Travelling isn’t a right but a privilege that many people get to experience. I have been fortunate enough to explore other cultures and countries over the past 25 years and I have learned to cherish my knowledge gained from those adventures. This post is my personal appreciative inquiry which emphasises positive reflections to discover what I have achieved, in order to build on my success and fuel positive change.
My first solo travelling trip overseas, without my parents, came during my final year in high school. My grade 12 class went on a European Adventure to Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein and Switzerland to broaden our cultural understandings. It was during spring break and we didn’t partake in any classes but we learned and experienced a lot. For most of us, this was our first time travelling outside of North America. As a naive teenager, I experienced a major culture shock….. And I fell in love.
It was my first trip away from my parents and my first time overseas. Intimidated doesn’t begin to describe how I felt. With my school group, I got to see cathedrals that have performed miracles, a German concentration camp, famous castles, a concert orchestra playing Johan Strauss, and a sound of music tour (which only I appreciated because I was the only one to have seen the movie). It wasn’t just the sights that caught my attention, it was the way people interacted, various food experiences, and advertisements/signs that were different from the ones back home. Travelling into another country is tricky enough when you don’t know the language or customs but lucky for me, my Personal Social/Cultural Identifiers helped me distinguish a couple of my traits to make my travelling transition easier. The personal social and cultural identifiers I utilised in this travel experience were as follows; A Hungry, Canadian, Bilingual, High School Student.
– Student/High school Student: My main cultural identifier during this trip was that I was a student travelling with my high school group. This identified me because we traveled in a group and wore matching backpacks. This was both a positive and negative identifier because there is safety in numbers but it was easy to see we were tourists. This made us vulnerable targets for theft and exploitation.
– Bilingual: This identifier didn’t label me as much because we visited places where they spoke heavy German instead of French. Although it did come in handy when we passed through Switzerland because French is one of 5 main languages spoken. Even though we didn’t speak the language, we could still appreciate the difficulties of language barriers in communication.
– Hungry: Not only was I hungry to experience new ethnic foods (like schnitzel), but I was also hungry to explore and learn during our stay. This expanded my like for classical music while in Vienna, as well as enriched my cultural appreciation for the culture and history of countries visited. This drive made me determined to learn as much as I could in the limited time available.
– Canadian: Whenever I have travelled anywhere, I always hear from locals and other tourists about how friendly and kind Canadians are. This is a positive identifier because I
believe Canadians represent well around the world, making other people friendlier towards us in the process. We’re just so lovable, eh? It was also interesting to hear cultural stereotypes about our own country and what people actually believe.
The one thing I appreciated most about my cultural visit was the history, where everything had a story for people to learn from and keep their culture alive. Germany and Austria were very similar in most aspects because they have been closely tied for many years. I believe they are both very conformist because they want to hold onto their culture. However, from 7 years ago to now, they have relaxed a lot more. When visiting Switzerland, I remember thinking they were more individualistic because they reminded me of Canada, neutral peacekeepers. Communication was also another major factor when travelling multiple countries. Germany and Austria were both very direct and to the point in any form of communication, whereas Switzerland (like Canada) was more open to indirect conversations. In any of the European countries, it was very difficult to ask for directions, especially when you can’t speak the language. If by chance someone understood what you were trying to say, you couldn’t understand what they were saying back to you. All the countries we visited spoke German in different dialects. After years of trilingual schooling, I finally understood how important it was to master another language and the benefits that followed. It made me appreciate how people communicate and opened my eyes to how much we take it for granted.
European Adventure –Part 2
The BCIT field school studying abroad lead us to Austria and Italy where we got to study Luxury Brand Marketing and International Communication. The experience brought 24 students together from Vancouver (British Columbia) and Edmonton (Alberta) to continue their education in a foreign environment. Classes were comprised of lectures in school classrooms, tours and company visits where we then had to write brand audits and discussion posts about our experiences. It was really interesting when we arrived in Venice and got to work and interact with some Italian students. They guided us around Venice and showed us the best non-touristy places for food. One of my most positive experience would have been visiting all the different luxury locations with the field school. It was very interesting to see how things were made and what aspects make these products luxury. I learnt that even that smallest details can change the way someone perceives something or puts something together to make an experience even better. I have developed an appreciation for the smaller details, such as watching and listening to how the locals interact and communicate with each other. To help me blend in, I had to use my own cultural identifiers and modify them to fit my surroundings. My new Cultural Identifiers during this past adventure have changed but still, resembles the ones mentioned earlier. A Patient, Problem-solving, Hungry Canadian Trilingual Student.
– Student: My main cultural identifier during this trip was the fact that I was a student travelling and studying abroad with local students in their environment. During tours and company visits we would travel as a group and discuss the experiences. Again, this was both a positive and negative identifier because there is safety in numbers but it was easy to see we were tourists.
– Trilingual: This identifier helped in a sense that I could comprehend and pronounce certain Italian words because of my French and Spanish background. Even though I
couldn’t speech the language, I learned enough words to inquire about basic necessities like food and restrooms. Trust me, I mispronounced Penne pasta and everyone in the restaurant laughed. Apparently, instead of ordering alfredo pasta, I ordered a piece of male genitalia in alfredo sauce. Since my last European adventure, I still appreciate the difficulty in communication barriers.
– Hungry: Like the previous Europe trip, I was Hungry in learning about the historic Roman Italian culture, not to mention devouring all the pizza and pasta I could get my hands on. I have always been interested in the Roman Empire and the Italian role in our history. I found every city held their own amazing identifiers as well as food specialities.
– Canadian: Much like the last time and every time I have travelled, the locals express about how friendly and kind Canadians are. This is generally a positive identifier except in one case involving a Famous Mask merchant in Venice. He complained about Canadians and how they are only concerned about the cost of items.It turned out to be a positive experience because it made me think critically about both sides of being a Canadian. It was also interesting to hearing cultural stereotypes from the Italian students about our own country.
– Patience and Problem-solving: These are 2 of my new identifiers that I have used the most during this trip. Patience because when I’m communicating with someone who spoke broken English, it was easy to get flustered and impatient trying to gather information. Sometimes, the locals didn’t speak English in the smaller cities and outside of the tourist areas and that’s where problem-solving comes in. If there is no Wifi or your smartphone is dead, it is really hard to ask for help and read directions. But picking up keywords or having a pocket map and dictionary can really help out.
All of these played a huge role in who I was when I visited Austria and Italy which provided a positive experience and cultural understanding.
Some of the information I have experienced and learned over the past month has been about the local verbal and non-verbal communication, cultural appreciation, stereotypes, the importance of first impression and status. Generally, in Europe, many tourist locations or major cities speak English to cater to tourists. Because their English can vary from fluent sentences to knowing very little, most Europeans (Austrians and Italians) try to keep it as short and direct as possible. When trying to ask for directions or where the nearest washroom was, many wouldn’t even give us the time from fear we were selling something. The Italian form of communication is comprised of:
Greeting such as handshakes and when the relationship
is formed a kiss on the cheek
Speak loudly and interrupt
Comfortable in Uncomfortable silence
Direct and constant eye contact with small personal space
Hand gestures and demonstrated emotions
I would like to add that their direct communication styles are very abrupt but I believe that is to save on time. It’s not really a tone of appreciation either…. Unless you are buying something from them and they know they have a sale. Their non-verbal form of communication involves a lot of hand gestures which is a very common European trait. They also hold their postures very well and dress their best which adds to their believed status. This communicates their importance and social status. In the end, I think that we see things differently because we are not used to this way of communicating and it can be construed as rude or impatient but in reality that is just their upbringing.
Where many stereotypes originate is from not fully understanding the culture. Stereotypes were interesting to witness during our brief stay in Europe. During one of our classes in Venice, our teacher asked the Canadian students to list a few Italian stereotypes to our guests and with humour, they agreed too many of them. When he asked the Italians to name some Canadian stereotypes, they had a harder time. Many common ones were listed such as, we apologise a lot, we drink maple syrup every meal, and ride dog sleds to work. It was really fun discussing how these cultural stereotypes lead to prejudices and conflict, and how we can manipulate our situation by adapting features, therefore, creating a better cultural understanding. Appearances and first impressions play an important role in Italian culture because they judge appearances in the first 30 seconds of meeting someone new. They will work hard and save money to buy luxury items/clothing to show their status even though their living situation doesn’t match. This could be one of the factors in why we believe Italians are very short and direct. They judge appearances and whether it is worth their time to talk to that person. This is just an assumption from my experience dealing with the locals.
Hofstede’s cultural dimensions vary dramatically from the Canadian culture to the
Italians culture. For instance, the shift in power distance between the two countries show that Italians favour managerial decisions and Canadians lean towards team collaboration for many companies. The Italian workforce is derived mainly of male workers with a collectivistic approach where their private life is intertwined with work from hiring family members. In today’s economy, Canada leans more towards an equal partnership between male and female coworkers while keeping their work life more individualistic as they keep their social life separate from their work.
Travelling to Europe in my grade 12 year was very different from anything I could have imagined. It was my first trip abroad without my family, so I had to be extra cautious. I learned a lot about myself by expanding and stepping out of my comfort zone. I believe if you try to stay safe and sheltered, you will live life in fear of trying new things, and that’s not living. Exploring and travelling became a part of me, like breathing, I need to learn about cultures first hand to appreciate them even more. What I loved about the experience was that it was so different and exciting from Canada’s culture. After visiting Europe a few times now, I have developed an understanding of more of the customs and have become more aware of my surroundings. I can apply more knowledge from other travel destinations from other countries to immerse myself more into the culture and eliminate the stereotypical traveller appearance. Honestly, as a high school student, many of us took the trip for granted, but now I have come back and immersed myself by jumping in and observing cultural aspects that I missed the first time around. What surprised me the most about myself as a traveller on this particular trip was my resiliency to learn directions quickly and not be afraid to wander around on my own. If I am with a group, I don’t take the lead but every so often I like to do my own things and see where it goes. I think it surprised me the most because I was warned about pickpockets and a lot of theft that happens around touristy locations. That and I usually take the time to know the place first before I venture without a map in front of me. This entire experience has been eye-opening because it taught me to notice the small details and similarities in interacting with the locals of certain countries and how they act and react. I believe that people should respect other cultures they are introduced to and adapt their own to comply and blend in, making communication between cultures easier.