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How to bridge cultural distance

Updated: Mar 6, 2021

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We have all experienced cultural distance. When cultures are similar, they are said to be culturally close. When cultures are less similar, they are said to be culturally distant. How can we close the gap between cultures when we live or travel abroad?

Here are a few ideas.


Smiling is a powerful and universal social signal. One of the reasons smiling works is because our emotions are not just individual attributes, they have a social aspect as well. It is this social component that makes our emotions contagious. I think of smiling as an automatic door opener. Smiling makes us more approachable. It takes no energy but conveys a sense of happiness, acceptance, and openness to others.

Our facial expressions are our most obvious social signals.

This does not mean that you have to be someone you are not. If you are not naturally outgoing, you can simply smile politely when you meet others, ask for service, or say thank you. Smiling is a social cue that we are open for engagement. It creates a personal sense of well-being and encourages positive social responses from others.

Be polite

Studies have shown that being polite is one way in which we regulate social distance and create appropriate feelings of closeness with others. When we are in new cultural environments, we may not always know the social status of those around us. Polite language is often used when addressing persons with higher status, so it makes a safe, pleasing, and convenient default.

Being polite often includes a deference to others. By taking the back seat we are lowering the sense of threat and conveying a sense of humility and agreeableness. Simply put, we can’t go wrong by being nice to others. It lowers our chance of inadvertently offending someone and reduces social distance.

It is just as important not to be rude as it is to be polite.

It is common sense, but one aspect of being polite is to avoid being impolite. It is just as important to avoid disagreeable behavior such as arrogance, rudeness, being demanding, or being disrespectful. These behaviors can create the impression that we are not likeable and can encourage social distance rather than social closeness.

Be a good listener

When we are really listening to someone, we shift our focus from ourselves to them. This redirection of attention lets others know that they, and what they are saying, are important to us. A conversation is a cultural exchange as well as an exchange of information. We can close the gap between ourselves and others by showing others that we are listening when they talk to us, by asking questions to show interest, and by shifting our attention to fully listening rather than focusing on trying to compose a response in our head as they speak.

Of course, we eventually have to respond in a conversation. If you have the language skills for it, try to respond in the local language. If not, simply mixing in a few local words is helpful. Studies have shown that people respond to both our use of their language and our desire to use it. Even poor language skills when used sincerely help connect us to others. People will not expect fluency from a foreigner and will usually respond positively to your interest in their language.

Take off the sharp edges

All cultures are different, but it helps if we minimize any sharp or divisive differences. This means that we are going to have to step outside of our own culture and look at its bad traits, traits that might be embodied in stereotyped images that locals have of us. Armed with self-awareness, we can try to avoid accidentally accentuating negative traits and try to balance them with positive ones.

It is ok to copy others and follow the flow of what is going on. Mirroring others can help us get the hang of local customs involving appropriate eye contact, touching, social distance, voice volume, and contact between genders. The key is to be sincere. Most people expect mistakes from foreigners. It is likely that you will always be seen as an outsider so it is ok to be different to some degree. The goal is to minimize differences that interfere with interaction or that violate major social rules.

Join in

Participating with others in a local culture is the best way to remove barriers and make connections. It is also fun and adventurous. For example, many cultures have unique foods; foods that they know are difficult for foreigners to eat. Sometimes trying something new, like a challenging food, can make a connection with others. It is not enough to be interested and respectful of another culture, it is good if we follow-up our interest with participation and interaction.

Cross-cultural interaction is difficult, but fun.

Be an active observer

Finally, it is helpful to make it a point to really observe how locals act. How do people behave when they are talking? Do they stand close? Do they touch? What is the tone of their voice when addressing others who are above, below, or equal to them? Are they serious? Do they laugh often? Sometimes we need to take on the attitude of an investigator. Even something as simple as a field trip to a market to watch others could help us better understand the local culture. The key is to not simply see, but to get out and really observe the details of what is happening around us.

Interested in reading more? For a list of all my books, see

James McGinley, PhD is a professor, author, certified life coach, and licensed counselor. He is interested in applied psychology, whether at work, as a part of a team, in our personal lives and in our relationships with others, or when we face adversity in life – whether from stress, addiction, or exposure to crisis.

(Image credit is Freepik)

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