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 diverse cultural differences. You certainly expected some of them, but you didn’t expect to see some of them at all, and you’re positively or negatively surprised. Anyone who comes to another country, whether it is to go on holiday or to live there for a longer period of time, has first formulated a picture of that country and has certain ideas and expectations that are more or less realistic. But what is the best way to identify cultural differences and how do you 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 mere fact that one culture differs from another makes it possible to identify and describe individual cultures. Cultural differences „refers to cultural differences that you perceive individually in an intercultural situation. The perception or identification of cultural differences is therefore first of all relative and, above all, subjective. The perceived cultural differences result from the fact that cultures have different values and concepts with regard to the living world and that these are not apparent at first glance.

To illustrate these visible and invisible aspects of a culture, the iceberg model has established itself. A culture is compared to an iceberg: Everything that can be seen on the outside of a culture, such as people’s behaviour, symbols, rituals, architecture or music, is only the tip of the iceberg. This is the foundation of culture, the values and patterns of thought from which the rules and norms of conduct have been established. They 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 find to be evil 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 influence 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 distinguish them from each other, cultural scientists such as Geert Hofstede or Fons Trompenars have defined various indicators on the basis of which certain cultural dimensions can be described and cultures can be distinguished from each other.

The cultural dimensions are based on national cultures and the classifications and attributions follow an „either-or scheme“. They are therefore only for rough orientation. You should always be aware of the fact that these are not universal qualities that embody all members of a particular culture. Because there are not „the“ Europeans or „the“ Asians, there are not „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 the members of a culture orient themselves mostly quite unconsciously. But there are always individual differences. As a rule, a person belongs to several micro/subcultures, on which they orient themselves and which can change over and over again in the course of a lifetime. And cultures themselves are also in constant change, especially in times of globalization. Cultural borders are always open and permeable. They depend on the perspective and are therefore relative.

However, the following cultural dimensions are very helpful for a first overview of which standards dominate the core of a given culture. In this way, it is possible to classify the cultural differences observed during studies abroad and to better understand people’s behaviour and orientations.

1. Dealing with time

Cultures have different ways of dealing with time. Both the sense of time and timing and the orientation towards the past, present or future are culturally shaped. The same is true of the time horizon in relation to when past, present and future begin or end and how long they last. During your studies abroad, depending on the country in which you are studying, you will find that there may be great cultural differences in how you deal with time.

  • Monochronous Cultures: These cultures have a linear and very structured scheduling. Here, one thing after another applies. Deadlines and deadlines must be met and punctuality is very important.
  • Polychronic cultures: Time is divided and planned less strongly and often several things are done at the same time. Deadlines and deadlines provide an orientation framework, but these are not necessarily binding. Also clock times are only a rough orientation and therefore punctuality plays a less important role.
  • Past-oriented cultures: Cultures that are predominantly orientated towards the past and in which one’s own history, origins and traditions play a very important role and also influence current decisions.
  • Contemporary cultures: One lives mainly in the here and now and is interested in current problems and questions. Neither the past nor the idea of the future play a major role.
  • Future-oriented cultures: These cultures are very much focused on progress and change. Future success is paramount, traditions are not important or are adapted to modern needs. Solutions to problems are oriented more towards the future than the present.
  • Long-term orientation: The goals are pursued persistently and perseveringly, the savings rate is high and a lot of investment is made. Stamina and submission to important goals are among the basic values.
  • Short-term orientation: Achieving goals quickly is paramount, present and 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. However, the importance of hierarchical orders in a culture and how the members of a culture deal with them varies greatly from one culture to another. How strongly a culture is determined by hierarchies depends on how small or large the power distance is. The greater the distance of power of a culture, the more the less powerful members accept that power is unequally distributed. Inequality is even expected.

The extent of the power distance of a culture can also be seen, for example, in the upbringing of children. The greater the distance of power of a culture, the more authoritarian and stricter the parents educate their children here and vice versa. While the distance of power is high in Central and South American, Asian and Arabic cultures, it is rather low in Northern and Central Europe. In Germany, the distance of power is rather small, in Malaysia it is particularly high. Those who, for example, go to Malaysia to study should be aware that there are cultural differences here and do not regard the strict educational style of their parents as evil. Status symbols are recognized in cultures with a large power distance, while they are rather frowned upon in countries with a small power distance.

3. Collectivist / individualistic

In some cultures, people are very strongly bound to a We group from birth. Life in the extended family plays an important role and identity is rooted in social networks. These cultures are oriented towards collectivism. Relationships are very important and if someone in the group loses their „face“, this loss of face also applies to the whole group. Countries such as Colombia, Guatemala or Ecuador or Asian countries such as Singapore, Thailand or South Korea are considered to be very collectivist cultures. Japan, on the other hand, is in the middle of the field, as are Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

Anglo-Saxon countries such as the USA, Australia, Great Britain or Canada are individualistic. Here, the main concern is about oneself and the nuclear family. The identity lies in one’s own foundation and each person is responsible for himself/herself.

4. Feminine / masculine

In masculine cultures the gender roles are clearly separated, while in feminine cultures the boundaries are not so clearly defined. The more masculine a culture, the more pronounced are the „male“ characteristics. Values are the pursuit of material success and progress, competition and performance. Working in life is essential and professional recognition is extremely important. In feminine cultures, human relations come first. Equality, solidarity and empathy are important behavioural orientations, strong competitive thinking is rejected. Work also plays a less important role in life.

Incidentally, the cultural dimension of masculin / feminine is much less linked to geographical regions. Japan, Austria, Austria, Mexico, Italy, Switzerland and Germany are considered masculine national cultures. Feminine national cultures are mainly 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 therefore try to avoid changes and risks. Clarity causes anxiety and stress. Life in cultures that avoid uncertainty is strongly regulated and structured, innovation and creativity are undesirable. Norms, rituals and bureaucracy are trusted. Persons and behaviour deviating from the norm are not tolerated. Greece, Portugal and Guatemala are considered countries with a high degree of uncertainty.

Cultures with a low degree of uncertainty avoidance are well able to deal 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 regarded as a country with a low degree of uncertainty avoidance, Germany is in the middle.

6. Indulgence / control

This cultural dimension is concerned with the question of how much a culture tends to suppress and control the personal fulfilment of desires and the implementation of impulses through strict norms. In the case of a low control, one speaks of „indulgence“, in the case of a strong control of „control“ (Restraint).

The higher the value in the dimension of indulgence, the more lenient the respective culture is in dealing with morality and custom. The contact between the sexes is relaxed and idleness and amusements are self-evident. Leisure time is very important and the money is rather loose in your pocket. These cultures generally have a positive, optimistic attitude and the way they deal with their own bodies is relaxed.

The lower the value, the more regulated is the sexual intercourse and decency and morality have a high value. Impulses and desires are more likely to be suppressed and not openly lived out. Strongly emphasized physicality is not welcome, nor are violent expressions of emotion. And leisure time also plays a minor role here. These cultures tend towards cynicism and a pessimistic attitude. Leisure time plays a minor role.

Forgiving cultures are, for example, Mexico, Sweden, Australia and Denmark. The most dominant cultures are Russia, China and the Czech Republic. Germany and Italy are on the lower average, so they are more dominated than lenient.

7. Universal / particular

This is about the question of whether there are very strict rules in a culture that apply to everyone, universally, without exception. In these cultures, for example, contracts are absolutely binding and must be respected. In particularist societies, relationships are more important than rules. These should be changeable and applied individually. Western democracies have the strongest degree of universalism; South Korea, China, but also India and Russia are regarded as particularist national cultures.

8. Neutral / affective

The way of showing emotions is also culturally shaped. In neutral cultures, emotions are not and only very discreetly shown and rather suppressed. This should signal „objectivity“, the argumentation should be as objective as possible. Emotional outbursts are not desirable and are considered a weakness. Neutral cultures are widespread in Asian cultures such as Japan, Singapore and China.

Affective cultures, on the other hand, show their feelings openly and the outbreak of spontaneous feelings in public is also accepted. Feelings are expressed directly, verbally and non-verbally. We find affective cultures primarily in Arabic-speaking and Latin American cultures. Great Britain or Germany, for example, as well as North American countries are in the midfield.

9. Specific / diffuse

What about the relationship between private and public life? Here you will also be able to see cultural differences during your studies abroad. There are cultures that separate the private from the public, especially business, very much: These cultures are specific. Specific cultures, for example, are very subject-oriented because the personal relationship is not relevant. The communication style is very direct and clear. We encounter specific cultures not only in North America, but also in Switzerland and the Netherlands. Germany is also a specific culture.

In diffuse cultures, private and public life are less or not at all separated from each other, and personal relationships play a more important role. The strong personal reference is also evident in communication: this is very indirect and circling, in order not to hurt anyone. Criticism is only expressed „by the flower“. Getting straight to the point „, as is usual in Germany, is considered to be grossly impolite in diffuse cultures. First of all, a personal atmosphere must be created here.

10. Service / origin

There are cultures in which personal performance is seen as more important than social origin. This is mostly the case in Anglo-Saxon countries as well as in Northern and Central Europe. Southern European countries as well as Asian countries such as China and India, on the other hand, are more oriented towards their origins.

11. Relation to the environment

The relationship to the environment, whether natural or social, is also strongly influenced by culture. Cultures tend to be either internal or external. With inward-oriented cultures, one believes to be able to control nature and to have one’s „destiny“ in one’s own hands. People act very independently and do not shy away from confrontation.

Externally oriented cultures are characterized by the idea that one’s own destiny is determined by the outside world and try to live in harmony with nature and the social environment. Here, people tend to be subordinate and adaptable.

Whereas countries such as Germany and Poland are in the middle of the field, countries in the Asian cultural area are predominantly foreign, while countries such as Spain and France are primarily domestic.

12. Dealing with space: distance zones

The way in which the individual perceives spatial conditions such as proximity and distance is also culturally influenced. In some cultures it is quite natural to move closer together during a conversation or to touch each other in between, even if you have only just met your conversation partner. In other cultures, on the other hand, you only stay at a distance, especially if you don’t know your counterpart well. The accepted distance zones can therefore vary greatly from one another. In many South American cultures, for example, the distance zone is often smaller than in Central European cultures.

Dealing with cultural differences in studying abroad

As you can see, there are many different cultural dimensions to identify cultural differences. As already mentioned, however, this approach is also very schematic. After all, intercultural communication always involves individuals.

Each of you will encounter cultural differences during your studies abroad, which may be irritating at first glance. These subjectively perceived differences, which irritate you because they don’t seem plausible to you at first, are also called culture bumps. In Germany, for example, you are used to talking about problems directly and you tend to argue very objectively in conversations. In many other cultures, however, this type of communication is not common and is sometimes perceived as rude or even aggressive.

Every interaction with a person who has a different cultural background than you yourself contains potential pitfalls that you are not aware of. However, stepping into pitfalls during his studies abroad is simply part of his job and also initiates an important intercultural learning process. Nevertheless, it is possible to keep the „slip-ups“ within limits. Because the more often intercultural misunderstandings arise, which one does not understand and which cannot be clarified, the more anger and frustration will accumulate. This quickly leads to a crisis and a culture shock.

Those who deal with the specific cultural characteristics of the host country before and during their studies abroad and become aware of the differences to their own culture can avoid or at least alleviate a culture shock. It is important to remain open, because cultural dimensions are only an orientation. Even if you will often experience moments of irritation, you should try to endure them, even if the temptation is great to categorize what you have experienced so that they make sense to you. The adequate handling of cultural differences is an important component of intercultural competence.