel package trips, but I did it very differently than most people. But that's not what I wanted to talk about. For me traveling is all about getting to know the culture and the local people and their ways. This is when it becomes impossible to avoid coming across cultural differences. Surprising is that cultural differences can exist within your own country. Only these you might not recognize as cultural differences, since you are subconciously aware of the differences. The bigger ones, the ones that may cause confusion and conflicts, are mostly met in other countries than your own. And I have a feeling that the further you go, the bigger the differences are. Nevertheless I have come across quite a few even within Europe.

I recently traveled to Hungary. Hungarians and Finns are supposed to be related, at least language-wise. Well, as a linguist I have studied this matter somewhat, and surely there are grammatical similarities, such as the fact that both are agglutinative languages. Being in Hungary and listening to people talking doesn't really confirm this fact though. The melody sounds familiar, but as a Finn you can't really understand a single word. However, people who have traveled in Europe, have most likely visited various museums in different countries. In many museums there are age limits for youth discounts and mostly that age limit is 25. Well, usually this is marked in the information as "up to 25" or something similar. In most cases this means that the discount is for young people until 25, and the 25th year is included, which means that the discount is valid until the day you turn 26. This is not the case in Hungary. I visited a castle in Eger, and the info said "discount for ages 6-26". So I thought "nice, I'm 26, I get the discounted prize". How wrong was I. The argument was that the discount was up to 26, but I already turned 26, so I was already OVER 26... Somebody else might have started arguing, but I thought to myself that this is quite an interesting cultural difference. Afterwards I asked my Hungarian-Jamaican friend, who said that this is quite common in Hungary.

I have noticed something strange about myself. When traveling more and more, I learn more about different cultures and their ways, which of course is great. The thing is that due to this, I am starting to dislike my own country more and more. Finnish people lack in etiquette and civil manners. They just don't care. Here's a good example. A few months ago I was supposed to have dinner with a large group. I had made the reservations and the staff had told me that they were fully booked, and it would be unlikely that they would have space for additional people if our group turned out to be bigger than the reservation. I was the one who had the information on who was attending and what they had ordered. Firstly most of the people just went to the restaurant without waiting for me, and they promised other people that it would be okay to attend, even without having registered. When I arrived - quite pissed - I learned that they had told the waitress, that it was okay to bring out the food. Even though not everyone had arrived yet. Finally, while the last ones were still eating, a part of the group just left - because they had finished their meal. I was speechless.

A French friend of mine who is married to a Finn once told me a story about a party he attended, when he had recently moved here. France has a lot of social rules and for example leaving a party is a process. You start by mentioning the intention to leave, and actually leaving can take hours, while still talking and enjoying some wine. He was awestruck at a party in Finland, when people just got up and said that they are leaving. A minute later, they were gone. Surely you can argue whether this is a good or a bad thing. It is certainly easier not having to keep to some strict social rules, but being plain rude and not even realizing it, isn't very good either.

Something I particularly despise are Finnish drinking habits. Going out is all about drinking and really getting waisted. Even the way to say that you're going out partying in Finnish is literally, "let's go drinking". The main thing isn't meeting friends or going dancing, but drinking. You drink at home at first, so that you can get more drunk, without having to spend too much money. Naturally I am generalizing, not all Finns are like this. Unfortunately it applies to regrettably many. Walking through a Finnish city centre on a Friday or Saturday night you can see that the streets are full of really drunk people fighting, trying to pick up someone or throwing up. In this matter Finns surely have a lot to learn from other European countries. I don't even feel like going out in Finland anymore. I usually only do that when traveling nowadays. Of course I can't say I haven't gotten really waisted myself. I was brought up in this country after all. Nevertheless I do recognize the problem, and don't want to behave like this.

Finns aren't all bad though, and surely each people have their upsides and downsides. The more you travel, the more you become aware of these. Cultural differences are good, as long as you are open minded and willing to learn from them. You end up yet again more aware about your surroundings, and when you get back home, you see your own country with different eyes. When encountering cultural differences, it is good to stop for a second to think about them, and about why they are the way they are. In the beginning your own culture is your point of reference, but while expanding your travel experiences and hence your cultural awareness, the reference points starts to grow and it all becomes more blurry. One big beautiful mess of cultural customs. At it's best you can apply some of the greater differences to your own life and learn something new about yourself.

What kind of cultural differences have you encountered? Which ones have made you change your idea about something?

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