Solo Traveler: Culture Shock

Solo Traveler: Culture Shock

No matter where you go, even if they speak your language, every country in the world presents something to the traveler that is surprising, possibly even shocking.

Coming home after being away for some time can be a kind of culture shock as well. Each time I return to the U.S., I am struck with how little time people spend meeting my gaze. In many other countries, when people speak to you they look you in the eye the whole time. It’s not meant to be threatening. The steady gaze is just their way of seeing you as a human being. But to Americans, who don’t spend much time actually looking other people in the eye, it can feel a bit threatening.

The constant “looking” in other countries can easily become staring, and that’s even more disconcerting if you are attractive or simply foreign. You feel as if you are on display and being judged by everyone around you. Most of the time, from their perspective, you’re simply an interesting curiosity. I find too, that the physical closeness of other people elsewhere takes getting used to. We Americans like to have quite a bit of personal space, and I’m no exception.

In India, years ago, I was standing in line for a movie and could not keep any kind of distance between my body and the person ahead of me. The people in back pushed me until we were all full-length-body touching. I felt enraged, and even though I recognized it as a cultural norm, I couldn’t contain my anger. I yelled at the people behind to stop pushing. Then I felt embarrassed because they looked so shocked and hurt. They hadn’t done a thing unusual or wrong.

I find that I’ve now gotten accustomed to the narrower body gap in other countries. When I come home I am the culprit, making my fellow Americans feel mildly uncomfortable when I stand too close!

In Europe, people kiss each other on the cheek in greeting. It was a shock the first time a total stranger’s face moved in for a peck on the cheek after a simple introduction, but pretty soon I was doing it, too. However, on the Asian side of Turkey, it is considered racy for a woman to kiss an unrelated man on the cheek, in public no less! I only made that mistake once.

Recently I read an article about the reactions of other travelers to our culture.

  • Apparently, our propensity to fly the American flag is unusual and worthy of comment.
  • The gaps in restroom stalls caused a lot of consternation to visitors who expected considerably more privacy in the privy.
  • Our lack of public transportation was of concern to most world travelers who are accustomed to hopping on buses at convenient times and places.
  • The number of prescription drug ads on TV elicited many comments from people who felt only doctors should be prescribing medications.

All of the people interviewed for that article said they loved the U.S. and that Americans were incredibly friendly and helpful. They admired our independent spirit and overall happiness in life. It was fun to read how foreigners see our culture and just as interesting as when I see it fresh after a trip abroad.

Editor’s note: Sherry Hardage lives in Los Alamos and has been traveling solo in the Americas, Europe, and Asia since she retired from Honeywell in 2009. She is a photographer, writer and guide who organizes tours of Chiapas, Mexico through her website: