An estimated 23.6 percent of MU undergraduates study abroad during their academic careers, compared to 14% nationwide.
"Firenze amore (Florence, Italy)." Photograph by Katie Qualkinbush.
It is important to note specific areas in which cultural misunderstandings can occur. If you are aware of some key differences, you can avoid problems and cultural missteps.
Every culture has a conception of what is considered appropriate personal space. Personal space is the area around you that you reserve for yourself and people with whom you are on intimate terms. Learn the etiquette of personal space in your host culture by observing other people. Do not be offended if someone invades “your” space by accident. Remember that in some cultures the American norm of wide personal space translates into aloofness and standoffish behavior. Your habits in regard to personal space could be telling other people something about you that isn’t really true.
Every culture has an idea of what is considered “polite,” what is considered “informal” and what is considered “rude.” These fine shades of social behavior take years to learn, even for natives; don’t be discouraged if it takes you a while to adjust to these norms. Indeed, some people, even in their own cultures, never quite get the hang of these distinctions. Examples of things Americans do that may be considered rude in some other cultures are pointing, smiling at strangers, asking personal questions, teasing, shouting and calling people by their first names.
Senses of humor differ drastically from culture to culture. What may be funny to you is not always going to be funny to an Australian, for example. Conversely, what an Australian considers hilarious, you may find downright rude or offensive. Be careful about what you joke about overseas, and observe the joking behaviors of your friends. Learn from other people’s mistakes! If a joke about the Queen Mother gets a friend of yours a mouthful of teeth in a London pub, remember not to make the same kind of jokes. Again, it is best to err on the side of caution when it comes to humor.
Many cultures have taboo subjects that may or may not make any sense to most Americans — and vice versa. Try to find out what can be safely spoken about in polite conversation and what might be considered off-color or rude. Political discussions, especially, can become very heated. If you are not sure where you stand on an issue or are not willing to discuss it, simply back out of the discussion. The last thing most people want to hear is an ill-informed American talking loudly about cultural or local issues about which he or she knows nothing.
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