Comparing Culture

What are key ways cultures differ?

Sometimes cultural differences go beyond what meets the eye. Learn five elements that will help you recognize cultural clues, many of which can easily be missed.


Language Use and Perception

How are you?

While they may speak a different language in your host country, there may be even bigger differences in how language is used to communicate. Think about the ways U.S. Americans typically greet one another, argue, negotiate, give compliments, ask for help, disagree, and criticize… just to name a few.

When someone in the U.S. says “how are you?”, we know the appropriate response is usually “fine” or “good.” Someone from another culture might take “how are you?” as an intimate question rather than a standard greeting and perceive the American to be rude for not appearing interested in a long answer. The American, on the other hand, may feel that the other person has overshared.

Nonverbal Behavior

You're talking to a total stranger Where do you stand?

Nonverbal behavior includes the use of voice (things like tone, volume, pitch), body language, hand gestures, eye contact, distance, and touching. People from different cultures may have different notions about nonverbal behavior that seem surprising to you. For example:

  • They may have a different idea of how close to stand when having a conversation.
  • It may be considered rude to make eye contact depending on the culture or situation.
  • Some common hand gestures may have completely different meanings in different parts of the world.

Communication Styles

How would you describe your style of communication?

Americans tend to value a more direct style of communication where things are said outright. Some cultures tend to be less direct. People in many Asian cultures will “read between the lines,” relying on situational cues to get the full meaning of a conversation.

However, some cultures may be even more direct than ours. A German may perceive a U.S. student's behavior to be “wishy-washy” and superficial, while viewing their own style to be honest and to the point. On the other hand, a U.S. student may misinterpret a German's more direct communication style to be rude or aggressive.

The key to avoiding misunderstandings is to be aware that these kinds of cultural differences exist and to discuss them with your hosts.

Patterns of Thinking

What's today's date?

Different cultures have different strategies for organizing and using knowledge: different teaching and learning styles, different approaches to categorizing information, and different ways to approach a task.

Some examples include the direction we read (left to right or right to left), what day the week begins, when the new year starts, and whether we use military time or AM/PM.

You may notice different ways of teaching information in your host school or that students in your host country take notes in a way that seems foreign to you. Depending on your culture, certain ways of organizing information seem more common or “correct” than others.

Values & Beliefs

What more important?

The underlying values and beliefs of a culture strongly influence typical behaviors or tendencies in that culture. Some of these values include:

  • The ways people think about individualism (personal achievement vs. success of the family)
  • Time (is it more important to be on time or maintain relationships, even if it makes you late?)
  • Social roles (ideas about different positions in society)

Well done!

Remember, the five elements of culture listed below provide general guidelines for some of the key ways that cultures differ. Remembering these five elements will help you recognize cultural clues, many of which can easily be missed.

  • Language Use & Perception
  • Nonverbal Behavior
  • Communication Styles
  • Patterns of Thinking
  • Values & Beliefs

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