• If you are citizen of an European Union member nation, you may not use this service unless you are at least 16 years old.

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Service Abroad - Intercultural Issues

Page history last edited by Kelly Behrend 11 years, 5 months ago

Study Abroad: Tools & Tips 

Intercultural Issues



Culture: the set of basic life assumptions shared by a group of people, which includes how people see themselves, how they see the rest of the world, and how they arrange themselves economically and politically


In looking at people from other countries, you can easily see some things about them, such as what they eat, how they speak, and how they dress.  You can learn all of those things from books or TV or movies.  But to learn the deeper things about another culture, you need to spend time living in it.  It is only through immersion that you will come to understand how other people think about their work, spirituality, money, or politics.  



Working Against Your Own Stereotypes of Others

Many people, if not most, have one or more very strong (and usually negative) ideas, not always based on experience or knowledge, about people who belong to another culture.  One of the goals of study abroad is to help students to challenge and overcome these ideas. In the era of global business, media, and frequent international travel, stereotypes are more counterproductive and unnecessary than ever.  Maintain an open mind about what you see.  If something seems strange, try to understand it by discussing it with your program leader or someone else who understands both your culture and that of your host country.


Working with Others' Stereotypes of Americans

Just as Americans have stereotypes about people elsewhere, they have stereotypes about us (e.g., loud, immature, wasteful, ignorant of other countries, etc.).  We suggest that you act in a way that will convince your hosts that these stereotypes cannot be applied to all Americans, or at least not to you.    

  • Watch local people and model your public behavior on theirs, especially in the areas of how loudly one speaks and how one uses alcohol. 
  • Learn at least a little of the local language.  Be able to begin vital inquiries with “Excuse me, do you speak English?”  Also be able to say “thank you.”


A Word to "Heritage Students"

If you are an American going to a country where you have some ethnic heritage, do not expect that you will slip easily into Polish, African, or Vietnamese culture, for example, because your grandparents are Polish, African, or Vietnamese.  If you have grown up in America, you are primarily American, despite other influences.  While you can gain rewarding insight into your heritage and family, be modest in your expectations about fitting in or having an instinctive understanding of your host country.


Culture Shock

"Culture Shock" is a name given to the collection of feelings that sometimes arise when travelers are overwhelmed by cultural differences.   The symptoms can include feeling lonely, homesick, overwhelmed, fearful, angry, confused, or judgmental.

Having culture shock does not imply any shortcoming on your part – it’s just an occupational hazard of living an international and intercultural life.  Just as an athlete cannot get in shape without going through the uncomfortable conditioning stage, so you cannot fully appreciate new cultures without first going through the uncomfortable stages of psychological adjustment.

We can’t prevent you from experiencing culture shock, but we can reassure you that culture shock has been overcome by thousands of study abroad participants before you.  Actually, many people experience culture shock in their own country, for example, by visiting a new region for the first time.  


Phases of Culture Shock

  • The “excitement” stage.  Everything around you is new and exciting.  An open air market appears picturesque, the vendors seem lively, the food for sale smells fragrant & tastes exotic.
  • The “disillusioned” stage.  You have the same experiences as before, but now you make a negative assessment, not a positive one.  The same open air market now seems to have become run-down and chaotic, the vendors seem aggressive or obnoxious, the food has become gross.  “Culture shock” may be a factor at this stage.
  • The “balanced” stage.  With time, you realize that there is as much good, and as much bad, in the new culture as in your home culture – they are just arranged and presented differently.   Your anger and disappointment fade, and you realize that you can function effectively outside your home culture.  It’s clear that the open air market is different from the store where you buy food at home, but you see that both have their advantages.  The vendors are different from the grocery clerks at home, but they all get the job done.  The food is indeed different from food at home, and you’re glad you’ve tried so many new dishes.


Smoothing the Cultural Adjustment Process

As you approach the challenge of adapting to a new culture, remember that you have already done this at least once, on at least a modest scale, in leaving home for college.  Until making that step, you lived in the “culture” of your high school and your parents’ home.  Think of everything that you have learned since then and how different your life is now!


With a little advance preparation, some flexibility and persistence, you can adjust as successfully to the new surroundings of your study abroad program site. 



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