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Music Courtesy & Cultural Appreciation Abroad

No matter the genre, let music be the universal bridge of courtesy and culture.

Picture of music sheets

In my travels, I am always subconsciously listening to music playing in the background. I took active listening a bit further when I became an expat. I became fascinated and then surprised by the music and lyrics I would hear streaming. It is enjoyable to hear local and international genres of music. From live jazz in different languages to the various renditions of pop music by local artists, music definitely lives up to its cliché of being universal.

There were moments when I was hearing a specific song or series of music and I was surprised. I must admit these songs are not on my playlist and I prefer not to listen to them. So why would I care? Because they are being played in places where English is not a native language. Thus, the true understanding of the lyrics of these songs is lost behind the beat or tempo of the music.

Picture of a recording microphone
Recording Microphone (stock image)

Music makes for a great ambiance in any location. Whether it is a hotel playing upbeat dance beats in its restaurant or international chain restaurants intentionally piping tunes for its diners, these establishments should be conscientious of the lyrics. In the past few months, I have heard songs that overtly talk about sex in English or Spanish. This can be an issue. I experienced such overt lyrics being played in top US hotel brands that espouse diversity and sensitivity in their location’s culture. However, this music was being played in a hotel in Malaysia, in a culture and region where topics about intimacy are deeply personal.

While walking in malls, airport terminals, or retail outlets, I would also hear music that overshadows my shopping experience. The music is full of profanity or demeaning language from specific genres of music. I’ve observed some mall guests and store attendants enjoying the rhythms by bobbing their heads, tapping their toes, or snapping their fingers. I have observed these scenes all too often in the United Arab Emirates, Singapore, Bali, and Indonesia. Again, the participants were enjoying the tempo and were seemingly unaware of the potential inappropriate lyrical context which has been shared.

Picture of a headphone set
Headphone (stock image)

One other point to consider is that, as travelers or expats, we all have our music choices. We like various beats, tempos, and rhymes. As we are guests in the countries we visit, we also need to be mindful of what music we play, especially in public. In spaces like gyms, by the public pool or park, or on an airplane, you might want to consider the courtesy of using headphones or lowering the volume. Being considerate of where you are when listening to your music can go a long way in building relationships, understanding, and respect. The only space in which I have seen a difference is when a local artist performs a rendition of songs. In these cases, the artist omits or changes the potentially offensive language to fit within their context. These scenes of potential sharing of inappropriate or offensive lyrical content reoccur on a daily basis across the world. They listen and even sing the song, in many cases, not knowing what they are hearing or repeating.

By no means am I promoting censorship; but cultural, traditional, religious, and spiritual contexts should be considered and executed when not in your home location. When major brand retailers, hotels, and restaurants are establishing themselves in vastly different locations than their headquarters, they need to make cultural sensitivity a key priority and consideration.

Picture of a vinyl record
Vinyl Record (stock image)

Likewise, as expats, we should extend courtesy and consideration while abroad. Whether you are a temporary resident or tourist; when you are in public spaces adapt and integrate your music sharing habits to suit your location. There is so much music from across the world that can be played that will not be offensive to the local population or even guests who are cognisant of the matter.

So, let us all enjoy the universal language of music’s rhythms and vibes with a bit of courtesy and appreciation for each other's culture.


If you enjoyed this post, have some thoughts on the topic, share them via comments.

— Karla A. Fraser, Music Courtesy & Appreciation Abroad, Roseapple Global, LLC

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