As the United States population becomes more diverse and camps employ more international staff, the issue of communicating and interacting effectively with people from other cultures becomes more important. Having respect for cultural differences and learning basic characteristics of other cultures can help you avoid misunderstandings and unintentionally offending others.

Effective Communication

Communication is an area that can be especially challenging for those uninformed about cultural differences. A simple nod of the head or smile may be interpreted as something you had not intended.

For example, around the world a smile can relay many emotions, not just happiness or pleasure as in the U.S. In Japan, people smile when they are sad, angry, confused, and happy. Asians smile to show disagreement, anger, confusion, and frustration. Some people from Japan and Asia will not smile for official photos, such as passport photos, because these are considered serious occasions and they do not want to look as though they are not taking the situation seriously.

Eye contact varies around the world as well. If a staff member will not look you in the eye when speaking, do not take it as an insult. People from any Asian and Latin American cultures avoid direct eye contact as a sign of respect.

Overcoming Language Barriers

Language differences can make communication difficult, but if you are creative you can find ways to communicate effectively.

Talk slowly and clearly. It may sound simplistic, but don't shout at people if they don't understand what you are saying. Restate the statement in a different way or repeat it more slowly. Use other methods of communication, such as making drawings, demonstrating or acting out, or using hand motions.

When speaking, avoid using slang and common idioms. Idioms, such as "in the long run," "no kidding," or "barking up the wrong tree," can cause confusion for non-native English speakers. Also, explain common camp phrases to staff members. Most probably won't be familiar with phrases you use every day.

Try to learn a few common phrases in the languages of your international staff and campers. This shows you are interested and helps them to feel more comfortable.

Many cultures have difficulty saying "no" to a request, and some internationals may say "yes" when their answer is really "no." Carefully phrase questions so that they can be answered positively. For example, say "What can I do to make your time at camp more pleasant?" instead of asking "Do you like it here at camp?"

Names and Time

People in the U.S. generally call others by their first names, but this is not true of all cultures. Ask staff and campers how they would like to be addressed. Make sure to call them by their real name, not he U.S. equivalent or nickname unless they prefer it. If you have difficulty saying their name, ask for the correct pronunciation.

Explain your expectations in regard to time and punctuality. Cultural background influences what people consider to be on time, late, and early. Make sure up front that staff members know when you expect them to be at their job.

Food and Dining

What and when people eat varies around the world. Many cultures eat the main meal at midday and have a light meal in the evening.

Some traditional camp fare may seem unusual to international campers and staff. For example, marshmallows (and s'mores for that matter), watermelon (and spitting seeds), hot dogs, and corn on the cob may cause internationals to raise their eyebrows in curiosity. In many countries, corn - especially on the cob - is fed only to animals. Take the time to explain certain foods and the corresponding customs, and understand if staff and campers choose not to eat a particular item.

Just as you explain unfamiliar foods, ask about foods common in your staff's home country. Consider having a special evening where foods from their countries are served. Make an effort to have these traditional food items available for your international staff to eat, but keep in mind that the U.S. versions of many Chinese, Italian, and Mexican dishes are very different from what is served in those countries. Ask staff what foods they would like and, if possible, allow them to prepare the dishes themselves.

Some cultures will not take food the first time it is offered. Try offering the item at least two more times to ensure everyone has had a chance to try a dish. Also, many Asians and Saudi Arabians make noise when eating to show their appreciation for the food. Be sure to interpret this as a compliment, not as bad manners.

Learning about other cultures and having respect for differences can go a long way in creating successful relationships. Be objective, have an open mind, and your camp will benefit from an international influence.

Hand Gestures Around the World

These common hand gestures have different meanings in countries around the world.

  • American OK symbol: considered obscene, offensive, or vulgar in Brazil
  • Nod of the head: means "no" in Bulgaria and Greece, in most other 
    countries it means "yes"
  • Thumbs up: considered rude in Australia, Afghanistan, Nigeria, and some other
    Middle Eastern countries; means OK in most other countries
  • Crooked index finger (come here gesture): considered an obscene gesture
    in Japan, used to call animals in Yugoslavia and Malaysia, used to summon 
    prostitutes in Australia, and considered a threatening symbol to children
    in Southeast Asia


Originally published in the 2000 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.