Preparing for Cultural Differences tips from the Global education office

At the end of this module, you will be able to...

  1. Describe culture, intercultural competence, and ethnocentricity.
  2. Determine ways of developing intercultural competence and combating ethnocentricity .
  3. Assess your own cultural profile and how it relates to cultures around the world.

Like most learning content, you will get out what you invest in. We recommend having a paper, pencil, and your thinking cap ready for use as you engage with this learning module.


What is culture?

Write down 3 words on your paper describing New Mexican culture...

So...what exactly is culture?

Culture is “a learned set of shared interpretations about beliefs, values, norms, and social practices, which affect the behaviors of a relatively large group of people” (Lustig and Koester 2013, 25).​

Write down as many differences in culture you may encounter abroad!

Some cultural differences include:

  • perception of time
  • family structures
  • hygiene
  • clothing
  • personal space
  • religion
  • manners
  • body language
  • gender roles/norms
  • food and meal times
  • greetings and communication
  • ideas about ethnicity/race
  • sexuality
  • and those you wrote down!

Brainstorm: What areas may present challenges for you personally? How might you respond to them?

Understanding cultural differences – and how to navigate them – will make your experience more comfortable, and help you better understand the people and places around you.​

Be aware: while some aspects of culture will be easy to identify, other aspects may be more difficult to observe and/or understand. Think of culture as an iceberg, you may not see all that lies below the surface.
Source: https://www.slideshare.net/MotazHajajMSCSMA/cultural-differences-between-the-united-states-and-saudi-arabia
Intercultural Competence

What is intercultural competence?

Intercultural Competence is the ability to communicate EFFECTIVELY and APPROPRIATELY with people from other cultures​.

Write down 3 reasons you'd want intercultural competence...

Developing your intercultural competence will promote:

  • Meaningful communication
  • Perspective taking
  • Strengthened relationships
  • Acceptance
  • Trust
  • Respect
  • Reduced conflict

Think aloud- how does one develop intercultural competency?

Did you say...

  • Read and research the culture
  • Study and practice the local language
  • Seek clarification- ask instead of assuming
  • Look for someone to coach you
  • Don't be afraid to ask for help

There are many ways to develop intercultural competency. Like any competency, it begins with a desire to learn.


What is ethnocentricity?

Aside from a fancy new word you can use to wow your friends...

Ethnocentricity is the act of judging another culture and believing that the values and standards of one's own culture are superior – especially with regard to language, behavior, customs, and religion. (McCornack, and Ortiz, 2007, 109)

While ethnocentric tendencies can strengthen the connection between in-members of a group, it can also cause divisions and conflict among people of different groups.

Can you think of an example of ethnocentric behavior?

Any time someone criticizes, judges, or condemns another for a difference they are likely being ethnocentric. When people reinforce their own groups, such as saying your nation has the best athletes at the Olympics, they may also be considered ethnocentric.

Which of the following would be considered ethnocentric behavior?

  1. Saying, "Eating with chopsticks is too complicated. Forks are better."
  2. Showing disgust when offered insects, or something unfamiliar, to eat.
  3. Becoming impatient because your homestay family eats meals late.
  4. Plugging your nose when you walk by dried fish in the street market.

All of these examples show some level of ethnocentricity.

How do I combat ethnocentric behaviors?

  1. Suspend judgement.
  2. Question, why might it be this way. You'll likely discover interesting reasons why cultures operate in certain ways.
  3. Try something new. Engaging in new cultural activities can widen your global perspective and reorient your cultural compass.
  4. Work on developing your intercultural competence by reexamining your own cultural traits and how they may appear odd to others.

*This is not to say you should try everything and anything another culture practices. It is ok to respect your own boundaries, as long as you don't devalue someone else's experience or practices. Culture is relative- consider what you are seeing based on the context you are currently in, instead of judging your host culture based on your own context. Rather than making a value-based judgement against another way of living, take the opportunity to learn more about your host community and the contextual underpinning of why it operates in certain ways.

How can I Determine My Cultural Profile?

Culture Flex

As individuals, we have a cultural profile. Likewise, countries have a national cultural profile.

Once you know what YOUR cultural profile is, you can predict where conflict or confusion may arise​.

Be aware: although cultural dimensions provide generalizations about national character and how to compare one culture to another, they do not necessarily describe each individual​. Remember there are sub-groups with the larger culture group that will often present different or even opposing dimensions​. You probably have realized this when thinking about how New Mexico may be different than other states in the US, or how northern NM differs from southern NM, or even how you differ from members of your family.

Comparing Cross-Culturally: Take the quick self assessment below to see how your cultural profiles aligns with your birth country's profile. Take it twice to see how you align with your host country. Take it over and over again as many times as you'd like!

Want to dig deeper? University Libraries provide free access to the book this self-assessment is based on via e-book, so you can continue to learn how to navigate and decode cultures.

The struggle is part of the journey...

Be patient with yourself and allow for mistakes.

Culture shock often brings out the “ugly American” in us but there is usually room to grow and rebound from cultural mishaps.

Comparing Culture Across Counties At A Glance

Geert Hofstede has designed a tool that looks at six distinct cultural aspects across countries. 1. Individualism/Collectivism, 2. Indulgence/Restraint, 3. Femininity/Masculinity, 4.Short-term Orientation/Long-term Orientation, 5. Power Distance, 6.Uncertainty Avoidance. You can learn about the areas of cultural distance and see a breakdown of a variety of countries on the scales below:

1. Individualism is the extent to which people feel independent, as opposed to being interdependent as members of larger wholes.*
2. In an indulgent culture it is good to be free. Doing what your impulses want you to do, is good. Friends are important and life makes sense. In a restrained culture, the feeling is that life is hard, and duty, not freedom, is the normal state of being.*
3. Masculinity is the extent to which the use of force in endorsed socially. In a masculine society, men are supposed to be tough. In a feminine society, the genders are emotionally closer. Competing is not so openly endorsed, and there is sympathy for the underdog.*
4. In a long-time-oriented culture, the basic notion about the world is that it is in flux, and preparing for the future is always needed. In a short-time-oriented culture, the world is essentially as it was created, so that the past provides a moral compass, and adhering to it is morally good.*
5. Power Distance is the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.*
6. Uncertainty avoidance deals with a society’s tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity.*

*Citation: "The 6 Dimensions Model of National Culture by Geert Hofstede.” Geert Hofstede, 21 Mar. 2020, geerthofstede.com/culture-geert-hofstede-gert-jan-hofstede/6d-model-of-national-culture/.

Cultural Customs From Around the World
Check your Understanding:

1. Without referencing your sources, describe the following:

  • Culture
  • Cultural Competence
  • Ethnocentricity

2. Give 3 examples of ethnocentric behavior.

3. Write down as many aspects as you can remember about your cultural profile.

4. Write down as many aspects as you can remember about your host country's cultural profile.

5. Write down the cultural areas that may present personal challenges for you in your host country and how you may overcome them.

6. Write down as many ways as you can remember to combat ethnocentricity and develop cultural competency.

7. What new and interesting cultural custom are you looking forward to encountering during your study abroad trip?

If you have questions, comment, or concerns after completing this module, please reach out to your UNM study abroad advisor.


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