If traveling outside of the U.S. on a business trip, you are probably looking forward to new, exciting experiences. Unfortunately, when you arrive in your first foreign country, instead of feeling excited and full of energy, you may unexpectedly feel depressed, disoriented and lonely — especially if traveling alone.
The greater the difference between the foreign culture and American culture, the more pronounced these feelings might be. The technical term for this is “culture shock.”
For many Americans in foreign countries, the language barrier is often the most difficult issue. If you do not know some simple phrases in the language of your host country, you can feel very isolated. Dealing with foreign currency can also be a problem to overcome.
While a brief, voluntary exposure to a new culture can be temporarily unsettling, with some awareness of what you are experiencing and a few techniques to deal with it, you will soon begin to enjoy your visit.
Before your trip, learn as much as you can about the culture you are going to visit. Read some books on the history and customs of the country. Travel videos are especially helpful and readily available from the library. Get some foreign language audiotapes from the library as well and learn a few important phrases, such as “Where’s the bathroom?” “Waiter,” “How much is this?” “Please” and “Thank you.”
Also learn something about food names and ingredients so you will feel more secure in ordering from the menu in a restaurant. If you have the opportunity, seek out some ethnic restaurants at home and try out these exotic foods before you leave.
Once there, stay in one of the many American and other international hotel chains, which are in most countries. The staff there usually speaks English quite well and the hotel will quickly become your home-away-from-home if you feel comfortable in it. Look for a hotel with a gym, swimming pool, Jacuzzi, several restaurants, a sundry shop and perhaps a lounge where you can relax in the evening.
Women traveling alone have the added burden of being an anomaly in some foreign countries due to few women holding executive positions. So, you might find people staring or being downright rude. Ignore them. Focus on your strengths, take a few deep breaths, relax and move on.
Adusting to a new culture
Recognizing that any uncomfortable or negative feelings you’re experiencing in this new culture are normal should help alleviate your discomfort. Remind yourself that you are traveling for a purpose and that you’ll be going home when your job is done. Here are some suggestions that may help ease your adjustment:
- Take care of your health. Get plenty of sleep and be careful about what you eat and drink. Get daily exercise.
- Relax. When the noise and crowds get to you, take some time out for yourself. Consider bringing a relaxation CD with you to listen to for twenty minutes a day. Luxuriate in a bubble bath.
- Don’t stay in your hotel room; stay active: jog, swim or join a local exercise group if you have an extended stay. Take a walk through a local park or visit a museum (check with your hotel first on which areas are not safe and should be avoided). Re-center yourself by focusing on your strengths and pursuing your interests.
- Keep your sense of humor. Look for the amusing aspects of your situation. At least you will have lots of good stories to tell when you get home. Laughter releases tension.
- Know you are envied. Many people appreciate the exotica of other cultures and would give their eyeteeth to be in your position. This should bring you some sense of satisfaction.
- If you are traveling for an extended period of time, try bringing a few things from home to put in your room, such as photos or your favorite pillow.
- Travel with a companion. If you know someone else who is also traveling on business, think about coordinating your schedules to meet for dinner or for sightseeing. It is easier to face a new environment as a team than to face it alone.
Exploring on your own
- Plan to do some sightseeing in your spare time. Therefore, make a list of the key tourist attractions and find out how to get there from your hotel. Visiting even one city site on the way back to your hotel from a meeting will help give a deeper understanding of the culture and the people.
- Ask for the business card of a reliable taxi service as well as the hotel card with its address and phone number in the local language and be sure to keep it with you when you go out. Show it to the taxi driver when you are ready to go back to the hotel. Some hotels even offer a shuttle service to the center of town as well as to the airport so you don’t have to bother with taxis. Become friendly with the hotel concierge who will usually have walking maps, restaurant suggestions, theater and museum tickets, and shopping tips.
- If possible, take a city tour soon after you arrive. This is a safe and comfortable way to become familiar with your new environment. Short tours (about four hours) in English can usually be booked through the hotel. Tours also provide a good opportunity to meet other women business travelers.
- Establish familiar grounds. Frequent certain lunch and dinner spots and evening hangouts to help you establish a rapport with the owners and locals and make you feel like you’re part of the group.
- Talk to locals who speak English. They appreciate the chance to practice their English and will be delighted at your interest in their culture and more than happy to answer your questions about it.
• If the area is safe for walking (ask at the hotel), get a map and explore to see how people live and work. (Remember only do so during daylight hours and in safe areas.)
- Be flexible. Allow plenty of time to get to appointments. Bring a book to read in case you have to wait. Try to figure out ways to avoid offending your hosts while satisfying your own needs.
- Be patient. People in foreign countries are not usually as direct or in as much of a rush as people in the U.S. When you feel yourself getting uptight, take a few deep breaths and visualize a calming scene.
- Ask your hosts some questions about their country and culture. They will usually enjoy talking about it, which will help you better understand and appreciate what you are seeing.
- Keep an open mind. Focus on the good aspects. When you’re in another country, remember to do as the locals do, since it is your ways that may seem strange or offensive to them.
- Try to remember to keep a sense of humor. When you feel confused, embarrassed, or upset, smile, smile, smile.
Remember people don’t behave the way you expect or want them to, and getting upset won’t make you or them feel any better.
- Many airports have services for business travelers who are delayed. Some excellent stop-over points include: Heathrow Airport, London, England; Frankfort International Airport, Germany; the Miami Florida airport for those en route to Latin America; and the Singapore airport for those traveling in the Far East. Services may include health clubs, showers, swimming pools, movies, city tours and nap rooms.
- If you plan to travel a lot, it is wise to join one of the many airline hospitality clubs offered by major airlines. These clubs provide a quiet area in which to relax in a comfortable environment during a long delay. You will most likely also meet other traveling businesswomen there. Many of these hospitality clubs serve refreshments and offer various other amenities such as TV, flight confirmation and magazines.
When traveling overseas and living in another culture, remember needing time to adjust is normal. Many in the same situation feel depression, disorientation, alienation, boredom and even intimidation.
Exhaustion is also common when traveling. Jet lag is a physical phenomenon and the greater the change in time, the more time needed to adjust. Major cities in Europe, Asia, and South America are quite congested and have a higher level of noise and air pollution than your comfort level. When all of the noise and congestion begins to feel overwhelming, take time out to relax.
Be sure to get plenty of sleep, eat lightly and drink lots of fluid, preferably bottled water. Bring your laptop computer. Remember your friends and family are only an e-mail away. Above all, keep your sense of humor. This is an experience to be enjoyed; make the most of it.
Wilen-Daugenti is the founder of www.globalwomen.biz