One of the greatest benefits of a study abroad program is the immersion in a foreign culture and the exposure to attitudes, perspectives and norms that may be very different from what we are accustomed to at home.   It’s important to recognize that sometimes these cultural differences and result in misunderstandings, misinterpretation and even lead to increased security risks.  In some circumstances a cultural faux pas may lead to embarrassment or hurt feelings but in extreme cases they can escalate into assault, arrest, rape or even murder.

Prior to departing for your study abroad program you should do research to get a good sense of social and cultural aspects in the location where you will be studying.  This will help you build a foundation to reduce the risk of misunderstanding or false expectations.  Remember that as a visitor in a new country you need to mold yourself to local customs not the other way around.  This does not mean that you need to agree with behavior that is abusive but you should identify those issues in advance of your travel and it may be a determining factor on whether you go to that particular country or not.  Additionally, you may be better equipped than the local population to interact cross culturally.  Depending on local education levels in the place where you are studying you may be dealing with people who are less aware of the world and other cultures than you are. 

Some of the main areas of cultural confusion and conflict are listed below.  We will discuss each briefly:

  • Acceptable standards of dress/attire
  • Religion / Role religion plays in daily life
  • Use of alcohol
  • Male – Female interaction/relationships
  • Politics / Discussion of Political Views
  • Humor
  • Freedom of speech/individual rights

Acceptable Standards of Dress/Attire:  Social mores and opinions on what type of clothing is appropriate in what type of situation varies greatly from place to place.  Research this in advance and err on the side of dressing more conservatively if there is any doubt.  This is particularly true for women.  In many conservative cultures miniskirts and other revealing clothes may mark a woman as available or even as a prostitute.  This is particularly true if the woman is alone or not accompanied by a man.  We’ll expand on this theme further in the section on male-female relations, but suffice to say that a serious situation can result from local males misinterpreting signals from a female student.  These prohibitions don’t apply to women exclusively either.  In many countries men only wear shorts on the beach and wearing shorts on the street can attract unwanted attention.

Religion / Role of Religion in Daily Life:  In some societies religion plays a more prominent and public role than it does in the US or Western Europe.  This is particularly true in many Islamic countries, though not exclusive to them.   In some countries like Saudi Arabia there is a national religion that carries over into local law and in some countries like India and Lebanon there are fierce divisions between religious groups.  In general religion is a topic to be discussed cautiously or not at all.  Some countries also have laws prohibiting promoting a religion other than the state religion.  Do your homework prior to travel to ensure you do not run afoul of local rules and customs.

Use of Alcohol:  The role and acceptance of alcohol varies greatly from country to country.  Even in countries where alcohol is not banned there are often very negative attitudes concerning drinking in public or public intoxication.  For example in Indonesia, alcohol is not banned but there are conservative elements within the country that have been known to attack bars and other establishments where alcohol is served.  There are also places where public drunkenness is a serious crime.

Male – Female Interaction / Relationships:  One of the greatest areas for potential cultural misunderstanding and even attendant violence.  This is true in particular for female students studying abroad.  Local males may have preconceived ideas about western women, sometimes based on media representations.  They may interpret friendliness for flirting and may become angry or even violent if their advances are rebuffed.  Male study abroad students may put themselves at risk if they pursue local females or make approaches that are considered inappropriate in the context of the local culture.  In some cases even if the girl is interested her male family members may take exception and in some cases even unrelated local males.  It doesn’t take much for this to escalate into a violent situation.  Of course many countries are very liberal about how men and women interact and this is not an issue at all.  It’s important to know the male-female dynamic in the country where you will be studying, and adjust your behavior accordingly.

Politics / Discussion of Political Views:  As with religion, politics is a topic that should be handled cautiously.  Particularly in countries in the developing world there may be a recent history of political turmoil, internal conflict etc. and students may encounter people who were personally involved in these events or have family members that were.  In these cases, things that might be a philosophical discussion in the US, Australia or Western Europe may be much more emotional and personal.  A veteran who fought in his country’s recent civil war is not going to appreciate the opinion of a study abroad student pontificating on why the civil war was unnecessary or why the side he fought for was wrong.  In these cases it’s better to listen more than talk and try to remain as polite, neutral and measured in any comments that you make.

Humor:  Humor often doesn’t translate well across cultures.  Sarcasm in particular is often not understood or interpreted correctly.  For this reason use humor carefully especially with people that you don’t know well.  Practical joking and humor done at someone else’s expense should also be avoided.  This can unintentionally cause embarrassment, even humiliation which can result in an escalation to violence.

Freedom of Speech / Individual Rights:   We’ll discuss this in greater depth in the section on legal systems and dealing with the police but suffice to say that people in much of the world do not enjoy the same rights and freedoms that you may experience in your home country.  When you are studying  in a foreign country you are bound by the local laws of that country, not the laws of your home country.  Many things you may be accustomed to at home in terms of free speech, freedom of assembly and so forth may not be legal in your country of study.  Ignoring this reality puts you in real jeopardy with the local authorities.

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