Cultural Differences in Studying Abroad

Be it in Spain, Great Britain, USA, Chile, Malaysia or China: During your studies abroad you will be confronted with various cultural differences. You certainly expected some of them, but some of them you did not expect at all and you are positively or negatively surprised. Everyone who comes to another country, be it to go on vacation there or to live there for a longer period of time, has previously formed a picture of this country and has certain ideas and expectationsthat are more or less realistic. But how can cultural differences actually be determined and how do you best deal with them during your studies abroad? Here we give you answers, examples and tips!

Visible and invisible cultural differences

Every culture is unique. The fact that one culture differs from the other alone makes it possible to identify and describe individual cultures. With “cultural differences” are meant cultural differences that you perceive individually in an intercultural situation. The perception or determination of cultural differences is first of all relative and above all subjective. The perceived cultural differences result from the fact that cultures have different values and concepts in relation to the living environment and which are not apparent at first glance.

The iceberg model has established itself to illustrate these visible and invisible aspects of a culture. A culture is compared here with an iceberg: Everything that can be seen from the outside of a culture, such as the behavior of people, symbols, rituals, architecture or music, is only the tip of the iceberg. Underneath lies the foundation of the culture, the values and thought patterns from which the rules and norms of behavior have been established. These also shape the experience and perception of each individual without being aware of it. What seems “normal” to you would be unthinkable in other cultures and vice versa. These deep-seated values of your own culture determine what you perceive as bad or good, ugly or beautiful, paradoxical or logical.

The way in which cultural differences are perceived, how they are interpreted and whether they can also be “endured” has an impact on whether one experiences a culture shock, how intense it is and how long it lasts.

Cultural dimensions / standards / orientations

In order to grasp the deeper values of cultures and to be able to differentiate them from one another, cultural scientists such as Geert Hofstede or Fons Trompenars have defined various indicators that can be used to describe certain cultural dimensions and differentiate cultures.

The cultural dimensions are designed for national cultures and the classifications and attributions follow an “either-or scheme”. They therefore only serve as a rough guide. You should always be aware that these are not general properties that all members of a certain culture embody. Because there are no “the” Europeans or “the” Asians, there are no “the” Chinese or “the” Americans. People are individual and perceive their own culture as well as foreign cultures very differently.

Of course, there are established structures according to which members of a culture usually orient themselves quite unconsciously. But there are always individual differences as well. As a rule, a person belongs to several micro- / subcultures to which they orient themselves and which can also change again and again in the course of a lifetime. And cultures themselves are also constantly changing, especially in times of globalization. Cultural borders are always open and permeable. They depend on the perspective and are therefore also relative.

However, the following cultural dimensions are very helpful to get a first overview of which standards dominate in the core of a respective culture. In this way, the cultural differences identified during the study abroad can first of all be classified and people’s behavior and their orientations better understood.

1. Handling time

Cultures have different ways of dealing with time. Both the perception of time and the time planning / division as well as the orientation towards the past, present or future are culturally shaped. The same is true of the time horizon in terms of when the past, present and future begin or end and how long they last. During your studies abroad, depending on which country you are studying in, you will find that there can be great cultural differences in dealing with time.

  • Monochronous cultures: These cultures have a linear and very structured time schedule. The following applies here: one at a time. Deadlines and appointments have to be met and punctuality is very important.
  • Polychronic cultures: Time is less divided and planned and often several things are done at the same time. Deadlines and appointments provide a framework for orientation, but they are not necessarily binding. Times are also only a rough guide and therefore punctuality plays a less important role.
  • Past- oriented cultures: cultures that are predominantly oriented towards the past and in which their own history, origins and traditions play a very important role and also influence current decisions.
  • Cultures oriented towards the present: One lives primarily in the here and now and is interested in current problems and issues. Neither the past nor the thought of the future play a major role in this.
  • Forward-Looking Cultures: These cultures are very focused on progress and change. Future success comes first, traditions are not important or, if necessary, are adapted to modern needs. Problem solutions are more geared towards the future than the present.
  • Long-term orientation: The goals are persistently and persistently pursued, the savings rate is high and a lot is invested. Perseverance and subordination to important goals are among the core values.
  • Short-term orientation: Reaching goals quickly comes first, the present and the past are more important than the future. Accordingly, the savings rate is low. Social obligations and traditions are very important.

2. Power distance and dealing with hierarchy

Hierarchies play a role in all cultures. How important hierarchical orders are in a culture and how the members of a culture deal with it, however, is culturally very different. How strongly a culture is determined by hierarchies depends on how small or large the power distance is. The greater the power distance of a culture, the more the less powerful members accept that power is unevenly distributed. Inequality is even expected.

The height of a culture’s power distance can also be seen, for example, in raising children. The greater the power distance of a culture, the more authoritarian and strict the parents raise their children here and vice versa. While the power distance is high in Central and South American, Asian and Arab cultures, it is rather low in Northern and Central Europe. In Germany the power distance is rather small, in Malaysia it is particularly high. Who, for example, to study in Malaysiashould be aware that there are cultural differences here and that the parents’ strict upbringing style should not be viewed as malicious. Status symbols are recognized in cultures with a large power distance, while they are frowned upon in countries with a short power distance.

3. Collectivist / Individualist

In some cultures people are very strongly tied to a we-group from birth. Life in the extended family plays an important role and identity is based on social networks. These cultures are collectivist. Relationships are very important and if someone loses face in the group, this loss of face also applies to the whole group. Countries like Colombia, Guatemala or Ecuador or Asian countries like Singapore, Thailand or South Korea, for example, are considered to be very collectivist cultures. Japan, on the other hand, is more in the middle, as are Germany, Austria and theSwitzerland.

Anglo-Saxon countries such as the USA, Australia, Great Britain or Canada are individually oriented. The main concern here is for oneself and the nuclear family. Identity lies within oneself and everyone is responsible for themselves.

4. Feminine / masculine

In masculine cultures, the gender roles are clearly separated from one another, while in feminine cultures the boundaries are not so clearly set. The more masculine a culture, the more pronounced the (mind you stereotypical) “masculine” characteristics. Values are the pursuit of material success and progress, competition and performance. Work in life is essential and professional recognition is extremely important. In feminine cultures, human relationships come first. Equality, solidarity and empathy are important behavioral orientations, strong competitive thinking is rejected. Work also plays a less important role in life.

Incidentally, the cultural dimension of masculine / feminine is much less linked to geographical regions. Japan, Austria, Mexico, Italy as well as Switzerland and Germany are considered masculine national cultures. Feminine national cultures are primarily the Scandinavian and Benelux countries, but also France and Thailand.

5. Dealing with uncertainty and uncertainty

You will also notice cultural differences in your studies abroad when dealing with uncertainties and uncertainties. Some cultures have a much greater need for security than other cultures and accordingly try to avoid changes and risks. Ambiguity causes anxiety and stress. Life in insecurity-avoiding cultures is strictly regulated and structured, innovations and creativity are rather undesirable. One trusts in norms, rituals and bureaucracy. People and behaviors deviating from the norm will not be tolerated. Greece, Portugal and Guatemala are considered countries with a high degree of uncertainty avoidance.

Cultures with a low level of uncertainty avoidance are good at dealing with ambiguities and are very open to change. Rules are not so important here and deviations from the usual are not perceived as a threat. Denmark is considered a country with a low level of uncertainty avoidance, Germany is in the middle.

Cultural Differences in Studying Abroad

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