10 tips for more culturally intelligent travel

Jun 09 2014 by David Livermore Print This Article

It’s been said that “international travelers are like dogs in an art museum. They see everything and appreciate nothing.” But it doesn’t have to be that way, In fact, when approached with intentionality and reflection, traveling abroad is positively related to all four capabilities of cultural intelligence. Here are ten things culturally intelligent travellers do before and while they travel abroad:

1. Search the Web Intelligently

The culturally intelligent use the power of the internet to do a quick purview of the history of a place (start with BBC country profiles), the cultural norms (compare your country versus where you’re going using Hofstede’s tool), and look up hot topics in the local news (try searching only sites that originate from your destination; e.g. only search news stories from domains ending in .th if you’re visiting Thailand).

2. Read Novels or Memoirs about their Destination

Culturally intelligent travelers look beyond TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet and read novels or memoirs for cultural insights about their destination. If you’re going to Cambodia, try Francois Bizot’s memoir, ‘ The Gate’. If you’re heading to Paris, try David Lebovitz’ ‘ Sweet Life in Paris’ or if you’re heading to the world cup in Rio de Janeiro, try ‘ Memoirs of a Militia Sergeant’.

3. Watch Movies

Films are another great way the culturally intelligent gain a more visceral understanding of a place they plan to visit. The traveler with high CQ is careful not to assume that Ken Loach’s film ‘ A Fond Kiss’ can be generalized to all South Asians living in the UK any more than one should view ‘Motorcycle Diaries’ as the normative experience for all South American youth; but movies are a great way to engage your mind.

4. Take Care of Themselves

Overcoming the physical and emotional drain of travel is vitally important. Culturally intelligent travelers understand that stress and fatigue make them unusually susceptible to culture shock and frustration. When crossing time zones, follow these basic rules of thumb, though this is more of an art than a science:

  • Set your watch to the new time zone as soon as you board your international flight. If at all possible, attempt to follow the “new sleep” and eating patterns even on the trip over.
  • Eat half of what they give you on the plane. - if that. And go easy on the alcohol. You’re already getting dehydrated. But drink all the non-alcoholic beverages you can get out of them.
  • Force yourself into the new sleep patterns immediately upon arrival. Don’t take any naps if you arrive in the morning or mid-day.
  • After you arrive, walk or run outside and get as much sunshine as possible.Light is key. Again, stay awake when it’s light but not too late. When it’s dark, sleep. Light is the most important thing that impacts your circadian rhythms.
  • Drink a lot of coffee or tea before noon.If you already drink caffeinated beverages, caffeine can have a strong effect in regulating your wake-up mode. It’s especially effective if you go without caffeine for a few days prior to travel.
  • Consider taking Melatonin before bed.Many people find that melatonin, a natural nutritional supplement, really helps regulate their sleeping patterns.

Attending to your physical and emotional well-being will play a big role in helping you be more ready to fully engage in all that your inter-cultural experience has to offer.

5. Visit Grocery Stores

Culturally intelligent travelers stroll through the aisles of a local grocery store to see what items are sold, how their displayed, and what people are buying. This is a strategy to use even when traveling to different regions across your own city or country. While you’re at it, buy some of the items that are unfamiliar to you and try them. This is a simple, fun way to experience the day-to-day life of a culture.

6. Compare News Stories

Culturally intelligent travelers compare stories in an international paper like USA Today or the Financial Times with those in a local English newspaper. What gets reported and how? Notice the different perspectives on the same events.

7. Talk to Taxi Drivers

Culturally intelligent travelers look for ways to interact with their taxi drivers. Most taxi drivers have fascinating opinions and perspectives on current events, the places you should visit, their view on the local culture, etc. Learn from their insights!

8. Venture Beyond the Tourist Havens

The culturally intelligent do whatever they can to get beyond tourist haunts. Even if you’re in a major metropolitan place like Shanghai, you can walk out of Starbucks and get on a city bus and suddenly be immersed in the local culture.

9. Take in the Arts

Culturally intelligent travelers don’t only visit world renowned art galleries like the Louvre; they also pop into boutique galleries and museums and check out the art in places like Hanoi, Durban, and Dubai as well as Paris and Rome. One time I stumbled upon an art gallery in Siam Reap and it was the highlight of my visit to Cambodia. It gave me insight into some of the modern day perspectives of the Khmer people that I would have otherwise missed.

10. Laugh at Themselves

The culturally intelligent don’t take themselves too seriously. They try a few words in the local language, sample some foods, and expect to be disoriented at times. An ability to laugh at yourself and learn from your mistakes can make a world of difference in not only behaving appropriately but enjoying the whole experience.

Nothing has the potential of improving CQ like traveling across borders. As you embark on your next business trip, study abroad experience, or holiday, use your travels to learn more about yourself and the world.

What CQ travel strategies would you add?

more articles

About The Author

David Livermore
David Livermore

David Livermore is a thought leader in cultural intelligence (CQ) and global leadership and the author of "Leading with Cultural Intelligence". He is president and partner at the Cultural Intelligence Center in East Lansing, Michigan and a visiting research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.