An American Abroad

Since one of the main purposes of education abroad is to further international and intercultural understanding, you should always be aware that as an American student abroad, fairly or unfairly, you will be viewed as a representative of America and Americans.

U.S. students are often caught off-guard by how much foreigners know about American history, politics, and current events. Students are embarrassed that they sometimes know little to nothing about the history, politics and current events in the place they have come to study– and often, less about their own government’s current positions and actions, and their own history, than foreign students do. You may be taken aback by confrontational questions, or upset by real or perceived anti-American attitudes or sentiments. One of the best ways for students to fulfill their unofficial diplomatic role is to brush up on American history, bring themselves up-to-date on current events, consider how they feel about their own country’s policies and positions, and to think in advance how they might respond to difficult questions or confrontational statements.

Students might want to bring things to share with their host families, foreign students and teachers, and others they will meet. Pictures of their home communities, families, and friends will facilitate intercultural learning both for the students and the people they meet. Inexpensive items of clothing, postcards, and other small souvenirs will also make welcome gifts for the many people who are likely to do nice things for you while you are a guest in their country.

Taken from What Parents Need to Know! Before, During and After Education Abroad, Janet Hulstrand, courtesy of NAFSA


Fitting In

Social customs differ greatly from one country to another, thus it is impossible to give guidelines that will be applicable in every culture. One of the basic reasons to study abroad is to develop a sensitivity to and appreciation for the people and customs of a totally different culture and way of life. Anyone who goes abroad demanding that everything be the same as he/she is accustomed to in the U.S. will be disappointed. Be flexible and receptive in dealing with these differences and you will find your life experiences greatly enriched.

Following are some areas of cross-cultural adaptation:


Many cultures place much more emphasis on the simple niceties of polite social conversation than you might at home. You may need to be prepared to offer a more formal greeting to those you meet in your day-to-day activities.



Each country has its own particular brand of wit and humor. Most cultures do not understand or appreciate the type of kidding to which Americans are accustomed. Comments, even those intended to be humorous, can be taken quite literally.


Physical Contact

Physical contact may not be appreciated or understood by someone unfamiliar with the American idea of camaraderie. Even a cheerful pat on the back or warm hug may be quite uncomfortable in certain cultures. All cultures have their own unique notion about social space—especially how far away to stand or sit when conversing or how to shake hands. It is best to watch how the locals do it and learn what they expect of you.


Personal Questions

Learn from those in the culture what are acceptable personal questions. Americans tend to find it easy and quite appropriate to talk about themselves. This may not be true in the country(ies) where you will study.


Price Bargaining

Haggling over prices can be expected in some countries and quite unacceptable in others. Unless you understand the difference between appropriate and inappropriate circumstances for bargaining, you may find yourself insulting the merchant and further reinforcing a negative stereotype of American. You can always test the waters by politely indicating you like the product but that it is a bit more than you had anticipated spending. If the merchant wishes to bargain further, this will give him/her an opening to offer the product at a lower price.


Talking Politics

Expect people abroad to be very articulate and well-informed when it comes to matters of politics and international relations. Do not be surprised if your counterparts try to engage you in political debate.   It may be important to be discreet in defending your convictions. Many around the world have the stereotype of the arrogant American who thinks everyone must fall in line with the U.S.

Adjusting to a new culture can be a powerful learning tool. You may sometimes suffer temporary frustration, discomfort and anxiety. These feelings can facilitate self-understanding and personal development. The very experiences that are difficult can be the basis upon which you build, expand and enlighten your understanding of the new culture.

Half the battle of cultural adjustment is won if you realize you will experience it. The other half is won by using your cultural sensitivity to learn and make the adjustment a positive experience. Once you realize that many cultural adjustment problems are caused by a failure to understand your own and the new cultural background, you will realize you have the ability to gain an understanding of the new culture and learn to communicate. Then you can enjoy the new culture for what it is and what it gives to you.