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Cultural Differences in the U.S. and Abroad

A Bahraini man in cultural dress stands with an American man.
A Bahraini man in cultural dress stands with an American man.

Part of the wonders of traveling include experiencing other people’s cultures, including their habits, values, interests, beliefs, and preferences.

It takes time for any traveler to learn and adjust to differences in the host culture. Autistic travelers may want to research some specific ways in which the local host culture might impact their routines or preferences. Think about how you might adapt if you traveled to a country that had major cultural differences related to: time and punctuality, leisure and schedules, and body language.

Time and Punctuality

Some countries emphasize promptness and punctuality. For example, in Germany, the trains are known to run on time and so do the people! As in the United States, you would be expected to show up to a meeting or to class at the agreed-upon time. In contrast, in cultures that have more relaxed expectations about promptness, such as Argentina or Jamaica, people and public transportation are more likely to be running late. If you are someone who has set routines, think about how you would adapt to a different place with a different pace.

Leisure and Schedules

Spain is well-known for its midday “siestas” (periods of rest), and several other countries have adopted this custom as well. For some travelers with disabilities, a culture that values time to rest during the day can be helpful for recharging or breaking up an otherwise busy schedule. For others, it can be inconvenient to find that their preferred businesses or services are closed during these periods.

Meals may be taken leisurely, with dinners lingering over meals and conversation for hours or late into the night. Depending on where you go, your new friends and hosts in the new country may prefer to go out socializing very late into the night. If you’re the kind of person who likes to nail activities down to a schedule, prepare for how you will handle unscheduled events or activities that take longer than expected.

Body Language

In the United States and other European countries like Spain, France, and Germany, using direct eye contact is accepted and considered to be a sign of attentiveness, honesty, confidence, and respect for what the other is saying. In some Latin-American, Asian, and African cultures, the opposite is true. Direct eye contact might be considered aggressive. In these cultures, avoiding direct eye contact is a sign of respect, especially to elders or authority figures (bosses, professors). Knowing a culture’s norms can help you sharpen your non-verbal communication skills by teaching you to pick up on or use different facial or body language cues if you cannot look directly into someone’s eyes.

“I was very comfortable [in Japan] – for some reason, the cultural structure is less intimidating. I enjoyed being overseas very much and I got along very well with the Japanese people. The family homestay situation was structured. You know what is expected of you in Japan. It’s a more ritualistic society, and people with autism can be ritualistic. I knew the basic culture was family-oriented, so I could follow their structure.” – Ted Koehler, U.S. student to Japan

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