Dealing with Cultural & Language Issues

One of the enjoyable parts of being an international tour director, as well as being a local tour guide, is the opportunity to experience other cultures and languages. Therein also lays the challenge.

Those who travel to other countries, and those who interface with foreign visitors in this country, have a responsibility to represent their own culture (and its good manners) well, and to respect the other culture they encounter. The stereotype of the Ugly American, the loud and ostentatious traveler, arose in the first place from behavior of US citizens in other countries. Even now many U.S. visitors expect foreign locals to adapt to what is assumed to be the "dominant" culture, even when one is a visitor in another country.

There is a lot a tour director can do to bridge multiple cultures. If the tour is in another country, the Tour Director (TD) recognizes, and helps the guests recognize, that they are guests in someone else’s country, and to behave without drawing attention to themselves.

Learning a little of the local language demonstrates a willingness to move out of one’s comfort zone and try something new, and shows respect and recognition for that language and its culture. Tour guests often expect to receive some language training as part of the tour.

Beyond the language, the TD can and should read up on the history of the area, and the customs as well as laws that guide behavior. With that background, the TD can explain to guests what it is they are seeing, and how they may best behave to both show respect, and to stay out of trouble. Some knowledge of hand gestures, as an example, can avoid problems which arise when an American uses one that means something positive in the U.S. yet something rude or negative in another culture.

Many laws about alcohol and drugs, as well as public dress, are stricter in other countries than they are in the U.S. Ignorance of these laws and customs can promote a negative encounter with the country’s judicial system, and you the TD may find yourself visiting one of your guests in jail, or they may be visiting you. Ignorance of the law is no defense in other countries, just as it is not in the U.S.

The reverse of this notion of learning about the culture to stay out of trouble, is the idea that the knowledge a TD shares can help guests enjoy their visit to someone else’s country better, to promote a more authentic experience while there. The more guests can enjoy the culture for what it is, not try to change the experience so it is "easier" on the U.S. visitors, the better. This is what travel is about, and one has to get off the bus and into the town market, for example, to get a taste of local life.

Back at home, the U.S.-based tour guide is likely to meet people from all over the planet, and likely won’t learn a smattering of every language. Yet making the effort to be able to say "good morning" in a variety of languages shows respect for another culture, and visitors appreciate that. Knowledge of cultural differences is as important when the group is traveling to the U.S. as it is when the group is traveling to a foreign country.

Knowledge of and facility in another language can be a salable skill for a tour director. Some U.S. tour operators will only hire U.S. and Canadian tour directors, as the company wants to make sure the American guests can always communicate with their TD and get their problems handled. In such a case, the company will arrange for local foreign guides as the tour moves through different countries.

In contrast, some U.S.-based tour operators will only hire foreign nationals as tour directors in those countries, having promised guests a native foreign-language speaker for a TD. English is the universal language, and many foreign TDs speak it fluently.

U.S./Canadian TDs who are fluent in another language likely find that foreign tour operators are interested in hiring them for incoming tours from another country. The standard for language skill is high, as tour operators want to make sure their guests are understood by the TD.

It is unlikely that a TD will encounter non-English speaking guests offered by U.S. tour operators. They commonly inform prospective guests that only English will be spoken on the tour. The TD may still have to assist English-speaking foreign guests with cultural issues, but not with language.

Having skill in a foreign language is a huge plus for a tour director. It may be time to dust off that college French and see who wants to hire you!


Overview – Expecting the Unexpected on Tour