How to Be Mindful of a New Culture

Studying abroad is taking a deep dive into new experiences. You’ll be living in a new city, meeting new people, and immersing in a new culture. As a student who is entering their time abroad, it’s your responsibility to be mindful and respectful of the culture you’re entering. It’s an important step to have a fulfilling study abroad and learning about the world.

It’s also something that may not be top of mind before you jump on that plane. There are so many things to do to prepare to study abroad that getting a jump-start on a new culture might not be what you’re thinking about. That’s why we’ve put together these five simple steps you can take to be mindful of a new culture.

5 Ways to Be Mindful of a New Culture

Understand the Cultural Universals

No matter where in the world you go, there are several things that are part of every culture. Clearly there will be differences within each location, but every culture will include their own version of the following:

  • Geography
  • Family and Kin
  • Political Organizations
  • Language
  • Food, Clothing, Transportation, and Shelter
  • Technology
  • Beliefs, Values, Rituals
  • Economics
  • Creative Expression
  • Education

When you head abroad these cultural universals will be different than what you’re used to in America. By understanding the different components that shape a country’s culture, you are more prepared to acknowledge and accept differences when you experience them. Below is an example of the on-campus dress code when you study abroad in Bengaluru, India

Do Some Research

Now that you know the cultural universals you can spend some time researching the cultural norms of program city and country before you head abroad. You’re bound to learn a handful of surprising norms that will allow you to be respectful of the culture the minute you land in the country.

For example, kissing on the cheek is a common greeting in most of Europe and Latin America. However, in Thailand you greet by putting your hands in prayer position underneath the chin and you bow your head. It’s called the “wai”.

A quick Google search for cultural norms can provide great insight, and you can also talk with your USAC program advisor about what to expect abroad.

Be Open Minded

You probably won’t realize how many American cultural norms you have ingrained in you until you’re no longer in America. At times it can be frustrating and overwhelming to adjust to another culture’s way of life. It’s important to let go of the “right vs wrong” mentality and understand that things are just different. Keeping an open mind and choosing to understand versus judging will make your time abroad more enjoyable and impactful.

Students participating in Shabbat Dinner in Haifa
Students participating in Shabbat Dinner in Haifa

Resist Stereotyping and Don’t Be a Stereotype

One of the most disrespectful things that anyone traveling or living abroad can do is stereotype someone else or live up to the negative stereotypes of their home country. If you search for American stereotypes, you’ll notice that many people in the world believe Americans are disrespectful, loud, love to party, entitled, rich, and only speak English. Now some of those may be true for some people, but to assume that every person in America is all those things is inaccurate. The same thing goes for another culture. Whatever stereotypes you’ve heard, whether positive or negative, it’s best to just avoid stereotyping others and don’t be a negative stereotype yourself. Remember that you are representing your own country and home university.

Students in Torino, Italy during home university pride day
Students in Torino, Italy during home university pride day

Learn, learn, and learn some more

It’s not enough to simply accept another culture’s norms. Your time abroad will be extremely more fulfilling if you take the time and effort to meet locals, learn about their history, beliefs, and way of life. USAC provides a variety of opportunities to do this from language buddies and classes with locals and other international students, to internships, volunteer opportunities, and immersion activities with natives.

Students making Korean Glutinous rice cakes
Students making Korean Glutinous rice cakes

At the end of the day, respecting and being mindful of a new culture is about being aware. Understand that you’re entering the unknown and that things will be different, scary, and exciting. The best thing you can do is embrace it all with open arms and be ready to learn everything the world has to teach you.