When many people hear the word “cultured,” they immediately think “well traveled;” however, the two do not necessarily go hand-in-hand.
You can be the most well traveled person on the planet, but still be the most uncultured. Take, for instance, the American who goes to France and stays in the Holiday Inn, chows down on American food and doesn’t make any effort to speak French.
Alternatively, you can have never leave the country and still be more cultured than that globetrotting friend of yours, who spent a year traveling. To me, “cultured” is both an attitude and a way of thinking.
Above all else, it’s about being open-minded and aware.
Of course, traveling is one of the easiest (and most fun) ways to amplify this awareness and soak up other cultures. In an ideal world, we would all be able to travel as much as we wanted without having to spend a dime. Unfortunately, however, international travel is expensive and is often reserved for the privileged.
For those of you who have thinner wallets, fear not. Thanks to the Internet, it’s remarkably easy to become cultured, without traveling at all. Here are five ways to do just that:
1. Learn another language.
Americans (and Anglophones in general) are spoiled in that we don’t really have to learn other languages. Since English is the universal language, we can travel and get by speaking in our mother tongues, at least for the most part.
But in many ways, this is a disservice. Learning another language is one of the best ways to gain insight into another culture.
Each language is unique and encompasses certain words or phrases that have no direct English translation. Don't believe me? Take, for instance, the Portuguese word “saudade,” which translates to a nostalgic feeling of missing something or someone that is gone and may never come back.
It is much stronger than the English phrase “to miss” (which, in Portuguese is “sentir falta”). The word is believed to have originated during Portugal’s Golden Age, when many Portuguese sailors were off at sea and away from their families.
See? Already, one word tells us a great deal about Portuguese history and culture.
Even the grammatical structure of a language can reveal a lot. Case in point: Keith Chen gave a TED talk titled “Could your language affect your ability to save money?” The talk demonstrated that countries with languages that don’t include the future tense have higher savings rates (and this is no coincidence).
Whether it’s German, Spanish or Chinese, there is a wealth of information out there to facilitate language learning. Websites like Livemocha, Conversation Exchange, My Language Exchange and Verbling allow users to chat with native speakers and take online lessons. For some person-to-person interaction, you could also attend a language exchange in your town (Meetup often has groups devoted to this).
Learning a language may seem like a daunting task and fluency in any language requires a significant amount of time and dedication. But, even just learning a few words and phrases or mastering a beginner level can make you a more culturally enlightened individual (and can also make it easier for when you do travel!).
2. Meet people from different countries.
Since the US is such a diverse melting pot that’s composed of a plethora of nationalities, this should not be that difficult. If you are speaking with someone from another country, get to know a bit about the person’s culture and background.
Ask the person about some of the differences between his or her country and the US. You might be surprised about what the person has to say and it will likely force you to look at your native soil from a fresh perspective.
If you have a hard time meeting foreigners, take a look at Couchsurfing, which is a website where registered users can host travelers from around the globe. You can also join the various groups devoted to your region and attend the local events posted by members.
An added bonus: Couchsurfing members tend to be pretty open-minded (after all, you would have to be to either let a total stranger sleep on your couch or to be that stranger).
3. Listen to music from other countries and in different languages.
I prefer the sensual beat of Latino and Brazilian music to American tunes (I also think music sounds sexier in another language). Some of my favorite genres include reggaeton, bachata, samba and sertanejo (which is like the country music of Brazil).
My music library is replete with songs in English, Portuguese and Spanish and includes a few hits in French and Italian, as well. Spotify is a good place to start to expand your music selection. Just type in the name of a country in the search engine and at least one playlist dedicated to the top hits in the country should pop up.
You could also Google something like “Top 40,” next to a country's name to discover the current hits in that area (however, I warn you that many songs on these lists are likely to be American).
4. Watch foreign films and TV shows.
Watching foreign movies can help you to discover the little things that are unique to the cultures represented, as well as the way people interact and their senses of humor.
For instance, most people are aware that British humor is distinctly different from American humor. This should become strikingly obvious if you watch a British film or TV show. Netflix boasts a variety of foreign movies in its libraries. Also, libraries often have a selection of foreign DVDs available to borrow.
5. Read travel blogs.
Reading travel blogs or blogs written by expats living abroad is another way to enrich your understanding of other cultures.
If you are curious about life in Indonesia, for example, try Googling “living abroad Indonesia.” Many people blog about their experiences while living abroad; I kept a blog while living in France, which chronicled my adventures and examined the cultural differences I observed. I also maintained a blog while living in Brazil, for the same purpose.
There is really no excuse to not be culturally aware. Can't travel as much as you would like? Stop throwing a pity party and instead, get out there (or online) and expand your horizons!
Photo Courtesy: Yougo Jeberg