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Four Cultural Sensitivities to Be Aware of Before You Study Abroad

Studying abroad is a phenomenal experience with many opportunities for learning which exceed any single degree curriculum. However, the adjustment to any new environment comes with a learning curve -- especially when you factor in differences between cultures. The good news? Making a meaningful effort to understand these cultural differences in advance can help you navigate them. Read on four a roundup of four cultural sensitivities to be aware of when studying abroad.

Sep 6, 2023
  • Study Abroad
  • Student Tips
Four Cultural Sensitivities to Be Aware of Before You Study Abroad

Studying abroad is a phenomenal experience with many opportunities for learning which exceed any single degree curriculum. However, the adjustment to any new environment comes with a learning curve -- especially when you factor in differences between culture. The good news? Making a meaningful effort to understand these cultural differences in advance can help you navigate them. Read on for a roundup of four cultural sensitivities to be aware of when studying abroad.

1. Gender Roles

Attitudes toward women vary around the globe, with each country’s values and behaviors influencing what is considered “acceptable behavior” for women. The best way to know how to look, act and even dress as a woman? Ask before you go.

Recommends Zahara Heckscher in her guide, Safety Issues for Women Traveling Solo: Stay Safe But Don’t Stay Home, “Female study abroad students should look into the cultural norms and religious codes in the country in which they will be studying. Find out what behavior, dress, etc., is acceptable for women in your destination country and learn about the role gender plays in the society. Social gestures that may seem innocuous in your culture may be interpreted in radically different ways in other societies. Find out what strategies that the local women use to keep safe and to stave off unwanted male advances, as well as what comes across as an invitation to romance. Understanding local culture will help you stay safe. It is also helpful to speak with students who have returned from studying in your destination country, as they will share their experiences and give you advice on safety precautions.”

Additionally, there are a number of online resources aimed at promoting cultural correctness for women. For example, women’s travel resource Journeywoman is a useful resource with categories on everything from culturally correct dressing to culturally correct transportation for women.

2. Leadership Styles

Different cultures have different and pervasive leadership style which can play out in classroom settings. Business Insider provides a handy chart of leadership styles from around the world as determined by British linguist Richard D. Lewis, author of When Cultures Collide. For example, while the UK is more casual in its leadership style, France is autocratic in nature. Consensus rule is big in Asia while “one of the mates” sums up the Australian mindset.

Says Lewis, “Determining national characteristics is treading a minefield of inaccurate assessment and surprising exception. There is, however, such a thing as a national norm….Even in countries where political and economic change is currently rapid or sweeping, deeply rooted attitudes and beliefs will resist a sudden transformation of values when pressured by reformists, governments or multinational conglomerates."

3. Communication and Topics of Conversation

From what you talk about to how you talk about it, communication tactics differ depending on where you are in the world. For example, according to a BBC report on communication and culture shock, while small talk may be an annoyance in Germany, it’s a necessity in Latin countries.

Additionally, certain topics of conversation are welcome in some parts of the world and unwelcome in others. According to TranslateShark, for example, while Spaniards are often eager to talk about football, bullfighting is likely to be a more contentious topic. And while the Swiss are eager to talk about the world economy, they are less likely to disclose personal information until they are more familiar with their conversation partner. These nuances may seem small, they’re important if your goal is to be a culturally sensitive traveler.

4. Food

The world is full of many different kinds of foods and food-related traditions. Understanding the role of food in the culture where you’re studying can make a huge difference when it comes to understanding the culture and its people.

Food studies expert Jennifer Berg told TED, “It’s the last vestige of culture that people shed. There’s some aspects of maternal culture that you’ll lose right away. First is how you dress, because if you want to blend in or be part of a larger mainstream culture the things that are the most visible are the ones that you let go. With food, it’s something you’re engaging in hopefully three times a day, and so there are more opportunities to connect to memory and family and place.”

Echoes anthropology professor Richard Wilk of the critical role food plays in culture, “Your first relationship as a human being is about food. The first social experience we have is being put to the breast or bottle. The social act of eating, is part of how we become human, as much as speaking and taking care of ourselves. Learning to eat is learning to become human.”

Willingness to try new foods and to “change your eating rhythms” is an invaluable way to experience the “cultural resonance of food.” Not sure what something is or whether you really want to eat it? Recommends travel writer Ed Hewitt in Smarter Travel, “Do some homework in this regard so not to offend your hosts, and if the time is right, by all means feel free to ask; learning these things is part of what travel is all about, and I’d rather learn by living than by reading an etiquette book.”

This don’t-be-afraid-to-ask approach is applicable across a broad range of cultural interactions. Because while reading up on your destination and observing the locals are useful ways to prepare, you can't possible know everything, and asking is an expression of interest and respect. That said, cultural misunderstandings can and do happen. Committing to learn from them and move on is essential to assimilation.

Joanna Hughes

Author

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.