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Cultural Differences

“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” – Maya Angelou  

The following is very general information regarding cultural differences abroad. During the pre-departure process and on-site orientation, your program will discuss information specific to your host location. We also strongly suggest doing your own research into the history, cultures, society, and political system of your host location. 

Culture Shock 

Living and studying abroad is an exciting and enriching opportunity. However, the ways in which you see the world versus the views, values, and customs of people from other cultures may be vastly different. This can sometimes cause stress. Culture shock is defined as the stress of the psychological disorientation experienced by living in a culture different from your own. 

Richard Slimbach[i] identifies five phases of cultural adaptation as follows. It’s important to note that you may not experience all of these phases, or they may happen in a different order. 

Phase One – Anticipation: In this phase, you are excited and anxious, all at the same time. You are open to new experiences. 

Phase Two – Contact: You arrive and confront cultural differences. You are still open and accepting to new experiences. There is a sense of wonder and euphoria. For some, this “honeymoon” period lasts a while. For others, it is short-lived, particularly if the program or location proves more culturally or physically challenging. 

Phase Three – Disintegration: The newness of the place and experience wear off and you begin to notice differences more than similarities. Perhaps you are tested by language, food, customs, and transportation methods and distances that are far from the familiar. Most students are tempted to “escape” during this phase, preferring to hang out with American friends, speak in English, or perhaps frequent bars, restaurants, and stores that offer familiar foods or products. They may find themselves chatting online with friends and family from home, listening to music, or sleeping too much – anything to avoid spending time with the host culture. Others may react by trying to become one with the host culture, without regard for self or personal history. 

Phase Four – Recovery: Now you begin to analyze what is bothering you about the new culture and why you are reacting in certain ways. You may also begin to understand the myriad forces shaping local customs and practices. During this phase, seek out opportunities to reflect critically on your experience. Journaling can be a thoughtful way to explore and integrate ideas and impressions. Hopefully this analysis will lead you to see not only yourself, but also those around you, in a different way, and you will begin to accept the host culture, rather than reject it. 

Phase Five – Integration: In this phase, you begin to feel at ease in the new culture. That does not mean that you have been consumed by it, but rather you have become self-aware enough to realize that understanding and acceptance of the host culture does not negate your own values and beliefs. You learn to view the world with multiple lenses and accept that differences are not necessarily better or worse, just different. 

Symptoms of culture shock may include the following: discomfort, irritability, homesickness, hostility towards the host culture, frustration, and other physical symptoms of stress. Some students may have severe cases, becoming depressed and anxious in the new environment. Others may have more mild responses to these stressors. For students studying in cultures that seem very similar to their own, culture shock may sneak up on them, causing unexpected distress. Here are some strategies to help you cope with culture shock: 

  • Know the culture prior to living there. Find out all you can. Talk with people from that culture if possible. Talk with returned study abroad students who have lived there. You can find other Duke students who have studied in your same location here: 
  • Be curious. Explore the values and traditions behind the cultural behaviors. 
  • Bring familiar items from home to help you feel comfortable as you acclimate. 
  • Try to engage in familiar hobbies and routines to the extent possible, while also being open to new experiences. 
  • Have a sense of humor! You will be making many mistakes and that is okay! 
  • If you become sad or depressed, let others know. Your program can guide you toward resources to help. Understand that you are not alone in having such feelings, especially as you navigate a new culture. 


[i] Richard Slimbach, Becoming World Wise: A Guide to Global Learning, Stylus: Sterling, Virginia, 2010 

Fitting In[ii] 

Social customs differ greatly from one country to another. It is therefore impossible to give guidelines that will be applicable in every culture. You can be yourself as long as you remain friendly, courteous, and dignified. Always keep in mind that you are the guest in someone else’s country. Therefore, you would be safe to assume that your behavior should be regulated pretty much in the same manner as if you were the guest in someone else’s home. On the other hand, as an outsider, especially if you err on the side of being respectful, some allowances are likely to be made for the things you do not immediately understand. 

Politeness. In keeping with the relatively formal manner of social customs abroad, you should place much more emphasis on the simple niceties of polite social intercourse than you might at home. Be prepared to offer a formal word of greeting to whomever you meet in your day-to-day activities. For example, should you approach a clerk in the local market in Strasbourg always be courteous enough to begin your conversation with, “Bonjour, Madame (Monsieur, Mademoiselle)” before you launch into your inquiries about the products, and become familiar with the appropriate expressions of gratitude in response to your hosts’ hospitality. 

Humor. While each country has its own particular brand of wit and humor, very few cultures appreciate the kind of “kidding” to which Americans are accustomed. Comments, even when intended to be humorous, can often be taken quite literally. 

Speaking the language. When it comes to language, most people will be extremely flattered rather than amused at your efforts to communicate in their native language. Do not be intimidated or inhibited when practicing your own limited command of the language. A couple of words of caution might be in order: do your best to avoid slang expressions, which are usually unique to the particular culture, and which may therefore be totally meaningless or inappropriate in the context of another culture. Be aware of the differences between the “familiar” and the “polite” forms of address and be sure to use them properly. 

Do not try to translate American idiomatic expressions directly into the native language. Idioms as a whole may be complete nonsense when translated into another language. While it is not true that all people speak English, it is true enough for you to be wary of making impolite or tactless comments on the presumption that those within hearing distance will not understand what you are saying. 

While it may be interesting and useful to learn to recognize and understand swearing in the host language, it is safest to refrain from using it yourself. Only a native speaker can understand the full impact of taboo language and judge what is, at best, inappropriate and at worst, seriously offensive in the cultural context. 

Non-Verbal Gestures. Do not assume that a familiar gesture has the same meaning in the host culture that it does in your own. The meaning can turn out to be quite different, and in some cases can be as offensive as the strongest swear words. Try to take your cues from the locals. As you get to know people, ask them what they mean by certain gestures you observe. This can lead to fascinating cross-cultural discussions and help you learn how to fit in better with the culture. 

Physical contact. When establishing social relationships, “play it by ear” in determining the level of familiarity that you should adopt at the various stages of your relationship. Physical contact, for example, may not be especially appreciated or understood by someone unfamiliar with the American idea of camaraderie; a cheerful pat on the back or a warm hug may be quite embarrassing and uncomfortable in certain cultures. All cultures have different notions about social space, for instance how far away to stand or sit when conversing, or how to shake hands or wave farewell. Restraint is advisable until you learn how the locals do it and what they expect of you. 

Personal questions. Let your hosts point the way when engaging in “small talk.” While Americans may find it easy and quite appropriate to talk about themselves, in some countries, your hosts may view this as being as impolite as asking personal questions of them. 

Drinking and drunkenness. Be extremely sensitive of others’ attitudes and feelings when it comes to drinking. You will probably find that your hosts enjoy social drinking as much as any American, but they might not look upon drunkenness as either amusing or indeed tolerable. 

Price bargaining. Haggling over prices can be another sensitive and vague subject. Haggling is not only appropriate but also even expected in some circumstances. The trick is to know under which circumstances haggling is appropriate. Unless you clearly understand the difference between appropriate and inappropriate circumstances for this sort of social bargaining, you may very well find yourself insulting the merchant and further reinforcing a negative stereotype of Americans. You can always test the waters by politely indicating that you like the product very much, but that it is a bit more than you had anticipated spending. If the merchant wishes to bargain further, this will give them the opening they need to offer you the product at a lower price. If it is not that kind of an establishment, you can simply (and politely) terminate the conversation. 

Talking politics. Expect people abroad to be very articulate and well informed when it comes to matters of politics and international relations. Do not be at all surprised if your counterparts try to engage you in political debate. There is certainly no reason for you to modify your own convictions, but you should be discreet and rational in your defense of those convictions. Here again you may very well find yourself butting heads with another of those unfortunate stereotypes, such as the arrogant American who thinks everyone must fall in line with the United States. 

Photography etiquette. You may want to record many of your memories on film or in digital form, and it is often convenient to include some of the local populace in your photographs. However, remember that the people of whom you take photos are human beings and not curiosity objects. Be tactful and discreet in how you approach photographing strangers; it is always courteous and wise to ask permission before taking someone’s picture. 

[ii] Adapted from a handout written by Jane Cary, formerly of Amherst College.