Intercultural Articles and Volunteer NewsIntercultural Learnings (from AFS Intercultural Link News Magazine Volume 5, Issue 3)
Researchers at the University of Essex, in collaboration with AFS, have completed The Impact of Living Abroad, an 18-month study that involved almost 2500 sojourners enrolled in a 10–12-month AFS program, as well as 578 control group participants.
The project investigated four central components of intercultural contact: acculturative stress, cultural learning, intergroup contact and the effect of cultural distance. The AFS Intercultural Link news magazine brings you summaries of the study results and suggests ways for AFS to incorporate findings into our
Those involved in intercultural exchanges often mention the multitude of benefits for participating in such
programs. Lists of such positive take-aways can be lengthy, but they almost always include phrases like
“improved knowledge of the home and host culture”, “better intercultural competence”, “becoming a global
citizen”. Some of these notions were also examined by The Impact of Living Abroad study, through the lens of cultural learning.
Here cultural learning has three dimensions: bi-cultural learning, cross-cultural competence and extra-cultural learning. Each one is examined according to its development over time, the influence of personality, contact with host and home nationals, adaptation and well-being, as well as the sojourners’ evaluation of their experience aboard. The study found that intercultural exchange leads to cultural learning, with increased bicultural learning and cross-cultural competence. It is reassuring to know that this knowledge and transferable skills are in line with AFS Educational Goals and mission.
This study defines bi-cultural learning as cultural specific knowledge, reflecting the idea that the stay abroad is the chance to learn more about both host and home cultures. This type of learning will be particularly useful for sojourners while they are in home and host environments, but it may be difficult for them to use that knowledge elsewhere.
Research has found that sojourners’ knowledge about both the home and host country increased over time
and that this was related to certain personality traits – greater levels of extraversion and openness, as well as the better quality of contact with host nationals, and higher language proficiency. Autonomous motivation and prior intercultural competence also had an impact on learning about both cultures and helped with cultural adaptation.
Having this kind of knowledge did lead to more positive evaluations of the sojourn.
Cross-cultural competence entails culture-general awareness of how to operate and communicate effectively in a cultural setting. This is the ability to operate thoughtfully, competently and with enthusiasm,
in different cultural environments and situations.
While AFSers already have higher levels of crosscultural competence than control participants before the exchange, this competence also increases over time, while control participants do not change.
Significant personality traits are extraversion and openness again, as well as good of contact with host nationals. Cross-cultural competence was negatively impacted by intergroup anxiety, but it related to greater adaptation and well-being in the host country, as well as to more positive evaluations of the year abroad.
Bi-cultural and cross-cultural learning are crucial steps for AFSers to achieve this last stage: Extra-cultural learning can be applied in any context, cultural or not, involving interpersonal skills such as empathy and the ability to shift perspectives.
Personality traits again play a significant role for the participants’ perspective-taking and empathy: sojourners with higher levels of honesty, humility, emotionality and agreeableness tend to increase in empathetic concern and perspective shifting over time.
This in turn decreases stress and anxiety and increases psychological adaptation, self-esteem and satisfaction with life. Higher levels of empathetic concern were also related to more positive evaluations of the sojourn.
The support and structure of AFS exchange programs play a crucial role here: the ability to reflect on and
share experiences through regular monthly contacts and orientations helps sojourners improve their skills and knowledge in the extra-cultural sphere.
Obstacles in the path of Intercultural Learning
When we interact with people from another country or culture we can often identify certain characteristics which are common. For example people are very family orientated, there is a great respect for hierarchy, or there appears to be a reluctance to make independent decisions.
However there is a great danger in using labels and making assumptions especially if we are interacting with a small sample e.g. exchange students. This stereotyping is seen in statements like, “New Zealanders are rugby mad” or “People from X.... don't care about time” We all know New Zealanders who don't like rugby, and if we visited X.... we would find people who are sticklers for being on time.
Stereotypes are dangerous because they do not allow for individual differences, and therefore hinder our efforts to understand other cultures. If we are not careful they can also lead to prejudice because they tend to reinforce negative views.
Unfortunately it is easy to fall into the trap of stereotyping without realising it. For example a family have agreed to host a student from Argentina. They talk to local volunteers and research the internet to discover what they might expect from their student so they will be well prepared. The consensus is that they can expect someone who is warm, passionate, expressive and probably quite vocal. However when the student arrives they find he is quiet, reserved, reluctant to converse, and needing encouragement to participate in activities. “He is more Japanese than Latino”. They conclude. This illustrates two typical stereotypes – firstly the perceived “Latino” temperament, and then the perceived “Japanese” temperament. It takes no account of individual differences and makes assumptions based on incomplete information. The truth is that there are no cultural values that apply to all the citizens of any given country.
On the other hand, generalisations can be a very useful starting point in understanding people from another culture. For example we can say, “People from Z.... are often polite and formal” or “In G..... there is a tendency for people to speak very directly”. These generalisations are open to new information, allow for differences within a group and can be an indication of the dominant cultural values of a country. They are a starting point to understanding people and cultures.
Let us not fall into the trap of stereotyping, but enjoy the adventure of discovering the personality and values of our exchange students as individuals.
It's often said we are what we eat. Culture and food are intertwined, with huge cultural misunderstandings possible around what, how and when we eat!
Eating habits and what we eat are fascinating issues to explore. They are among the most tangible aspects of culture and much intercultural learning can happen over a meal.
The way it's served, the time, the number of courses or the ingredients the food contains can engender fascinating discussions. Not to mention other issues such as slurping soup, or what utensils we use, if any. Where should people sit at the table? Should you talk during a meal?
Is food a necessary fuel for our bodies to be eaten on the run, or is it something which provides an opportunity for lengthy interchange of conversation, of bonding around the meal table? This often depends on whether in your culture time and efficiency are more important than relationships.
Are you going to be restless and uncomfortable if a meal takes hours and conversation seems trivial? Or on the other hand will you feel something is missing if meals appear rushed and conversation lacking? On the AFS level, discover what meal times are like in your student's home. What eating traditions are important to them?
We all know that mealtimes and the number of meals can vary considerably from place to place. But perhaps we should consider why this is so. Is it the climate, or is there an historical or cultural reason?
Then there's the matter of what we call our meals. We all know the confusion that results from Kiwis calling dinner, tea. And just what's supper? How about morning tea and afternoon tea or even smoko? Many of the names we give our meals are also rooted in cultural tradition. This, too, can provide an interesting topic of discussion.
And the food itself can be a huge challenge that some students never completely overcome. Food is so much intertwined with who we are that to be removed from the familiar can have a devastating effect especially when combined with other adjustment problems. And this can therefore affect the progress, if any, they make in meaningful cultural adaptation.
We need to respect customs and cultural values around food, and remember that if other eating habits sound very strange, ours may seem equally strange to someone from another culture. So when you sit down to dinner with those from other cultures, consider beginning a conversation about mealtimes and customs around food and eating. The learning can be fascinating for everyone and can help immensely in developing cultural understanding.
But we shouldn't leave it there. Let's take the opportunity to delve deeper and find out what lies behind the way we eat. Why do certain meal customs upset us or make us feel uncomfortable? How do these things reflect our cultural values? Food for thought!
For a fascinating look at the history of meal customs in England and America check out
And for eating customs around the world (with some links to other interesting websites)
If a host parent complains that their host son or daughter answers back and speaks in an extremely forthright manner, do we interpret this as cheekiness or rudeness, or do we look deeper to find a possible meaning behind the communication style?
There are several possibilities. Yes, perhaps they are so comfortable in the family that they are becoming a bit cocky and cheeky. Or they could come from a culture where a very direct communication style is valued. Or think about this:
One of the most popular pieces of advice that people receive when operating across cultures is,
“When in Rome, Act Like the Romans.”
This advice essentially means that in order to be successful in a situation different from your own, you need to adapt to the local customs, whatever they happen to be. But what happens when you don’t have a perfect read on what these customs or rules exactly are? - Andy Molinsky
I have recently observed a student from a culture where communication tends to be indirect and high context endeavouring to adapt to the kiwi communication style. He had obviously been well prepared before he arrived in New Zealand and knew that it is OK to say directly what you mean. However in doing so he was rather more direct than is normally acceptable here, and his efforts to adapt could easily be interpreted as rudeness.
It is not easy to know just what is the appropriate level of behaviour. Hard enough for an adult but even more so for a teenager.
We need to think carefully about how we prepare host families to understand cultural differences, and to look through the cultural lenses of the other, in order to promote lifelong intercultural learning on both sides.
On a different note here is a good article on cultural adaptation in the AFS context, click here.