How To Make The Best Of Your Intercultural Study Abroad Experience
I have always been a culture enthusiast and this was my biggest motivation to embark the adventure of studying abroad. After years on the road, I have no doubts that this is one of most rewarding experiences one can ever had. You meet new people and places, you learn new things, you become more independent and you broaden your worldview in a way you thought you never would.
Still, living abroad is not a bed flowers as everyone else thinks when they see your travel pictures on Instagram. Being deeply emerged in a foreign culture can be very challenging at times. Intercultural exchanges demand a lot of cognitive and emotional energy. You have to force your brain to constantly switch languages, you need to control your nerves every time someone from the other culture acts in a way that (for you) is completely strange or unexpected, you have to work harder than everyone else to prove that the negative stereotypes that people have against your culture do not apply for your specific case.
So, after living the sweet and bitter parts of such experience, I would like to share with you some tips on how to navigate intercultural exchanges smoothly.
Don't take it personally.
"It is not personal, it is cultural." This is the mantra that I carry in my mind whenever I face a challenging intercultural situations. Sometimes people from different cultures behave in ways that might hurt your feelings since, in your culture, this is not the way people usually act. Example: I used to find it strange that other mothers in my child's school did not greet me on streets even though they knew that our children were in the same class at school. Naturally, the first times it happened I asked myself "why don't they like me?" or "did I do anything wrong?". It really felt unconfortable for me. Then, with time and a lot of observation, I realized that here, in Basque Country, people tend to 'be closed' and are not used to greeting people they don't know well at first encounters. I was not the problem. It is just the way they are expected to behave in their culture.
Science has demonstrated that whenever we meet people, we tend to 'put them into boxes'. We instantly judge people by age, race/culture, social class, and gender. The problem with such judgments is that they get us to generalize people by placing them into categories, creating stereotypes. For example: "Oh, this girl is from Brazil, then this girl can certainly dance samba and love soccer"...but, what if I tell you that I am Brazilian but neither can dance samba nor love soccer? Then the stereotype doesn't apply, right? And the thing is, they almost never do (at least not completely)! People are not only built by their national cultures. What they are is a construction of their family, professional, community, organizational and other cultural layers. I am telling you this because, if you judge people just by the culture they come from, you will lose the chance of knowing people by who they really are. And each person is unique. So allow yourself (aka be open) to be surprised by the uniqueness of each person that you cross paths with!
Be mindful, curious and open.
Be mindful: whenever you have the chance to have an intercultural interaction, pay attention to the different costumes of the other culture, observe the way the other person/people think(s) and try to critically reflect on how such new information relate or not to the way you see the world. Be curious: ask questions about the other person/people's culture, try new food, talk to new people (even if you speak different languages), learn about the foreign culture that you are having contact with. Be open: learning about new cultures makes you bigger and better. Every intercultural encounter is a learning opportunity!
Remember you are made of culture.
I think this is the key to intercultural development. Our way to see the world is not the only viable one. Your worldview is not better than the other. It is just different. It sounds very simple but most of us are not aware that we are also very much influenced by our respective cultures. Culture influences the way we talk, the way we think, the way we behave and the way we relate to people. Try to find out more about how people perceive you. If you have the chance, ask them about it. I learned so much about Brazilian culture from foreign friends. I will never forget when a Chilean friend told me that he found it really weird that Brazilians tell everything about themselves to people they had just met. I had never thought about it before but realized that I did it a lot.
Be tolerant and empathetic.
Understanding that people are influenced by culture should help us to be more tolerant of others' behaviour. We need to remember that most times people are not aware that what they do or say may sound very unusual to other cultures.
Learn that cultures can differ in so many ways.
Cultures can, for example, differ in the way they perceive time (monochronic cultures value time, usually do one thing at a time and value punctuality while polychronic cultures have a more fluid concept of time) and in the way they communicate (low context cultures are more direct and rely mostly on language for communication whereas high-context cultures rely on the context to communicate and don´t usually adopt a direct style of communication. Due to such differences, many times a person from a high context culture might see someone from a low context culture as rude if he/she is not aware of such differences). Hofstede (1980) has also identified six dimensions in which cultures can differ. In his website (Hofstede Insights), you can find an interesting tool that compares countries. It is actually even funny to play with it!
Intercultural exchanges can be very stressful at times, but, if you are aware of that and hold the right attitudes (according to the previous points), you will have a lot of fun. Sometimes not in the heat of the moment, but certainly you will laugh a lot at some embarrassing intercultural situations that you might go through!
So that's it! We would love to hear your stories and thoughts about this topic!