Cultural Differences Teaching Abroad: How To Deal15 min read

Cultural differences are going to be an unavoidable fact when traveling abroad. Even if you are living in an ultra-modern city such as Tokyo or Shanghai, you will come across numerous challenges on a daily basis that are directly linked to the new culture you are in. Some of these cultural traits you will find pleasant. A number of them are going to get on your nerves but won’t bother you too much. A few of them are going to drive you completely insane. But, what is there to do about this? Let’s take a look at some of the different ways that you can cope with cultural differences in your new home in order to increase your peace of mind when teaching English abroad.

What cultural differences might I come across?

These are going to be extremely wide-ranging. So much so, that instead of listing out specific differences, I’m going to instead take a look at the overarching differences you will find. As I mentioned above, not all of these differences are going to upset you. Some may even be a source of pleasure and enjoyment such as the food or the music if that it is too your liking. However, what is and isn’t enjoyable is going to be vastly different for everyone.

Different Pace of Life

Different countries and areas of the world can have two completely opposite paces the people go by for their daily life. Take, for example, the difference between Singapore and Thailand which are only two hours apart by plane. These two countries couldn’t be further apart in how the daily lives of its citizens are structured.

Singapore is an ultra-modern city with extremely efficient public transportation that runs on time almost every time. It is quite easy to stay on schedule in the city as it is efficiently maintained so that you can easily get from one place to another in short order. Of course, this is helped greatly by the fact it is a small city-state and an island. However, the proper planning and organizing that has gone into creating the infrastructure of the city, as well as the mindset of the people living there, is what makes the difference.

The small country is also an economic powerhouse that has attracted banks and business from around the world to settle there. This means that a great many of the people living in Singapore are going to be businessmen and women and will, therefore, be more focused on productivity as sensitive to time.

Thailand, and more specifically Bangkok, is the complete opposite in almost every way possible. The city is poorly planned out to the extent that what should be a short 5 Kilometer drive can take almost two hours at certain times of the day. While there are many forms of public transportation, they can be late or crowded and can be difficult to access sometimes. For example, if you have a stroller or a wheelchair you may find it impossible to actually access the station as the elevators are many times not working and it may be only on one side of the street so that you can’t actually get to it without crossing a potentially dangerous road.

The traffic is also very bad so if you live further away from public transport and are forced to drive or take a taxi you can almost always guarantee that you will be stuck in traffic. There is virtually no planning that has gone into setting up the roads which have increased the magnitude of this issue. Also, there are no traffic control systems in place as in many modern cities that can help to efficiently move the flow of traffic.

All of this is in conjunction with the very laid back attitude of the people who place little emphasis on time management. If you are a very time oriented person then you can already see that you would have troubles or at the very least a certain amount of stress, living in Bangkok that might not be present in a place like Singapore or Tokyo.

This isn’t to say that one is better than the other. Only that different countries around the world have a different pace of life which its citizens live by. Geographical proximity to each other can have very little bearing on this such as the case above of Thailand and Singapore or in the case of laid-back Mexico and it’s neighbor to the north the United States of America.

Different Moral Values

Each culture is going to have different moral values that you may or may not agree with. Take, for example, South East and East Asian nations versus Western nations. In many Asian nations, there is an extreme importance placed on face. So much so that it is placed above money and other things. This also means that it is much more common for people to lie to one another either to protect their own face or to preserve the face of another.

Contrast this with a country like the United States. In the US it is considered unacceptable to lie. It does occur. There are even terms for the minor lies people use such as “white lies”. But, telling lies is frowned upon in most any circumstance and can even get you fired from your job, thrown in prison when done under oath, or strain your relationships beyond repair.

These cultures are diametrically opposite one another in so far as societal values are concerned. Again, this doesn’t make one right or wrong. It simply means that this is the way these societies work and what the people of each society have chosen as acceptable for their way of living. If you come from a society that places value on certain things and move to one where the values are opposite you are going to experience a certain level of discomfort or culture shock. This is unavoidable.

Different Standards of Living

Different countries have different standards of living in terms of the quality of life and standards of the citizens. If you come from an extremely developed country such as Canada or the United States and move to a lesser developed one, there is going to be friction. Some people may be able to deal with that friction better than others, however, there will still be some friction as you learn to cope with where you are living.

Even two extremely developed countries can have completely opposite standards of living. Take, for instance, Japan and North America. For the most part in North America, there is a value placed on personal space. Houses are generally larger and the plots of land they are built on are larger as well. There are fences surrounding yards in many cases and the materials used to build the houses generally ensure that sounds will be blocked out from both inside and outside. This isn’t always true as with the case of a city like New York. But, for the most part, this is the standard which people have accepted.

Japan, however, is the complete opposite in this regard. Houses and buildings are very compact and in close proximity to one another. This is true both in Tokyo and other cities such as Osaka as well as in smaller cities or towns. The emphasis placed on personal space is also different as people are generally on top of one another almost all of the time, especially in a city like Tokyo. In Japan, this is the standard that people have chosen to accept.

I will restate that neither one is right or wrong. I am not here to comment on whether one is better than the other or how people should be living. Instead, this is to highlight some of the potential differences you might encounter as an English teacher abroad so that you can be expectant of these things. The differences I have highlighted are general and are meant to be an indicator of what you should be on the lookout for as opposed to specific differences you will encounter.

How can I deal with cultural differences abroad?

Now that you have an idea of some of the different types of issues and differences you can expect when moving abroad to teach English, the question becomes what can you do about them. You can guarantee that you will come across some of the above differences a few times while living abroad. How you choose to deal with these cultural differences, however, is going to make all the difference in how well you get along while living abroad.

Learn the Art of Acceptance

This is probably one of the hardest things to master when you first move abroad. I’ve been living in a foreign country now for over three years and I have troubles with this on almost a daily basis. However, it is the single most important thing you can do to deal with the issues you will be facing. Learn to accept them. Because there is nothing that you are going to do to change them.

You have to remember that the cultural differences you are facing are the product hundreds and even thousands of years of development. One foreigner with some different ideas of how things ought to be done isn’t going to change anything. Instead, you are only going to cause yourself significant amounts of stress and potentially piss off a few of the locals.

What is important to realize is that every place in the world has a different way of doing things. The reason that you believe your way of doing it to be correct is because it is, for the most part, the only way you know how. However, you have to come to terms with the fact that the people in the country you are living in feel the exact same way about the way they like to do things. They may be wrong. It may be inefficient. It may even be completely against your moral standards. But it is the way they like to do it and that won’t change for you or any other foreigner who moves there.

I tried to emphasize above that there isn’t a right or wrong way to do things. This isn’t entirely true. There is a reason that some areas of the world are known for innovation and have accumulated historical levels of wealth and abundance while others struggle with poverty and other societal ills. Obviously, on some level, the countries with the most wealth and innovation are doing something that is working while their poorer counterparts are doing something that is not. However, if you choose to spend your time abroad focusing on those differences you are in for a miserable experience.

As I said, there is absolutely nothing that you are going to do to make people see your way. You trying to persuade people otherwise will generally only make them hold on stronger to their beliefs. I have been to a great many countries at this point in my life and can tell you that generally, people are pretty proud of their country whether they live in an ultra-modern society with a high quality of life or a slum infested land with poor standards of living. It doesn’t matter. It is what they prefer and nothing you do will change this.

Find Your Level of Tolerance

Coming from the United States, I value greatly efficiency and time management. This is something that has been instilled upon me from my upbringing. While this doesn’t mean every single person in the United States values these things it does hold true that it is generally important in our society to be on time and efficient.

When I first moved to Thailand, this was one of the major pain points that I had to deal with. Ordering food at a restaurant became an ordeal as I learned the level of service to be quite different than what I was accustomed to. Oftentimes an order would take thirty minutes or more in a restaurant where I was the only patron. Many other times the wait staff would completely forget to put in the order even though there were only two people there. This isn’t always true. The more expensive the restaurant the better the service. However, the general level is lower than I was accustomed to in the United States.

This isn’t just with restaurants. Anytime I needed help at a call center I could expect to way sometimes hours only to be answered by someone who would tell me they didn’t know how to help me and hang up. Contrast this with my experiences dealing with my American Bank where any problem I may have is attended to and if the person didn’t know the answer they would transfer me to someone who did. It’s frustrating, to say the least.

I have since traveled to other countries that are even worse as far efficiency and time management are concerned and learned that Thailand is where my level of tolerance is at for this matter. While I certainly enjoyed visiting those other countries I would under no circumstances move to one of them.

This is how you have to approach the issue before you settle on a country you would like to teach English abroad in. Examine what is important to you and what values you hold and look at where you are willing to compromise those values and to what extent. Then, do not choose to move to any country that is going to require you to compromise those values beyond a comfortable level.

As I mentioned above it is not the people in the country you move to that are going to be wrong if you don’t like the way they are living. If will be you. The only way around this is to learn to accept things and it is much easier to accept things if they are within your level of tolerance.

Have Other Things to Focus On

It is going to be a lot easier to deal with the things that you don’t like in the country you are living and teaching in if you have other activities or goals to focus on. This can be anything from a business you are working to build to a hobby you greatly enjoy. For me, it has been working to improve my entrepreneurial skills and training Jiu-Jitsu. Though, since my son was born I will admit I haven’t been able to dedicate the time needed to the latter.

Having these particular goals and interests have kept me, for the most part, from focusing on the things I don’t like about living where I am. While this doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally find myself in a bad mood about something it is certainly easier to get out of that mood with a good distraction.

All over Thailand, and probably in every country throughout the world, there are a number for expats that I refer to as barstool commentators. These are people who like to sit around and mumble about the problems they are facing and how they don’t like this or that about the country they are living in. In many cases, they are probably even correct about what they are saying. But, they are miserable.

Who really cares about being right all of the time if it makes you miserable. At the end of the day does it even really matter if you are right? There is absolutely nothing that you are going to be able to do to change things. So, you can either accept the facts as they are or be unhappy for the duration of the time you are living abroad.

Every country has problems. Some places have a whole lot more problems than others. A few even have such crippling problems that they are perpetually on the brink of collapse. However, no matter where you are living and no matter how significant or stupid the problems are focusing on them isn’t going to make your life any better.

So, make sure that while you are teaching English abroad that you have something that you like to focus on other than just the cultural differences. If you do, you will find that you spend very little time actually focusing on those cultural differences if any time at all. You will also find things to be significantly more tolerable and your mood overall better than if you were constantly stressed out by those cultural differences.

What are some final tips?

No matter where you move you will experience some cultural differences. This probably holds true even in your own country. The fact that there are cultural differences isn’t where the problems occur. Instead, the problems occur when you chose to deal with those differences in an unproductive manner. So, if you truly want to enjoy the time you spend living abroad and teaching English you must first make a commitment that no matter what cultural differences you come across, you will choose to avoid dwelling on the things you have no control over and instead focus your efforts on those things you do. If you can do this then no matter what challenges you face you will easily be able to move past it and keep yourself in a positive state of mind. Which, at the end of the day, is the most important thing for preserving your peace of mind.

I want to help you find an awesome job in the ESL industry and then excel at it. I’m a TESOL certified teacher with over two years of experience working both online and offline. I have worked with students ranging from young learners to advanced level university speakers and have worked in recruiting and hiring, teacher training, and content creation. I’ve seen the good and bad of the ESL industry and I’m here to tell you about it.