Switching Cultures & Codes: How to Handle New Interpersonal Boundaries

by Published

This article was originally published in “Meaningful Travel Tips and Tales: Sexual Violence & Harassment Abroad.”  Download the ebook to read more stories and strategies from travelers about dealing with sexual harassment while traveling.

Preparing to study, intern, volunteer, or teach abroad often has us downloading Duolingo and trying to remember conjugations in another language, but navigating a new country also means navigating a new culture and a whole new set of codes.

Switching Cultures & Codes: How to Handle New Interpersonal Boundaries

What do I mean by codes? If you talk differently when you are with your friends than you talk at work or with professors, then you have already mastered code switching. We constantly change the way we interact with certain people based on the social situation— that’s your basic code switch definition. What comes off as funny with a friend might be read as incredibly rude with a stranger. This goes beyond just offending someone, however, and can also have an impact on your own personal safety abroad or the ways you come across to others.

Being aware of the way that codes can change from culture to culture is vital for having a safe experience abroad. Sometimes words you say and things you do every day, like hugging a friend or just existing with a certain skin color can take on different meanings when you step off the plane in your new host culture.

Since each country – and regions within those countries – comes with its own set of meanings, I can’t give you a guidebook of exact do’s and don’t’s, but here are some of the topics you should consider when moving around your new home and interacting with people in a culture different than your own.

Reality: Saying “No” Changes in New Cultures

Chances are, you’ve probably heard the expression “No means no!” when discussing consent and sexual assault. While this phrase seems simple enough, it isn’t necessarily reflective of situations you might find yourself in while abroad.

Man and woman standing n a dock
Each culture has its own expectations for how men and women interact.

Going beyond NO.

In some countries “no” can often be understood as an obligatory statement that precedes an eventual “yes.” In more everyday situations, this means you can’t accept a gift on the first offer, but it can also often be seen as playing coy when someone is making sexual advances. 

For example, if you’re going out in Buenos Aires and someone tries to hit on you, telling them “no” is often considered a game. “No” is seen as a mandatory refusal to maintain appearances and is an invitation to keep trying. If you really want them to stop, you may have to step it up a notch by insulting them. It seems harsh, but it’s the name of the game. This is by no means the only – or even always the best strategy. It is important to make sure that you feel safe, however you choose to respond.

Consent.

This rule works in the inverse, too. If you’re trying to approach someone, take a second to reflect on the norms of the place you are. In many places, people, women especially, may feel they have to be polite even when they aren’t interested. Affirmative consent (seeking a freely given and enthusiastic yes) is always best. And if you find yourself on the receiving end of one of those insults, take it in stride and leave. It’s not personal, but they are definitely not interested.

Couple sitting by the water watching ducks
Dating at home can be hard enough, but now you need to take into consideration new cultural norms and meanings!

Reality: Norms for “Touching” Vary Across Borders

We communicate with more than just language — we also communicate with gestures, expressions, and often touch. When it comes to thinking about sexual harassment abroad and consent, these other forms of communication can have a big impact on how we are perceived without us ever thinking about it. 

Personal Space.

I grew up in Brazil and the United States, and one of the biggest differences was personal space. Every time I came back to the U.S., I had to consciously take a step back because it was considered invasive to stand so close. While I grew up having to think about these changes (and code switching), this distance may not be something you think about unless you’re the person someone is standing way too close to.

Standing closer to people than is typical for that culture can often have the unintended implication of sexual interest or aggression. This is especially true for those coming from Asia and South America to Europe and the United States. To help avoid these unintended meanings, observe those around you to see what is typical.

While moving somewhere with a significantly smaller personal space bubble means getting accustomed to casual bumps in public, it can also lead to people abusing that closeness to cop a feel. Unwanted harassment is never okay, but be careful to assess the situation before you respond. In some countries, moral codes work in your favor and calling someone out can be a useful strategy to protect yourself, but in others it may be safer to remove yourself if possible. Being open with friends and locals about the topic and their strategies is one of your best tools for navigating these situations, avoiding sexual harassment while traveling, and maintaining your personal safety. 

Men sitting together outside
Platonic relationships, romantic relationships, and sexual relationships all come with their own set of cultural codes.

PDA.

You have to be careful about what kind of touch, even when consensual, is considered appropriate in public. When I lived in India it was very common for pairs of men or women to hold hands while walking down the street with no implication other than friendship, but that same act would’ve been interpreted very differently back home in Oklahoma. 

This isn’t to say you strictly should or shouldn’t hold hands with someone in public, but you should be aware that the meaning of your interactions might vary depending where you are, which can also mean finding yourself in a vulnerable situation.

Gender.

Gender also plays a huge role here. No matter your personal politics, in many places it is seen as inappropriate for men and women to touch each other in public. As with any situation, make sure that you have consent for things like hugs that you might not even think twice about at home. 

Similarly, if you are coming from somewhere where these forms of touch are rare, take a moment to consider their different meanings. A hug or touch from someone might simply be casual rather than sexual. Consider what seems to be normal for interactions around you.  It should be noted that you should always feel comfortable setting your own boundaries.

Just because it is a norm doesn’t mean you have to do something that makes you uncomfortable.
Young couple at night
Get the 411 on PDA. When is it cool, when is it not, etc.

Reality: Your Skin Color Can Affect These Interactions

Let’s dive into a race-y topic. While the other topics discussed have been things that you can consciously change, the reality of living abroad is that we can’t control everything. One of the biggest codes that can affect how others interact with you abroad is your skin color or country of origin.

This is mostly true for times when you go to a country where you are a minority, but can have a large impact even if you’re aware of how your race takes on meaning in your own country. For those of us with cultural ties to multiple places, your skin color or home country might have more of an impact than you expect. 

For example, my Trinidadian friend was often mistaken for Dominican when she was in Buenos Aires. In Argentina, Dominican women were associated with prostitution and she endured a lot of sexual harassment while traveling. These stereotypes, even though they didn’t even reflect her own nationality, often affected her experiences. On the flip side, in India, American friends with very fair skin or blonde hair got a lot of attention from everyone and people often took their picture. While this positive attention can seem exciting at first, it also comes with the potential for sexual harassment abroad.

This label of “exoticness” often comes with notions like “American girls are easy” or that men from certain parts of the world are sexually aggressive. One of your best defenses is to be familiar with the stereotypes before they are applied to you.

Hands holding coffee
Best of luck cracking the code! Remember your comfort and safety comes first.

Cracking the Codes — Here’s how

So what do you do to prepare and navigate these new codes for platonic, romantic, and sexual relationships while remaining safe and respectful abroad? 

  • Research. There are lots of forums and guides out there that talk about what to expect when it comes to notions like personal space. These are often focused on business relationships, but can help you plan to protect yourself from unwanted sexual situations as well.
  • Observe. Pay attention to the way people around you interact with one another.
  • Ask. Some of these topics can feel a bit bizarre to talk about, but ask local friends you make or even program staff if you’re with a group.
  • Stop & Reflect. What assumptions have you made about your interactions with someone? How might your own words and actions have an unintended meaning because of the situation? Have you established affirmative consent or are you just assuming someone is interested?
  • Pick a Sign. When you are out with your friends, you should make sure to check in on them from time to time. Have a signal in case you or your friends start to feel uncomfortable and want to escape a situation.
  • Follow your Gut. While you should keep all of this advice in mind to consider new meanings abroad, you should also trust your gut. Even if something seems like it is a norm, if it makes you feel uncomfortable or unsafe, you should remove yourself from that situation if possible. 

Understanding codes can help you navigate everyday life abroad, but ultimately we each have our own sets of values and meanings. One of the biggest things living abroad teaches you is to be aware of things you take for granted back home and to adapt to different situations. Keeping these topics in mind will hopefully help you navigate (or avoid altogether) any potential sexual harassment while traveling, so that you can be prepared for the exciting new experiences time abroad will send your way. 

Download our FREE Ebook on Sexual Violence & Harassment Abroad

*Note: The terms sexual violence, sexual harassment, and sexual assault are defined within this eBook, but used in varying contexts between each writer’s individual experience. If you’re interested in contributing to this ebook, you can email Editor Erin Oppenheim at erin.oppenheim@goabroad.com.