no. 17 – direction, navigating, local knowledge

As a North American, you feel confident about your mobility skills. Coming from the world’s number one car culture, you’ve been raised in a country that practically invented moving. So, why are you having so much trouble getting around?

Your American mind conceives of directions in a linear way. Addresses, for you, are based on Cartesian coordinates built around the self (“Take a right after the church” or “112 Lorraine Avenue”). However, in other cultures, directions refer to immovable objects (“It is behind the church”) with radial, fluid place concept names like “Brunton Storrs Park,” often without an identifying number.

The forces of nature and the external world play a large role in this concept of navigation and directions. While we believe we are in control of the external forces of nature, other cultures view it the other way around. They do not believe they can control their environment because or exert influence over it, whereas we believe we can control, develop, and manipulate it to our liking.

unwritten rules

Getting from one place to another seems like a cryptic treasure hunt. It’s also perhaps the most outward signal that the invisible hand of culture is at work. Locals also know places without addresses because they have access to shared meanings you don’t. If it seems like “they just know,” that’s partly true. They know the context (backstory) and have the local knowledge (history) you don’t. This enables them to identify geographic locations without a set of concrete coordinates.


Hack this by getting acquainted with the “city center.” It is the “you are here” factor that will save your sanity. It’s also the most obvious point of reference – to meet, shop, and especially to socialize – for strangers too. In nearly every other country, you’ll find one (and an “old city center” too). In Greece, it’s the “platia.” Italy, the “piazza” in Italy, and in France “la Place”. Think of it the the central navigation point from which all other things radiate. It also helps you to become psychologically organized with unfamiliar surroundings.

Visit my website Expat Whisperer for expat coaching packs or listen to my original podcasts on demand. You might also enjoy the always fascinating culture blog feed that deconstructs everyday life. Or, take one of my labs you won’t find anywhere else. I may be travelling somewhere in the world, but you can always find me on LinkedIn, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter.

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