Module 1 - What to Know Before You Go


What to Know Before You Go!!


The seven sections in this module are intended as an orientation to overseas living. They provide knowledge and advice that has proven useful to students about to embark upon study abroad programs. Module 1 is designed to raise topics, pose questions, and provide some answers about the general nature of culture, and in what ways US-American values and communication patterns may vary significantly from those one will encounter internationally.

The individual section headings and a very brief description of their content are listed below. Although we encourage outbound students to browse all seven to get some idea of how the material is presented, we recommend starting at the beginning and working through all sections before departure from the U.S.

Readers will get the most out of the material if it is approached systematically.We guarantee that knowing this material will prove immediately useful. In fact, it is likely that you will be able to apply some of this advice within the first few days after you arrive at your new study abroad site.

Section 1.1 - If you are Going Abroad Soon..

Presents the first of four self-assessment exercises on Adaptation and Expectations, which students can use to reflect upon their attitudes. This one is intended for students who are going abroad in the near future.

Section 1.2 - Culture: The Hidden Dimension 

Defines culture and why cultural characteristics are so important, even though they are often “hidden” or unrecognized. Discusses why US-Americans have a definable culture that is readily identifiable by outsiders. Examines the relationship between the concepts "culture general" and "culture specific," and between values and behavior.

Section 1.3 - Culture: Yours, Ours, and Theirs

Examines the relationship between universal, cultural, and personal expressions of culture. Shows how human beings construct meaning and attribute motivations to our own and other’s actions. Introduces the concepts of "individualist" and "collectivist" cultures, and why those beliefs might lead to conflict when members from different cultures interact.

Section 1.4 – Whose Fault? Why Values Matter 

Explores the differences between personal and social obligations that are commonly encountered abroad. Presents the ideas of "universalism" versus "particularism" to explain why different cultures can appear to have very different ideas about loyalty and justice. Introduces the contrast set of "high context" versus "low context" cultures to explain why communication across cultures can be difficult at times, even with the best of intentions on both sides. Outlines how cultures conceive of time and value it differently using the comparison between "polychronic" and "monochronic" time.

Section 1.5 – Packing Up!  

Lists and discusses major US-American values and why these often contrast with the social ideas and cultural patterns of other countries. Assists learners in understanding the extent to which the culture we grew up in influences our core values and social behaviors, and why we often feel so strongly when our ideas are challenged.

Section 1.6 – Communication Across Cultures: What are They Trying to Say?  

Examines the fascinating ways in which humans communicate using nonverbal channels to convey meaning including touch, eye contact, personal body space, body language, and gestures. Explores your communication "comfort zone" and why it is important to understand it before you go abroad. Discusses communication styles and why your "normal" US-American ways of expressing yourself might be misunderstood or ineffective. Considers "intensity factors" that are related to increased stress while trying to adapt to a new country.

Section 1.7 – Surprises and Shocks

Discusses various reactions a sojourner might experience as part of the study abroad adaptation process. Defines "culture surprise," "culture fatigue", "culture stress," and "culture shock." Distinguishes among levels of cultural competency. Provides extensive tips and advice on how to recognize the symptoms of culture shock and what to do to minimize its negative effects.

What Happened and Why ?? Learning from Critical Incidents!!

Throughout the first seven sections of this guide, you will find samples of what are often called "critical incidents" under the title What Happened and Why? A "critical incident" is an occurrence that in some way raises questions and leads the participants to wonder "What just happened?" and "Why?" Everyone who goes abroad is, eventually and inevitably, faced with some kind of a situation we could call a critical incident, even if s/he is unaware of it at the time or can’t immediately figure out what was going on.  Such encounters illustrate the tricky nature of interpreting everyday events in a different culture.

Critical incidents often revolve around a misunderstanding, a dispute, a linguistic error, or some other kind of cultural faux pas. They are the sorts of events that highlight different cultural assumptions and values. They are about attitudes and behaviors that might (read "probably will") be interpreted in different ways by different people, particularly when people from different cultural backgrounds interact. Thus, they help illustrate why you need to be aware of multiple cultural contexts in order to make sense of what happens between people when something goes wrong cross-culturally. Often what we consider "common sense" is seen in other cultures as neither common nor making much sense! And "just acting naturally" is seldom good enough or effective for very long as an adjustment strategy.

At the School of International Studies, University of the Pacific, we have been gathering critical incidents for nearly a decade from our students as they return from overseas study in one (or more) of our 200 programs in 65 countries. As part of our Reentry Seminar, each student contributes two "critical incidents" for class discussion. Pacific now has some 500 examples from which we have selected a few to include.

Some of them are funny and some of them were decidedly not amusing at the time they happened. But they are all instructive. They represent concrete examples of what can occur when study abroad students, operating with the best of intentions, find out that cultures can indeed be very different and that different rules often apply overseas. You can’t expect to figure out in advance all the kinds of interesting things that might happen when you are overseas. That is impossible. But understanding the concepts in the following sections, and gaining an awareness of yourself as a cultural being, will give you the tools to make sense of future situations abroad that may seem, at first, to be very odd indeed.

Figuring out how to "figure out" these kinds of things before one goes abroad will go a long way in helping you determine "what just happened" and, more importantly, understanding "why." It won’t prevent critical incidents from occurring, but it will allow you to laugh about most of them when you come home. We hope you enjoy and profit from our students’ critical incidents from their overseas adventures.


Tales from the Peace Corps: Learning from Cultural Encounters

Tales from the Peace Corps will also be found throughout the first seven sections of this guide. Like Critical Incidents, they provide samples of situations that illustrate some important aspect of crossing cultural boundaries. Tales from the Peace Corps are taken from Returned Peace Corps Volunteers’ accounts of what they learned during their service overseas. Peace Corps Volunteers typically spend two years abroad, often in developing countries, and their experiences and reflections are very useful to those contemplating study abroad because the challenges they faced are quite universal. These Tales will have a familiar ring to anyone who has attempted to enter and function in a new culture.

Just as a critical incident is an occurrence that in some way raises questions and leads the reader to think about "what happened" in the situation described, some Tales from the Peace Corps deal with how intercultural misunderstandings occur. Others show how complex some aspects of culture are and why simple solutions may not always work. Some give examples of how different cultural frames-of-reference can lead to conflict or make communication difficult. They are included, like critical incidents, because they represent the collective wisdom of others who have been abroad before you. They all have something important to say about the kinds of situations you yourself might face overseas some day. Most of all, they are cautionary tales, albeit often rather funny, about what to look out for as you attempt to learn culture and adapt as a study abroad student.