Intercultural Preparation - Would a British Man be an alien in New York?

How close is “far” and how far is “just around the corner”?
Will you shake hands with your supervisor?
Will you miss the traditional foods of your home country?

When flying to Kunming, China, you should plan a long flight over Beijing and consider an acclimatization period of 3-4 days. Therefore it’s best not to arrive on Sunday to start the internship on Monday.

If you have a day trip from Tbilisi, Georgia to the infamous Dawid Garedscha monastery, the distance of 50 kilometres does not seem far to you according to German standards. But… 30 kilometres of the route consists of stone roads. Therefore, the walk might take much longer than anticipated.

If you want to complete your research stay in Siberia, a cold shower awaits you in August for two weeks, since many cities complete their yearly maintenance during this time.

And don’t underestimate distances between your home and destination country. Even in countries that are not too far away (such as Austria or Poland), things are quite different than they are in Germany.

What do these situations show you? That you should know the traditions and customs of your destination country? That you should be familiar with culture-specific behaviour?

Bon! Très bon! Therefore, the following subpages will give you an idea of which cultural aspects you should consider while preparing for your trip and how you can adapt to the new culture.

Know Your Own Culture

How well do you know your own culture? Can you explain common behavioural patterns?
How do you want to represent your culture to foreigners?

You usually know what and how to do something… but you usually don’t question why you do things this particluar way.

Without looking at your own culture from a different perspective, you can’t fully explain your own behaviour. Therefore, it’s helpful to understand what other cultures and people consider to be typical in your home country. Consider the clichés and history of your culture in order to better comprehend your roots.

Gifts for guests
Take postcards, photographs, specialties (such as Belgian chocolate if you’re from Belgium), or souvenirs from your home country. Future colleagues, flatmates, or host parents will be delighted to learn something about your culture.

Recognize Cultural Misunderstandings

I really put my foot in it!
You’ve surely heard anecdotes about foreigners accidentally saying something embarassing or upsetting while being abroad (aka putting their foot in it.) These situatios can be funny and instructive, because it results in intense (but uncomfortable) contact with the foreign culture. On the other hand, they can be unpleasant and should generally be avoided in the workplace.

Often such unpleasant situations are the result of misunderstanding. which can largely be avoided by getting to know the cultural peculiarities and differences of your host country. This way, there are less chances for letting stereotypical ideas about foreign cultures take over reality.

Our Tip: Try to observe and describe a situation instead of interpreting it right away.

An example: A student from Cameroon asked his internship supervisor to extend the deadline for an important project report. He explained that his brother is very ill and needs to be taken care of by him (the student.) He spoke very quietly, while the supervisor emphasized the urgency of the report and looked him in the eye. In turn, the Cameroonian avoided the glances which irritated his supervisor. During a lunch break, the supervisor sat with a colleague and tolf him about the trainee’s concerns. She said she doesn’t believe a word he said because he had spoken so quietly and couldn’t look her in the eye: “When I looked at him, he looked away and I don’t know whether he listened to me or understood me.”

With a little background knowledge and intercultural sensitivity, this situation can easily be explained. In Cameroon, it’s common courtesy to speak quietly and avoid eye contact while conversing with elders because it shows respect and esteem to the elder.

Thus, the trainee was polite and respectful towards his supervisor, but was misunderstood. In addition, family is very important in Cameroon (and many other countries), which is why one’s own interests and obligations are sometimes put on the back burner in order to tend to family needs.

How to Deal With Cultural Misunderstandings

In general, many misunderstandings are based on a stereotypical thought: we are used to communicating with people of the same culture and expect our counterparts to behave like us, while the person from a foreign culture thinks the same way. These situations are challenging and can lead to confusion, anger or frustration. But thanks to acquired intercultural competencies, they can be be managed quite well.

If you react to life abroad with anger, impatience, or frustration, be aware of your emotional reaction and:

  • Respect foreign traditions and values, like the role of religion in the foreign society, even if you do not agree with it.
  • Try local food and traditions to reduce inhibitions and prejudice.
  • Be patient and understanding. Working with foreign trainees or employees might also be an unfamiliar experience for your new colleagues.

Also note that cultural differences are particularly noticeable in eating and drinking habits. For example, the (mostly) German and European custom of drinking sparkling water is a peculiarity that can’t always be found in other countries. For example, many Parisians order a pitcher of still water at a restraurant because sparkling water can get pricey in restaurants. In general, sparkling water is reserved for special occasions and for when you really need a refreshing beverage. This might make a German intern might wonder why sparkling water is a bit less common in France.

These are some things to consider when eating local foods:

  • In Asian countries, you should never cross your chopsticks or lay them in an orderly manner for the same length of time because some believe that it could cause bad lucj. Don’t beat chopsticks against bowls or plates either, because this behaviour would be associated with East Asian beggars.
  • Also, don’t leave your chopsticks vertically in a rice bowl.

While preparing for your stay abroad, learn about specific eating and drinking habits. That way, you can avoid embarrassing situations during lunch with other interns and unpleasant moments during a business lunch with your supervisor/clients/research manager.

Cultural Workshops

Participating in a workshop on cross cultural communication fosters cultural sensitivity and teaches students ways they can avoid misunderstandings in social situations. You can find the dates for workshop events in our event schedule, at the International Office of your university, or in adult education centres.

Information on cultural differences and whether one finds their cultural perspective to be right or wrong can be discovered through case studies and online websites.

Academic articles and case studies on intercultural communication can be found through online databases (such as your university’s online library and websites like Google Scholar and JSTOR). You can also find out about intercultural learning on Goethe-Institutes’ website. Expat sites, like Expat News, are also excellent for preparing to move abroad, or you can delve into some of the topics in DAAD’s internship guide.

Students and graduates of TU Dresden can also attend events from the Studi-SPRiNT – Program for optimal intercultural preparation.