Bone up on and embrace cultural differences

Published1/12/2008 5:44 PM

For me, one of the most rewarding aspects of travel is to recognize, accept and even participate in cultural behaviors different from my own. To be sure, during three decades of working on the road, I have definitely lived my share, both abroad and here in the U.S., too.

For instance, back in the 1970s during one of my first working trips to Los Angeles, I was up bright and early to enjoy the warm winter day.


So were a bunch of half-dressed people who seemed to be running along the sidewalk of a busy street without any particular destination in mind.

Fresh from Manhattan, I found this phenomenon curious, so I asked a colleague what they were doing.

"Oh, they're jogging," he said.

"But where are they going?" I innocently asked.

"Nowhere," was his simple reply.

"Nowhere?" I questioned.

"Right, nowhere," he reiterated.

Not wanting to let this less-than-satisfactory answer go, I pursued it further.

"But why would they go to so much trouble and waste so much energy if they aren't even going to get anywhere in the end?" I persisted.

"They are exercising," was his pointed response. At that time, I thought this was ridiculous. For me, the only real early morning street running I had ever seen was when Big Apple workers donned sneakers on the way to work to get to their jobs on time.

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Not wanting to pooh-pooh this California trend out of hand, I woke up the next morning, donned my trainers, and chose a grassy knoll in the middle of a busy thoroughfare to test out their training methods. My attempts lasted about three minutes, which is the exact amount of time it took me to realize that with no goal in mind, jogging to nowhere was just too hard to do. It was literally fruitless, bringing me no satisfaction whatsoever.

Later on, when the trend took a worldwide turn, I was truly surprised (but still steadfastly refused to participate).

The roles were reversed recently when I was asked by one of my children why our friend Matt was lying out in the sun in shorts, working on his laptop. Our house in Southern California has a great deck for such activity where, to Tyler at least, this just isn't something you need to do.

Indeed, to my boy, Los Angeles born and bred, tanning just happens, no matter what time of year and no matter how much sun block you use -- and especially when you ride through town every day on a skateboard.

To Matt, who hails from Rochester, N.Y., it does not.

In fact, for him and many others who come from a snow-ridden state who then visit an American outpost that possesses semi-tropical climes in January, it is imperative to pursue even a slight tan. You do this if only to prove to your friends and colleagues back home that you did, indeed, go to California on business in the middle of winter.


So, what was absurd to my son was perfectly natural to my friend, who was as pale as a person can be until after his little ritual in our backyard.

That said, following are a few concepts for getting into the swing of things when working somewhere other than your home base:

• Read up on routine rituals before leaving town. By doing an Internet search or picking up a good guidebook on your destination, you will easily be able to find out what local activities are novel to your sensibilities. With that information in mind, plan to pursue (or at least attempt to pursue) one or two yourself during your visit.

• Do not pursue an activity that you pursue at home if it doesn't seem appropriate to the place you are visiting. For instance, when my son was headed for London, I told him to stow his skateboard in his bedroom closet. I told him that as far as I knew and from what I had witnessed, Brits generally are not in the habit of speeding down busy city sidewalks using this particular form of personal transportation.

• When in doubt on what to do or how to act, don't improvise. Instead, be on the safe side and find out how things are done from someone who lives there, be that your concierge, your colleague or a new friend.

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