Prepare

04 Engage

Prepare

Do Your Homework!
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Introduction

According to Benjamin Franklin, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” In order to be successful you have to be well prepared. Successful people in many fields suggest that time spent in preparation is essential to creating their successes. Answering difficult questions is no different. Being able to answer a difficult question through cross-cultural communication relies on your preparation and lots of practice, which we’ll get you started with here.
Before you get out there, you should spend some time learning about the communication preferences of the culture you are in or will be traveling to. Along with looking outward, it’s good to turn inward to gain a better understanding of your own preferences. So we’ll provide some tips for self-reflection along with a number of suggestions for fielding difficult questions. We’ll also introduce the concept of style switching, which allows you to vary your responses according to the people and circumstances you face.

This section will help you prepare to engage in difficult questions, whether you are in your home culture or already abroad.

Preparation and Practice

As we mentioned in the Communication Overview section of this resource, there are things you can do before, during, and after each interaction to have a more successful experience with responding to difficult questions. Explore each phase of the interaction cycle.
A point along the path on your journey in another culture, expanding into a larger graphic with more detail about each point in an interaction.

Attitude

Your attitude surrounds each of the stages we’ve outlined and it will have a huge impact on each interaction you have, as well as how you grow and change. As you work to maintain flexibility and an open mind, you will become more comfortable tackling difficult questions when they arise.
How does your attitude impact these stages?
This section covers the Before phase of the interaction cycle. We will discuss the steps you can take to sharpen your communication skills before you immerse yourself in a new culture and interact with people there.
Interaction cycle with Before highlighted.

Before Immersion

  • Read about the new culture, learn about the cultural traits, and get caught up on current events through diverse media (social media, TV, radio, newspapers, magazines).
  • Explains why the culture and people are how they are today and the nature of that country’s relationship with the United States. Being informed about current events will provide you with some facts at hand to help respond to difficult questions.
  • Find “cultural informants,” trusted advisors who can explain the local culture to you and to whom you can ask questions.
  • They can provide an insider’s view to help you more quickly learn local cultural norms.
  • Try to learn the local language if it’s different from your own.
  • This increases your comfort level when you are in public, and shows respect for the local people by not expecting them to always speak English for your benefit.
Select the arrow to the side to see how these tips will help you answer difficult questions.

Preparing to dive into a new culture requires that you do some research.

There are numerous places for you to find good information about what’s going on where you’ll be. You can also try to pick up pieces of the language and learn about the cultural practices and communication preferences of the people you’ll be interacting with.

Group of students
Illustration of a group of multicultural children around the globe

Learning all you can about the place you’ll be and the people who form that culture will give you a more concrete understanding of the norms there.

Regional Styles

Think about how vast and varied the human population of this planet is...
Magnifying glass over a map of the world

There are about 7.3 billion people scattered among almost 200 nations across the earth.

There are hundreds of thousands of subcultures and over 6,900 languages spoken.

Given the sheer volume of different peoples and cultures there are in the world, it should come as no surprise that there are countless different expectations surrounding communication.

The range of questions you might encounter are hard to quantify, but here are a few examples. Roll over each person to see some questions you might face.

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Why do all Americans own guns?
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Opinions about the United States and communication preferences will vary wildly across regions. Our overview and the resources and tips provided here can give you a starting point, but you’ll really have to dive in to find out specifics about where you are or where you’re headed.

Benefits of Doing Your Homework...

By building this knowledge base you will be better equipped to identify some of the issues you might encounter, and when you’re communicating with people it will help you understand their motives a bit better.

Consider the following example.

Meet Maria and Julia. They are two travelers who have just arrived in a new location. Maria had spent a summer abroad in school, but the location was very different from where she just landed. Julia has not traveled much, but she has done a fair amount of research about the people and culture where she is visiting.

MariaJulia

They each hail a cab. How will their experiences differ?

Taxi Driver

Good morning, Ma’am. You’re looking lovely today. That dress is very attractive and makes you look very pretty. All the men will be looking at you. What is the address of your destination?

Maria

(Wow, I just got here and I’m already getting compliments. This guy is really forward, but I kind of like it!)

Why thank you. I just bought this dress. Hopefully that’s not the last compliment I get tonight. I’m going to the Silver Fork Restaurant at 726 Garden Lane.

Julia

(This guy is being way too forward. Ugh. I just got here and I’m already concerned about my safety between this guy and all the news stories. I’m just going to give him the address and not engage.)

Good morning, Sir. I am going to the Silver Fork Restaurant at 726 Garden Lane.

Taxi Driver

It’s interesting that a woman your age is all alone. Are you not married? You don’t have children?

Maria

(This driver is very friendly. I’m just going to chat with him during this short ride. It doesn’t matter what I tell him because I’ll never see him again after I get out of the taxi.)

Oh, I’m from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, in the United States, a mid-sized town. My parents and brother live there. I just got divorced and I’m now living here in a studio apartment. We never had children, so I’m all alone.

Julia

(This driver is asking too many personal questions. I must not share any information that would encourage this conversation. I will give a short, polite answer.)

I’m just visiting this city, and my family is well, thank you.

Taxi Driver

So how old are you? Why don’t you have any children?

Maria

(I guess in this culture it’s okay to ask a woman her age and about her children.)

I’m 35, and my ex-husband and I were only married a short time so we didn’t have children.

Julia

(I know in this culture it’s common to talk about family, but I am foremost concerned about my safety and I don’t want to share this information. I will deflect this question by asking about our journey.)

Sir, thank you for asking about my family. How far are we from the restaurant?

As you can see, an understanding of the culture and expectations surrounding communication preferences provide some distance with certain topics, which can be crucial when dealing with difficult questions and personal safety, in this example.

With practice you can improve your navigation of topics that can be difficult for you, whether you choose to actively engage in these types of conversations or disengage from whoever you’re speaking with.

Even when topics carry emotional weight, by trying to understand where the questioner is coming from and doing your best to keep from taking things personally, you will have the ability to maneuver more freely within the conversation.

Keep in mind that there is often not one “right” way to communicate. Depending on where you are and who you’re speaking with, you can find yourself in conversations about topics that wouldn’t normally come up where you’re from. Exploring your surroundings can help prepare you for these types of situations.

Explore

No matter where you are—whether you’re still in your home culture or immersed in the new culture—there are many things you can do to help you prepare for difficult questions. As you move through the slideshow below, select the hotspots to see what kind of activities can help you build your skills and refine your attitude.

Living room with three interactive spots, including the bookshelf, the television, and the laptop.

Note: All of these activities could be done either in your home culture or when you are in the new culture, though for some cultures you may have a harder time obtaining certain media.

A world map built with people

The activities you engage in before you head into the new culture and while you’re there can help make your adjustment easier. These small interactions will help you to build your conversational abilities and confidence. Genuinely try to exit your comfort zone if you are hesitant to speak the language. Using even just a few local phrases can diffuse an otherwise difficult or uncomfortable situation.

The important thing is that you are finding ways to insert yourself in the local culture and partake of a friendly exchange. These practices will help you develop the attitude and skills you’ll need for effective cross-cultural communication and can be useful tools to aid in navigating many difficult interactions.

PDF icon View a printable resource on general engagement tips.

Know Yourself

Along with researching the new culture and its communication habits, it’s also enlightening to look inward to understand your own communication preferences and comfort levels.

Take this quiz to see where you stand...

1.I actively seek out interactions with people of different cultures.
1Totally
Disagree
2Somewhat
Disagree
3Neutral
4Somewhat
Agree
5Totally
Agree
2.I am comfortable interacting with someone from a different culture.
1Totally
Disagree
2Somewhat
Disagree
3Neutral
4Somewhat
Agree
5Totally
Agree
3.I feel confident that I will find a way to communicate well with someone from a different culture.
1Totally
Disagree
2Somewhat
Disagree
3Neutral
4Somewhat
Agree
5Totally
Agree
4.I believe that learning about different cultures will broaden my horizons.
1Totally
Disagree
2Somewhat
Disagree
3Neutral
4Somewhat
Agree
5Totally
Agree
5.I am able to suspend judgment about a person from a different culture until I have gotten to know him or her a little.
1Totally
Disagree
2Somewhat
Disagree
3Neutral
4Somewhat
Agree
5Totally
Agree
6.I know my core values and beliefs and am willing to discuss them with someone who holds different values and beliefs.
1Totally
Disagree
2Somewhat
Disagree
3Neutral
4Somewhat
Agree
5Totally
Agree
7.I would consider changing some of my beliefs or behaviors after learning about beliefs and behaviors from different cultures.
1Totally
Disagree
2Somewhat
Disagree
3Neutral
4Somewhat
Agree
5Totally
Agree
8.Knowing how to interact with people from different cultures is a valuable skill in social and professional situations.
1Totally
Disagree
2Somewhat
Disagree
3Neutral
4Somewhat
Agree
5Totally
Agree
9.Even though I might disagree with the values held by people from different cultures, I try to respect their beliefs and practices.
1Totally
Disagree
2Somewhat
Disagree
3Neutral
4Somewhat
Agree
5Totally
Agree
10.I know I might not be successful at all my interactions with people from different cultures, but I can learn from my mistakes.
1Totally
Disagree
2Somewhat
Disagree
3Neutral
4Somewhat
Agree
5Totally
Agree
Submit

0-9–Please answer all of the questions.

10-20–You have a relatively low comfort with other cultures. You are just beginning to have intercultural experiences and benefiting from them. Start seeking out opportunities to learn about other cultures from people you know, books and magazines, internet articles, and attending local cultural sites and events.

21-30–You have a moderate comfort with other cultures. You have had some success with interactions with people from different cultures. Continue to be open to new knowledge and experiences.

31-40–You are comfortable with other cultures. You seek out intercultural interactions and enjoy the experiences. Continue to expand beyond your comfort zone and reflect on your learning.

41-50–You are extremely comfortable with other cultures. Congratulations on building competence and confidence in your intercultural interactions! Continue on your journey to learn about people from other cultures, and share your learning with others who are in similar circumstances.

Take the quiz again

Regardless of what your comfort level is, with practice and new experiences you can become more comfortable in unfamiliar situations.

Self-reflection will help you grasp which situations you’re already good at and which ones might need some more of your attention when you’re out in the world.

And whether or not you’re aware of it, you’re already practicing some of the skills that you will need to employ when you’re communicating cross-culturally. One of these skills is style switching.

Style Switching

Sarah's outward style of clothing, shoes and hair switch as she changes roles.

Depending on whom you are communicating with, how you present and inhabit yourself may change. This includes your non-verbal and verbal communication preferences.

For example, consider Sarah. First, she is a daughter and sister. If she marries, she becomes a wife and daughter-in-law, then maybe a mother. She can also become an aunt and a grandmother.

She is also a friend, neighbor, student or employee. She may also be a boss and team member. In public, she could be a customer, pedestrian, patient, or worshiper.

Each of these roles carries different responsibilities and positions and you adjust your behavior, speaking style, and decision making depending on the people and situation. This is called style switching.

Business man communicating in a pleasant manor

Style switching often occurs unconsciously. It is the subtle or significant adjustment in your behavior and communication style that you make when talking with different people and reacting to different circumstances.

Business man communicating with anger.

You may unconsciously shift your tone of voice or consciously assume a more defensive posture. You might turn some traits up and others off entirely, or you might mirror or imitate the style of the person you’re communicating with.

Style switching is relatively easy in your own culture because you are familiar with all the norms and values. When entering a new culture, you need to learn both the explicit and implicit rules, and then adjust your communication and behavior accordingly to forge relationships and accomplish tasks.

How can you switch your style to best deal with this scenario?

Restaurant

You have been in a new country for about three months and are settling in. Through work and your neighborhood, you have become part of a group of five or six friends with similar interests, and you enjoy gathering for meals or outdoor activities. Up until now the casual conversations have been about people’s daily lives, families, and hobbies. Due to international news coverage of some recent gun violence in the United States, while at dinner, several friends wanted to discuss this topic. They strongly believe in their government’s policy of restricting access to guns and have often cited lower violent crime rates as evidence that this type of policy works. One person pointedly asks you, “Do you support private gun ownership, and do you own a gun?”

Given that you are speaking with a group of peers, which option reflects the style you might use to answer the question? Each option will have a different result.

  • A. This is a very controversial topic in the United States and it gets a lot of media coverage overseas. I’d like to be honest with you. Do you think we could have an open-minded discussion?
  • B. This is a very personal and political question, and I am uncomfortable discussing it when I don’t know you all that well, and I don’t know what this country’s view is on gun ownership.
  • C. The U.S. Constitution guarantees our right to bear arms, and I believe in the Constitution. What I disagree with are the social situations, like gang wars and the drug trade, that often capture innocent people in the bullets’ pathways. I personally do/don’t own a gun.
X

This answer asks your friends for a frank discussion which they will probably agree to. If you share that you support gun ownership, you should be prepared to defend your answer. Given that your peer group believes in their government’s decisions, you are likely to have an easier discussion if you state that you believe in stricter gun control policy.

In either case, you should maintain your integrity while showing that you want to strengthen your relationships.

X

This is an attempt to deflect the question, which is perfectly understandable. However, your friends may feel you are evasive and not genuine, which may damage the relationship.

X

This answer provides a direct response to your friend’s question. It is based on facts and you are sharing your views. This response may inspire a lengthy conversation about policies and their impact.

Travel and interaction with people from cultures different than yours will inevitably change you in subtle or grand ways, all at once or gradually over time. By knowing your boundaries and knowing how to navigate within them, you will be better positioned when you’re out in the world getting to know people. You’ll be able to adjust without feeling like you’re being untrue to yourself and this will allow you to communicate with people more freely.

In this section, we have prepared you to learn about different cultures and interact with a diverse range of people, become aware of your own communication preferences and boundaries, and build your communication dexterity through style switching.

These approaches will help you navigate a wider range of encounters with greater ease and build more satisfying relationships with people you meet along the way.

Before

Before you immerse yourself in a new culture, here are some tips for preparing to enter that culture, as well as tips for what you can do before cross-cultural interactions.

Do your homework

Before and during immersion into a new culture
  • Do your homework and read about the new culture.
  • Find “cultural informants,” trusted advisors who can explain the local culture to you and to whom you can ask questions.
Before each interaction
  • Observe and try to understand the local cultural norms, in broader (general cultural traits) and narrower (individual interactions) terms.
  • Try to learn at least a few basic phrases and lingo in the local language if it is different from your own.

During

Once you’ve prepared yourself, it’s time to get out there and engage. Remember, your attitude goes a long way.

Get out there

During immersion in a new culture
  • Don’t be afraid to engage with a variety of people to experience a broad spectrum of communication styles.
  • Actively listen and ask follow-up questions to acquire deeper understanding.
During each interaction
  • Be observant. Try to decode facial expressions and body language. Body language is cultural!
  • Listen to people.
  • Ask for translations or interpretations for unfamiliar words or expressions.

After

After an interaction, it’s important to take a step back and reflect on your experiences.

Reflect on your experiences

After immersion in a new culture
  • Consider your interactions from multiple perspectives.
  • Celebrate the successful and meaningful interactions.
After each interaction
  • Learn from the challenging interactions.
  • Continue to seek out interactions with a variety of people in a variety of situations to hone your skills.
  • Ask yourself what worked and what didn’t.
  • Ask yourself if you accomplished what you set out to do.
ReadingBooks on a bookshelf.

In Home Culture

  • Your local public or university library can help you find resources.

In New Culture

  • Local magazines and newspapers in English and/or the local language
  • Tourist brochures
  • Information sourced on the internet: history, culture, literature, current events
  • Non-fiction covering history, politics, economics, culture
  • Fiction that takes place in that culture
  • Books by local authors translated into English
  • Language-learning books, audio-visual materials
Television/StreamingTelevision.

In Home Culture

  • Watch travelogues and YouTube videos from that culture before departure.

In New Culture

  • Watch local programming and movies.
  • Use English subtitles, if needed and available.
  • Check sites such as National Geographic, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, other travel and food channels and programs.
  • Search YouTube videos by country, culture, language, and topic.
ComputerLaptop computer.
  • Research the culture and customs by country.
  • Visit country sites for history, tourism, food, and culture.
  • Search for other travelers’ accounts.
  • Use U.S. embassy websites that have information about the country.
  • Download language training apps and/or schedule language lessons with a tutor online.
  • Use the internet to find clubs of like-minded people.
  • Most major cities overseas will have a website, Newcomers’ Club, or International Women’s Club offering local information.
People WatchingTwo people seated in a coffee shop talking.

In Home Culture

  • Go to locations where different languages are spoken to get used to being surrounded by a language you don’t recognize. Preferably it would be somewhere people use the language you will be immersed in and you could observe the people’s interactions there as well.
  • Watch movies from the destination culture and observe interactions among the characters.

In New Culture

  • Observe people interacting in different circumstances in order to understand their communication preferences.
  • Watch conversations between parents and children, friends, couples, service people and customers, officials like police and local citizens, and so on, to absorb the range of communication styles.
  • Listen in on conversations to see if you’re becoming more proficient with the language and to see what topics are being discussed.
Eating OutShop counter filled with pastries.

In Home Culture

  • Go to restaurants serving foods from different cultures. Order dishes different from what you normally eat.
  • Go to stores selling foods from different countries and buy some to sample.

In New Culture

  • Go to different restaurants. Ask the waiters and chefs to explain the dishes to you and make recommendations.
  • Visit different grocery stores and specialty shops to try new foods. Ask the salespeople for descriptions and guidance.
  • Ask a local friend if he or she will teach you some of his or her favorite recipes.

Eating out will also help you start to differentiate from street food and special occasion food.

Local MarketsVendor standing next to a cart filled with local produce.

In Home Culture

  • If possible, visit markets or stores in your hometown that sell products from the country or region you are preparing to visit. This should give you an idea of the types of products that your new country is known for.
  • Speak with the vendors in their native language. This is a great way to practice before you arrive in your new country, since the vendors will probably be able to switch to English as well if you’re having trouble.

In New Culture

  • Open markets are a wonderful way to engage with the local population. Sellers are duly proud of their offerings and usually enjoy talking with their customers.
  • You can ask if they speak English or you can experiment with the few words and phrases you have learned in the local language.
Food VendorsVendor standing behind a food cart selling noodles.

In Home Culture

  • Visit grocery stores or food vendors that sell food you might encounter in your new culture. This might help you prepare for what’s to come.

In New Culture

  • Many food vendors have samples and are happy to let you taste their food. This is a great opportunity to try something new and strike up a conversation.
ArtisansArtisan standing behind a market stall selling handbags.

In Home Culture

  • Research the types of art, clothing, and other popular items that are common in your new culture.

In New Culture

  • Artisans love explaining their creative inspiration, their materials, and their methods. Ask them to tell you the story behind a piece of jewelry or a painting you find intriguing. You may also find service providers that will re-heel your shoes or replace your watch battery.

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.