Intercultural Issues

Intercultural issues for study abroad participants

"One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things." — Henry Miller

One of the most rewarding aspects of study abroad is the experience of being immersed in another culture.  Students often return from abroad with an understanding of new foods, art, sports, or models of business, science or government; this expanded knowledge helps former participants to be more effective and innovative in their working lives and more satisfied on a personal level.

First, what is culture? 

One possible definition - among millions - is that culture is the set of basic life assumptions shared by a group of people.  It includes how the people see themselves, how they see the rest of the world, and how the group arranges itself economically and politically.

Only some differences are immediately apparent

There are many different models for describing culture.  One is that of an iceberg, because icebergs float, but much of their mass stays underwater.  The part that is easy to see is not the whole thing.  The same applies to culture. 

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. 

The rewards…

There are numerous rewards to be had from being immersed in another culture:

  • Increased self-reliance
  • Better language skills
  • Discovery of priorities and interests that you never knew you had
  • Greater insight into world events
  • A more complete understanding of America’s role in the world
  • Desirability in hiring

…and the challenges

But of course, anything worthwhile is also challenging.  While abroad, you will come to understand that your host country has its own way of handling…

…meeting people and fitting in.  A frequent criticism of Americans is that we are superficial – overly friendly when first meeting people, but then not very good at building or maintaining lasting friendships.  Until you understand local ways, it is wise to be slightly more formal and restrained than usual in dealing with people. 

…space and contact.  All cultures have different notions about physical contact or space, for instance how far away to stand or sit when conversing, or how to discipline children, or how to greet people (a handshake?  a bow?  a kiss on the cheek?) 

…beliefs about safety.  Different cultures have their own ideas about what is a “normal” rate of crime.  People elsewhere think of the US as being dangerous because the rate of violent crime is much higher than that in other Western, industrialized countries.  While your family may caution you to “watch out for the pickpockets in Rome”, Italian parents (for example) are telling their children to “watch out for the murderers in Chicago.”

...sexuality issues.  If you are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered, you should do some reading on your destination.  The countries you visit may be more, or less, tolerant than the US. 

…intimate interactions.  

You cannot assume that the same rules apply abroad as here.  If there is any chance that you will date local people while you are abroad, you should talk to people who understand both cultures’ viewpoints in this area in order to have good experiences & stay safe. 

Casual dating.  Two people going out alone for dinner or drinks with no further expectations is a very American idea, and this does not happen in many other parts of the world.  (People who feel “casual” about each other in other countries usually go out in large groups.) 

Women, especially, must make an effort to learn the rules about what is and is NOT safe to do as early as possible.  Ask female former participants and your on-site coordinators for tips.  Behaviors that are not significant in America – such as smiling at a stranger, making polite conversation at a bus stop, allowing someone to buy you a drink – can result in totally unexpected reactions from men overseas.

Each program site has multiple cultural influences

Expect to encounter many different points of view and ways of doing things within your host country. 

Rural/urban differences

Just as in the US, small town people abroad are very different from their cousins in the city.  The people of Sydney, for example, have a very different outlook from that of Australians living on isolated farms. 

Be aware that there may be an extra facet to becoming comfortable with your study abroad site if you come from a small town but are studying in a city (or vice-versa).  For example, if you are from Crawfordsville and study in Shanghai, you will need to get used to Chinese culture, but also to urban population density, using public transportation, etc.

Some former participants from small towns say that living in a big city for the first time while abroad was an unexpected bonus to their study abroad experience.

Socio-economic differences

Most Americans find it unsettling to consider issues of socio-economic class.  It is a fundamental American belief that most of us are part of the same “middle” class, with equal rights, the same chances of success, and similar life priorities. 

Americans sometimes assume that countries that adopt American fashions, teach English in their schools and do business with the US are also in the process of becoming societies without overt class differences.  In fact, such a model is common in only a handful of countries (most with populations built largely from waves of immigrants from many different places) such as the US, Canada and Australia.  Most other countries consider class differences to be a natural part of society, acknowledge them openly, and sometimes observe them meticulously.

You may be surprised to see the people of your host country openly acknowledging class differences, for example, in the way that junior and senior members of the same organization speak to each other, or in the ways that young people of different backgrounds talk about their career or educational aspirations, or in many other ways.

You may come to know other American program participants whose levels of wealth, education or privilege are substantially different from yours.  Use this diversity to gain a better understanding of America, in addition to learning about your host country.

Majority/minority populations

All of the countries where Purdue sends students have majority and minority populations, just like the US.  For example:

  • Pakistanis, Indians, and Caribbean people in the UK
  • North Africans in France and Spain
  • Turks in Germany
  • Gypsies (roma) in most European countries
  • Haitians in the Dominican Republic
  • Laplanders (saami) in the Scandinavian countries
  • Koreans in Japan
  • Native people in most Latin American countries
  • Aboriginal people and Asians in Australia
  • Indians and Lebanese in many African countries
  • Maori people in New Zealand

Just as in the US, ethnic diversity in other countries sometimes make relations complicated and it also adds variety and richness to the society as a whole.


Work against your own stereotypes…

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.

Before you travel, read about the culture of the country you will visit.  While abroad, 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.

…and those of others

Just as Americans have stereotypes about people elsewhere, they have stereotypes about us.  For example, that we are loud, immature, wasteful, ignorant of other countries, judgmental and promiscuous.

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 yourself.   

  • 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.

Cultural adjustment is a process

Many travelers go through different stages in relating to a new culture.  One of the simpler models to describe this process:

  • 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.

But getting back to 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 a 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 Purdue students before you. 

Actually, many people experience culture shock in their own country, for example, by visiting a new region for the first time. 

Smoothing your 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. 

Before going abroad:

  • Attend orientation
  • Read about your program site in websites and guide books
  • Follow world news
  • Try to meet people from the country where you are going.  You may be able to do this through the International Center's Conversation Partners Program.

While abroad:

  • Stay physically and psychologically well.  Eat well, sleep enough and don’t drink too much.
  • Deal with any dissatisfactions promptly & directly.  If you have concerns about your housing, your academic program, or anything else having to do with your program site, address these quickly so they don’t stew and get worse.
  • Be patient with yourself & others. Remember that cultural adjustment is a process and that everyone goes through it at a different pace.

Checking your progress

Your parents will help you to realize how much you have learned about and adjusted to your host country's culture when you talk them, or especially if they come to visit you. 

When you’re a child, your parents sometimes talk for you, they tell you to look before you cross the street, and they pay for things for you because you don’t know the value of money.  But if they come to visit you, say, in Rome, you will probably talk for them, worry about them not knowing the local hazards (like crazy drivers or pickpockets), and pay for things for them because they won’t know the value of the money in their hands.  That will show you what you have learned!

Returning “home” is an intercultural experience, too

Many people find it challenging to return to campus from study abroad or other travel experiences. It is often while trying to settle back into their former routines that returned study abroad participants realize how much they have grown and changed.  Some report that their overseas experience changes their perceptions, their ways of doing things or even what it means to “be themselves”.  See the extensive section on re-entry and reverse culture shock on our Returned Students page.

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