I was jetlagged, achy and worst of it all – I was starving.
After a night of not sleeping all that well, I was in the middle of an Austrian market at 9 in the morning, my head spinning as I tried to decipher exactly if what I had in my hand was yogurt or not.
Already bilingual, I never found it to be a necessity to learn a third language – until I decided to pursue my graduate studies in Vienna, Austria at an American university. I tried….really hard to learn as much German as I possibly could before I departed for Wien, but I didn’t manage my time well and between packing and all- I left for Austria knowing two words essentially: Guten Tag and Danke.
Nearly two months in now, I have learned a few other essential words but I am far from where I would like to be. What I have learned is two things – knowing just a few words can get you forgiven for not being fluent and – more importantly – that being culturally aware is much more appreciated than being able to hold an actual conversation.
Do note that I am not advocating for giving up on learning the native tongue of your study abroad location all together – but to avoid being seen as just that study abroad student, that foreigner, that tourist, being aware of the culture, of how the society around you works can help you blend in a little better, keep you safer and let you have all around better time in your host country.
Research, Research, Research
The primary thing to do to be more culturally aware is mainly to research. Research your little heart out—whether it be via Google, reading books, watching documentaries or talking to people from your new country.
Facebook groups can be a great help- search for groups along the lines of ‘Foreigners in *insert your study abroad city here*’ or ‘*insert our nationality here* in *insert your study abroad city here*’. If there is also a Facebook group for the university you are going (specifically of the location you are headed to), join the group as well. And just ask! You won’t be the first to ask seemingly weird questions. Give it a few months and you’ll be the one helping newcomers by answering questions once you’re settled into your home country.
You can also search for ‘guides’ that tell you how exactly to be ‘French’, ‘German’ or wherever it is you are going.
Keep in mind, of course, that not everyone will act the same way. Likely if you are going to a capital city of a country, you will likely encounter people from a variety of cultures and countries. Personalities are different, the generations can be different – which is why asking directly on forums are some of the best ways to get an idea of the culture, society and lifestyle in your host country.
What are some things you should know?
In my opinion, the MOST important thing you should do is find out exactly what is incredibly offensive in your host country. And of course—avoid it at all costs.
Things such as hand gestures can be drastically different in different countries. The OK sign, for example, means just ‘okay’ in the United States – but in Greece it means something quite crude.
Know how people normally greet each other – whether it is a handshake, a hug, a kiss on the cheek. Know how you are supposed to treat your elders, professors and the like. Know if eye contact between strangers is normal or odd.
Time management can be another thing that can be drastically different in different countries. Some cultures are very much on time and will start on time, no matter if you are there or not – others will be delayed, often not starting on time.
Find out if there is etiquette when it comes to public transportation. In Austria, for example, one has to wait for the people on the train to get off before you do. In other countries, it is possible that rushing onto the train is a norm.
Line etiquette is important as well – because whether you speak the language or not, you will find yourself in a line at one point or another. Is it normal for people to cut in line? Do you let the elderly in front of you? Do you respect the line, or is it normal not to?
The more information you are armed with, the better.
And once you’ve landed – observe, observe, observe!
Experience is the best way to learn the culture. Keep your eyes wide and open as you go through day-to-day and make mental notes of how people act. If you have any questions or issues, the best people to ask are your professors. More often than not, they are either natives of your host country or have been there long enough to give you advice.
Last but not least, don’t be afraid of making mistakes.
Mistakes happen, and the best thing we can do is to learn from our mistakes. It’s all part of the experience- take it with pride and move on.
Learning the culture and the way that the society works will make it easier to move through your new city. Study the new language in your free time, remember that manners matter no matter what the society is like, and make your new city your classroom. You will be surprised what you will learn.