As a participant, you are granted the unique opportunity to engage with the culture of your host country and experience it a multitude of ways. Much of this engagement will be exciting, enlightening, and enjoyable, but at times, you may have cultural interactions that cause embarrassment and frustration. Miscommunication and misunderstandings are common when interacting across cultures, so this is to be expected and taken in stride. Taking time to learn about your host country’s culture in advance will help you ease the cultural transition, learn from difficult moments, and build meaningful relationships and experiences.
What is culture?
Culture includes but is not limited to shared beliefs, ideas, values, customs, and behaviors acquired through learning from and interacting with others. Some aspects of culture are more easily observed, like food, art, dress, literature, dance, music, etc. Other aspects of culture are not as immediately visible, such as methods of communication, expectations surrounding time, attitudes towards authority and individualism, and roles related to age, gender, class, occupation, kinship, relationships, etc. The more informed you are about the history, politics, cultures, foods, religions, languages, customs, concerns, etc. of your host country, the better prepared you will be for living and learning there.
It is also important to recognize that cultures are both dynamic, growing and changing over time in reaction to local, national, and international events, and diverse, being made up of a vast variety of individuals and communities who do not necessarily conform to the broader culture. Consider how your own culture(s) varies by region and personal experience, how it has changed in your lifetime, and how you personally relate to it. The types of complexities you see woven into the fabric of your own country and your own personal experiences are also present within other countries and their inhabitants’ individual life experiences.
How do I adapt to a new culture?
While away, you may find that you easily adapt to some of the cultural norms in your host country, while others may prove more challenging. Spending quality time in your local community as well as using your classes and personal time to delve into certain issues and aspects of local culture will help you understand how a place’s cultural norms arose. Being respectful, flexible, and open to new ways of thinking and doing things along the way will help you gain a better understanding, and perhaps an appreciation, of why things are the way they are. It is not uncommon for participants to adopt certain new cultural attitudes and activities for the rest of their lives. On the flip side, living away may also give you new perspective, both more critical and more appreciative, of aspects of your home country’s culture.
How do I start learning about a new culture?
Educate yourself about your host country’s past and current events before you arrive for your studies. Some ways to begin include:
- Get into the habit of reading news articles about your host country and the surrounding region. These could be international publications (e.g. BBC World, Reuters, The Economist, etc.) or local newspapers/websites from your host country.
- Create a Google Alert that will email you recent articles and publications on a country, city, region, issue, or topic of your choice.
- Educate yourself about U.S. politics and foreign policy and understand that there may be criticism of the U.S. in your host country. Locals will often be interested to discuss U.S. domestic and international politics with you, so it is helpful to have some sense beforehand of how other countries view the U.S. and what topics may come up in conversation.
- Read books by authors from your host country and read travel guides about your host country.
- Look up your host country in the CIA World Factbook.
- Read blogs (such as the Study Abroad Correspondents) about your host country.
- Find out what music is popular right now in your host country – set up a Spotify playlist for local artists, bands, or popular genres.
- Watch movies, TV shows, and documentaries from and about your host country.
- Listen to radio/podcasts on relevant international news and events.
- Meet international students from your host country who are studying at UW-Madison.
- Check out events on campus focused on your host country or region.
- Practice the language of your host country.
- Contact returned study abroad students to learn about their experiences in your host country. The Returned Student Network contains names of students who are willing to share their experiences.
Both before and during your time away research and consider the following questions:
- What has been the U.S.’s historical relations and involvement with your host country?
- Does your host culture prefer a direct or indirect communication style?
- Is your host culture more individualistic or collectivistic?
- Does your host culture tend towards a greater or lesser degree of formality in comparison with your culture
- How are eye contact and gestures used differently?
- How does the host country view time? Are locals early, late, or on time for meetings? Are they past- or future-oriented?
- What role does the family play in the host culture? What role will you play in your home stay, if that is where you live?
- How are gender roles different or similar to what you are used to?
- How is privacy viewed?
- How close should you stand or sit when talking with someone you know only slightly, or know well, or to a stranger?
- Are there topics which are inappropriate to discuss with acquaintances, or inappropriate to discuss at all?
- What role do elders play in society?
- How might alcohol be viewed?
- Does your host culture have different practices when it comes to cleanliness?
- What is a dating relationship like in your host country?
- What is the power structure and politics of your host country? Educational structure?
Can you answer these questions based on your home culture as well?