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Responding to Cultural Differences

Tips for relating well in sticky situations

Traveling abroad for a volunteer trip means encountering a new culture. Every culture is unique, and even if you’ve traveled abroad before, you’re likely going to run into some sticky situations. How do you respond?

1. Keep an Open Mind – The ability to keep opinions flexible and receptive to new stimuli is important to intercultural adjustment. Even if you don’t understand why people do a particular thing, be careful not to jump to conclusions.

2. Learn to Cope with Failure – Learning to tolerate failure is critical because everyone fails at something overseas!

3. Be Flexible – The ability to respond to or tolerate the ambiguity of new situations is very important to intercultural success. Keeping options open and avoiding judgmental behavior helps you adapt well.

4. Maintain a Healthy Curiosity – Curiosity is the demonstrated desire to know about other people, places, ideas, etc. This personality trait is important for intercultural travelers because they need to learn many things in order to adapt to their new environment.

5. Hold Positive and Realistic Expectations – There are strong correlations between positive expectations for an intercultural experience and successful adjustment overseas. Being realistic in what to expect will help you feel prepared for any situation.

6. Be Tolerant of Differences – A sympathetic understanding of beliefs or practices different from your own is key to successful intercultural adjustment.

7. Regard Others Positively – The ability to express warmth, empathy, respect, and positive regard for other persons is an important component of effective intercultural relations. Try to think of things you really enjoy or like about their culture and embrace differences.

8. Be Good Guests – As a guest in someone’s home, you would never remark about the “dirty” kitchen, the “terrible” food, or the “crazy” seating arrangement. As a traveler you are, in a broad sense, going into someone’s “home.” Show respect.

9. Have a Sense of Humor – A sense of humor is important because in another culture so many things can lead to intense emotions. Sadness, anger, annoyance, embarrassment and discouragement are all common. The ability to laugh in spite of the circumstances will help guard against despair.

10. Have Fun – It’s okay to acknowledge cultural differences – don’t take them too seriously and don’t hold an “I’m right/You’re wrong” attitude. Relax, have fun, and enjoy your new friends.

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