You and Other Cultures


02 Culture

You and Other Cultures

Being Aware and Starting to Adapt


Everyone views the world through his or her own cultural lens, so it’s natural that people can interpret behaviors and communication in vastly different ways. When trying to communicate across cultures, it’s helpful to be open to understanding different points of view and to put yourself in the other person’s shoes to see his or her perspective.
As you travel abroad and interact with people from a variety of different cultures, seemingly simple interactions can contain many layers of meaning. Understanding how others see the world provides you with the ability to adjust your perspective and can increase your capacity for empathy. Both of these skills are tremendously helpful when you’re dealing with difficult questions.

One Interaction, Multiple Perspectives

Explore the following scene through the lenses of the characters to view some of your own cultural norms from a different perspective.
Local woman smiling
Tourist smiling
Local man smiling

Cultural Awareness and Cross-cultural Competence

We experience culture every day, and we encounter people whose cultural beliefs and backgrounds are wildly varied.
Smiling children celebrating the Hindu festival of Holi.
Developing cultural awareness and cross-cultural competence will facilitate your interactions with people from different cultures whether at home or abroad.

Learn some of the key traits about other cultures and think about how you might adapt your behavior to communicate more effectively. Then, when others ask you difficult questions about American culture, you will be more prepared to formulate your answer with ease and confidence.

Cultural Awareness
Cultural awareness is the ability to recognize the differences between your own and others’ cultural behaviors and values. It is helpful to remember that cultural differences are not inherently good or bad, but rather they are just characteristics that have evolved over time to represent that particular culture.
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Cross-Cultural Competence
Cross-cultural competence is “the collection of knowledge, skills, and attitudes that enables us to work productively, appropriately, and genuinely with people from different cultures.”
  • “Productively” means we reach our goals and get the job done.
  • “Appropriately” means generally within the norms of the cultures with which we interact.
  • “Genuinely” means that you are not violating any of your own personal values, yet you are willing to adapt according to the people and circumstances involved.
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Getting Ready to Adapt

Large crowds of people walking along crosswalks in a busy intersection in Tokyo, Japan.
One of the most important ways to prepare before and during your travels is to build a working knowledge of the local culture.
This knowledge will enable you to successfully interact with the local population. As a representative of the United States, having a basic understanding of the factors at play in your new location can build your competence, increase your confidence, and provide you with more options for accomplishing your goals. There are a number of resources and activities available to help you investigate other cultures in the Resources and Practice sections.
How do you develop cultural awareness?
Passport with currency inside and a hat.
  • Study and observe the new culture. What is similar to your own culture and what is different? What will be easy to adapt to and what will you refuse to change? Ask yourself why people in another culture respond to the same stimulus differently than you would—there is always a reason.
  • Find a “cultural informant” who is someone you feel comfortable with to ask delicate or difficult questions about local habits and expectations and who will share his or her insights and advice with you.
  • Learn how to respectfully ask questions about other cultures. Don’t critically say, “Why do you do it that way?” but rather, “I’m curious. Can you explain why this is done that way?”
How do you develop cross-cultural competence?
Hanging silk lanterns
  • Observe—carefully and fully—how people interact and get things done in another culture.
  • Learn from your experience and adapt your behavior. If you do something and it goes well, try it again! If you do something and you or others aren’t pleased with the results, ask someone or try another tactic.
  • Learn from others in similar positions. Often you will be with others who are new to the culture—ask them for their tips and advice.
  • Be open to new ideas and new definitions of “good” and “correct.”
  • “Style switch” or try new behaviors depending on the people involved and the situation. We are more adaptable than we think, and everyone is capable of learning something new.

About this Resource

Representing the United States—and Americans—while living and working abroad is an honor and privilege. At the same time, it can be overwhelming and intimidating to answer questions on behalf of a nation and its people, especially considering the diversity of the American experience. Every American living or working abroad needs the skills and confidence to answer difficult questions politely and substantively, while at the same time respecting the many cultural realities of all interpersonal encounters.

This interactive resource, So You’re an American? A Guide to Answering Difficult Questions Abroad, is designed to build skills and confidence in responding to difficult questions about culture and nationality. Specifically, this resource focuses on handling everyday inquiries from curious folks around the globe. Have you ever jumped in a taxi and been confronted with “Why do Americans love their guns so much?” or some such question mired in history, culture, and values? Or, have you been at a local market trying to purchase a gift and been surprised that what should have been a 10 minute encounter has turned into a 45 minute ritual of tea, presentation of goods, and detailed explanations of the craftsman’s process?

So You’re an American? A Guide to Answering Difficult Questions Abroad is an online resource created by the Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute for all Americans living and working abroad who are eager to prepare for the many informal and unofficial questions they will receive while overseas. Throughout this resource, you will explore cross-cultural communication techniques as well as various aspects of culture through self-paced activities, videos, and simulations. Participants will develop confidence in their ability to navigate difficult questions and conversations, including knowing how to disengage appropriately. This resource limits its scope to non-foreign policy questions, as those demand answers from official sources.