If you spend your whole life in one country, you’re never going to get the chance to experience a new culture. For plenty of people that’s not a big deal. Hell, it wasn’t a big deal for me either. When I came to Russia, experiencing the culture was the furthest thing from my mind. I wanted to learn the language!
But with the language comes the culture. My first month in Russia was underwhelming. I felt like everything was the same, and I couldn’t understand why Russians and Americans don’t get along better. Only after seven months in Russia have I started to get some sense of the cultural differences. The defining moment for came on a Sunday night. First came the event, then an incidental explanation that showed me I’m not alone.
The Unwritten Rules of Bar Culture
Sunday night, in a basement bar. Downtown Moscow, drinking with my friend. By this point my Russian is good enough that I feel confident opening conversations. So when two guys sat down next to us, I introduced myself and asked them a few questions.
Turns out they were students from St. Petersburg , here in Moscow to study engineering. We talked for a few minutes and then I returned to my table. They finished their beers and left. Shortly afterwards a few guys took the empty table. They were talking amiably, although I couldn’t understand much over the music. When a there was a lull in the conversation I stood up and introduced myself.
And the first thing out of the ring-leaders mouth wasn’t a return hello, it was a question.
In case you don’t speak Russian, he asked me if I was gay. And it wasn’t so much of a question as a statement. For the next five minutes I made my case, but I never convinced him. He probably got a kick out of telling his buddies about the gay American who hit on him at the bar. Frustrating, but I quickly forgot about it. What made the incident interesting to me was an article I read the next day.
Why Americans Confuse People
I was browsing through Quora and I saw an article on friendship in Switzerland. I started to read it, and three paragraphs in I came across an idea that fit my situation perfectly. An American living in Switzerland discovered that at bars, men often thought he was gay.
Hey, that just happened to me! What the hell is going on here?
The authors suggestion is that in America, we have different social rules. For example, we mimic signs of friendship, even when we don’t mean it. When you carry that behavior to another country, people don’t know how to interpret it. So they revert to their first explanation for odd behavior: homosexuality.
To Understand Your Own Culture, First You Must Leave It
Learning a new culture is a way to shed light on your own. When you’ve lived in the same place your whole life, you have nothing to compare it to. Seven months in Russia has shown me that I like my culture better. But now I can say that with some authority, and I can say why I like my culture better.
When I eventually find my way home, I’ll be returning with a new perspective. Travelling is an invaluable experience that you can use to discover more about yourself. At some point though, travel isn’t enough. To truly understand a culture, you have to live in it over the course of many months.
The experience will show you how other people live, and it will shed light on customs in your own home country that you’re unaware of.