Understanding A Different Culture

Understanding CultureUnderstanding a different “culture” is more than just knowing about traditions and foods of a place you are visiting. It’s understanding what different countries & people value, or find humorous or consider offensive. For example, this conversation that really happened to me:

“Jen, did you sit behind a computer the whole time you were in the states?”


“Because you look a little bit fat.”

Gasp! This is a real life conversation I had with one of my African friends upon returning to S. Africa after 2+ months of traveling around the U.S. and England. I mean, yes, there were a few more fat cells stuck to my thighs, midsection, and derrière (thank you Austin food trucks), but no one is supposed to actually point that out, right? Isn’t is supposed to be rude to say things like that?

Well, that’s what my American culture tells me. Fat equals a four letter word that should never be used to describe someone, and is definitely not a compliment to an American’s ears.

Did you know that calling someone fat in African culture is a compliment?

Take a moment to wrap your head around that one. I’ve lived in Africa on and off for seven years, and it still takes me off guard. Calling someone fat means you’re rich and healthy. The sick are skinny, and no one wants to be sick.

Still, the words that I can muster out of my American culture end with a question mark. “Thank you?”  If I’d been offended by the compliment, I’d have offended the speaker.

How many times have you traveled to another place, whether from North to South in your own country or to another country entirely, and thought “How rude!” after someone told you something? Could it be that it was, in fact, a compliment?

Culture is an interesting thing. It dictates our actions. It drives our reactions. It even informs our cooking. It’s a very personal, deep rooted part of our lives which is the very reason that we can get so easily offended.

Here’s a little challenge for you. Next time your travels take you to another place and you hear something that sounds rude, think of it as a compliment instead. I swear, instead of ruining your day, it will have you laughing like a hyena. Leaving my fat conversation, I felt a little bit lighter (even though I obviously wasn’t with those extra pounds), because I laughed my head off that that conversation even existed.

Seriously, though, how can I expect someone to understand my deep rooted culture when I have a hard time understanding theirs? Culture…it’s mysterious, it’s complicated, it’s what makes us unique and for that, it’s beautiful.

(Visited 6,265 times, 4 visits today)

Jen Price

Jen currently makes her home between two continents, one in the great state of Texas and the other in a small town in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa. She wears many hats such as wife, mother, photographer, storyteller, communications director, writer, traveler, and lover of dark chocolate. She writes for several websites including her personal blog, I Believe In Love, where she shares her creative ventures, her photography, and the stories of the orphans she loves on in S. Africa.


  1. Karen :

    This sparked a memory growing up on the east coast, rural area. My mom, born in the late ’30s, grew up with an outhouse (does that set the scene for rural?). When I was a child, my family would call thin looking people “poor”, as opposed to being healthy. (“That girl/dog/whatever looks so poor.”) There were plenty of opportunities in the ’70s to see “poor” people in magazines and TV. To me, at the time, the connotation was clear: “poor” meant skinny, by choice or by genes. Today, I understand “poor”, from 70 years ago, to be a correlation between not having enough money to eat = being skinny/unhealthy. And then there is today: cheap fast food (fat) versus healthy food/gyms for those who can afford it. Unlike the 1600s and 1700s, to be fat (I prefer squishy) in America does not mean rich. I should head over to Africa :)

    • Jen Price :

      Ha, Karen! Isn’t it so interesting how times have changed?

  2. Kelleyn :

    Yes, so so true! My husband is from Germany and I had to learn not to be offended by their openness .

    • Jen Price :

      It’s hard, though, isn’t it, Kelleyn? A good thing to learn for sure if you travel. I love how culture is so different wherever you go, but it does take some getting used to!

  3. Wendy :

    Too funny! When I got back from the states, the ladies patted my thighs and informed that I was looking good. What?! We laughed as one of the ladies informed that big thighs were good for sex and that Brett should be very happy! Ahhhhh culture!

    • Jen Price :

      Ha, Wendy! Those ladies. :)