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Cross-Cultural Preparation

You need to make an effort to understand the new culture, in order to better adapt to your new environment

  • General: investigate laws, legal system, political landscape, current events, climate, health and safety concerns, social issues, religion, history, people, government, economy, geography, language, art and entertainment, transportation, currency, cultural norms and values, customs, taboo’s, dress codes
  • Relationship with the U.S.: find out how your financial position and social status compares to the majority of the people. What are the historic relationships and current ties between the U.S. and your host country? What is the general sentiment towards the U.S.?
  • Diversity: research what the sentiment is towards your race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, etc. Not every culture and country will have the same feelings towards these topics as your home community. Some may be more accepting , others may be less accepting. It is important to have an idea of how you may be treated and how you will cope with it. Key aspects to consider: what are the local attitudes towards these topics? Are there tensions / incidents? What are the laws pertaining to these topics? Will you want to come out to your host family (if applicable)? Are there any expectations for outward appearance or behaviors? What additional safety precautions should you take because of the cultural norms ? What is the size of the local population of your racial or ethnic group?
  • Academic system:
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  • Conisder taking courses prior to departure that teach you about the history, politics, art, religion, and language of the host country
  • Look at tour guides/travel books or search websites about your host country 
  • Talk with others who have lived or traveled abroad (The Global Education Office can put you in contact with study abroad alumni who studied in your host country)
  • Meet with international students currently at Virginia Tech

Knowing your own country is just as important as learning about your host country. As an American abroad, you will become a representative of your country whether you want to or not. You’ll find that most foreigners expect you to have an extensive knowledge of the United States—its history, politics, and geography. Expect to be asked about your opinions. You may well find yourself answering questions about topics you personally haven’t thought much about before. Questions like: How can such a great nation have such a poor education system? Why do you put your old people in homes? How can such a rich country have so many poor people? How can you talk so much about human rights when you have racial problems in the U.S.? Why are you always trying to force your form of government on everyone else? Expect to hear criticism of U.S. policies - remember that such criticism is not personal. Realize that no one is responsible for their government.

The more you know about the United States, therefore, the better you will be able to fare in discussions. Start thinking about issues of race, wealth, poverty, gender, religion and politics here in the United States. In the end, the exchange of ideas, beliefs and cultural values will inevitably prove to be a rewarding experience for both parties.

Apart from knowing more about your host country and your own country, you must also know yourself. We are all culturally encapsulated. Knowing and establishing realistic expectations and goals will greatly increase your chances of having a successful study abroad experience (some answers won’t come till you are abroad). Many returning students report: “I learned more about myself more than anything else.”  See if you can answer these questions:

  1.  What makes me unique (background, habits, feelings, values, and beliefs)?
  2.  Why am I going overseas (recognize your motives. Is it to learn the language, to travel, to investigate another culture)?
  3.  What expectations do I have?
  4.  What do I hope to gain from being abroad?
  5.  Am I flexible (or do I expect everything to be accomplished the "American" way)?
  6.  What is my tolerance of ambiguity?
  7.  What changes am I willing to make in myself?
  8.  What am I most looking forward to studying abroad?
  9.  What currently worries me most about going overseas?
  10.  What will I miss most from home and what are the things I believe I will miss least?
  11.  What challenges do I anticipate?
  12.  What am I willing to attempt?
  13.  How do I respond to set backs?
  14.  How do I handle conflict?
  15.  What is my communication style?                    

Culture is the “lens” through which we view the world. Remember, local people will view you through their cultural lenses, not yours. Culture consists of the shared beliefs, values, expectations, attitudes and behaviors we were taught at home and in school, and seen others model for us in our own culture. It constitutes the cornerstone of our identities—who we think we are, the ways we make meaning, what is important to us and why. 

Some cultural differences will be immediately obvious: language, climate, clothing, food, etc. Some aspects of any culture, such as etiquette and protocol, are fairly easy to grasp. Being cognizant of them will help you master interpersonal dynamics such as greetings, dress, gift giving, and table manners. But most of the culture begins at a much deeper level than you will be able to observe. Many differences will be subtler and may take more time to notice and process, such as whether a culture is focused on the individual or the collective, the nature of relationships, the role of time, how personal space is viewed, and the role of authority and hierarchy.

You’ll be interacting with people who view the world differently than you. You may even find yourself part of an ethnic minority or majority for the first time in your life. Experiencing a different culture is an exciting and personally challenging experience. Things aren’t going to be like they are at home. And that’s the whole point: you’ve left home to experience something DIFFERENT!

Remember, you are a guest in the country. Be respectful of the customs of your host country, be polite, kind, patient, gracious and humble in your interactions – diplomacy is key. Whatever the topic, do your best to discuss it intelligently without giving offense. The goal here is to empathize with the bearer of the other culture.

People want you to accept and feel passionately about your new home. There are examples of “ugly travelers” (and not just Americans) whose arrogance, lack of cultural sensitivity and respect for their hosts, makes them instantly recognizable in an unpleasant sort of way. Remember, you are always representing Virginia Tech and the United States, so take this responsibility seriously. 

The tendency of people to impose their own values and assumptions onto people in a new culture usually inhibits cross-cultural understanding. The key is to work with a culture - accept it for both its beauty and its flaws and find ways to make it work for you. Appreciate diversity, rather than fear or shy away from it. If you are to function happily in a foreign culture, then you have to meet that culture on its own terms, because it's not going to meet you on yours. Letting your barriers fall, accepting new ways of interaction, new ways of thinking and new ways of living are the most important requirements of a truly successful experience abroad. Only then will you begin to understand that our world is indeed a very large and complicated place, with countless paths to countless ends.

“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home.”  - American author James Michener

stereotype map

You may encounter some stereotypes of Americans. Impressions about the United States are acquired mostly through American movies and television shows. Many people have strong views about America, both positive and negative. Depending on your host country, you may find a strange mix of curiosity and antipathy directed toward you.

Studying abroad includes dealing with your host country’s stereotypes about you, as much as coming to grips with your own stereotypes about your host culture. Stereotypes work both ways. You can’t judge a person by using stereotypes if you don’t want them to be equally critical of you. Stereotypes prevent you from getting to the richer reality which lies beyond them.

At some point you might find yourself explaining that not all Americans are rich, not all Americans own a gun, and that what they see of Americans on television and in the movies is hardly typical. As an American abroad, you have the power to change the locals’ opinions about Americans! One challenging stereotype people may have of you is that you are rich. In many countries, there exists an image of the United States as a land of limitless wealth. The reality may be that you are going into personal debt to be on this trip. So, you may feel very much like a poor student! Yet by world standards, you may very well be wealthy because of your access to jobs and education can make you wealthy in comparison. Hopefully you will have a greater understanding and appreciation of what you have in the U.S., both in terms of physical possessions as well as opportunities.

The following are some generalizations about Americans that you may hear in another country:

  • Outgoing and friendly
  • Casual and informal in interactions
  • Ignorant of geography, world affairs, and other cultures
  • Generous and charitable
  • Wealthy, materialistic and wasteful
  • Loud, uncultured, and naive
  • Living to work, not working to live
  • Self-assured, sure to have all the answers
  • Arrogant and self-righteous
  • Blunt and direct
  • Rude, boastful
  • Immature
  • Racially prejudiced
  • Promiscuous
  • Always in a hurry
  • Fast food eaters
  • Gun owners
  • English–only speakers

So, how can you respond to people that make stereotypical comments about Americans? One of the things you can do is explain your culture in terms of its general patterns. Using generalizations, you can give a cultural overview.

l. Robert Kohls came up with a list of values that describe most Americans. Of course, this does not mean that all people living in the U.S. value everything in the same way or to the same extent. It simply means that many, if not most, Americans appear to have these values, and that the culture views these as a positive attribute.

But be aware that all the values listed are judged by many world citizens as negative and undesirable (i.e. the people of many Third World countries view ‘change’ as negative, destructive and threatening).

  1.  Control over the environment (we believe we have the right to alter nature for our own purposes)
  2.  Change is good (it’s associated with progress and considered essential to development)
  3.  Time (control) is important (time needs to be used wisely, leading to emphasis on time management)
  4.  Equality (a belief in the basic equality of opportunity, protection under the law, and social treatment)
  5.  Individualism (each person is considered a unique individual and high value is placed on personal style)
  6.  Self-help (accomplishment is based upon individual effort and what one does for oneself)
  7.  Competition & Free Enterprise (competition is viewed as natural and positive and free enterprise is the preferred economic system to facilitate this process)
  8.  Future Orientation (belief that “the best is yet to come”; we generally have optimistic expectations)
  9.  Action/Work (“Don’t just stand there, do something” is a basic American attitude. One’s identity is derived significantly from what one does for a living. Busy is good)
  10.  Informality (emphasis is on a casual approach to many things, like social interactions, clothes)  
  11.  Directness, Openness ("telling it like it is” admired)
  12.  Practicality & Efficiency ("What works” is valued)
  13.  Materialism & Acquisitiveness (these are a natural reward for hard work, and doing so seen as a reasonable goal
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