Embracing Cultural Differences

Surprising behaviors that might make you double-take when abroad

First things first—you are going abroad. Know that things are going to be different and new, but if you are ready and stay open-minded, you’ll love it. Here are cultural differences that took some getting acclimated to for our students in the past. With the right attitude and some preparation, you’ll know how to react. Remember, the goal of studying abroad is to authentically experience another culture.

My Spanish family is yelling all the time!

Culturally, the Spanish tend to speak louder than Americans do. At first, you may be surprised by the volume people speak at. It may even seem like what some Americans would call shouting at first. But don’t worry, this is just how the Spanish generally converse. You will adjust, and will realize that they are just excited and energized about what they have to say. They aren’t yelling, just enthusiastic!

Wait—Dinner is at 10pm!?

In Spain, dinner is typically eaten at home among family, but not until 9:30 or 10pm. This is a hard concept for Americans to grasp, coming from a culture where dinner is eaten around 5 or 6 almost every evening. You may be thinking, “I can’t make it that long on an empty stomach. I ate lunch at 1!” Don’t worry, you won’t starve because there are always opportunities to get a snack and often you’ll find that you ate enough at lunch (the biggest meal of the day) to tide you over. You’ll be acclimated to the routine in no time.

My French host Mom kissed me—twice!

Don’t panic. You’ve just experienced one of the most common pieces of French culture: ‘la bise’ or ‘bisous’ (the kiss or kisses). This is a common greeting all across France, a way to say hello (and goodbye), 2 quick kisses on alternating cheeks. Sometimes, these aren’t even real kisses, just touching cheeks and making a kissing sound.

The number of “kisses” can vary by region—2 in the North, 4 in Paris, 3 in the South, and 2 in the East (Lyon/Grenoble). Of course, this is merely a guideline, and depending on the person, they may change things up on you, so go with it! As far as starting with the left cheek or the right, preferences vary. There is one thing that is required everywhere – you MUST make the kissing noise with your mouth when you touch cheeks. It is considered rude not to.

Ok, I get the kissing thing, but do I have to kiss everyone?!

This can be difficult for Americans to understand in the beginning. The social norm is that girls kiss girls, girls kiss guys (and vice versa) and when guys are meeting for the first time, a firm handshake is acceptable. Guys who give each other bisous are usually very good friends or even family. It is also common courtesy to give ‘la bise’ or handshakes to everyone in a group that you meet, and again when you leave.

These (and many other) cultural differences make our France and Spain Programs uniquely different from America. In helping you to understand them a bit more, I hope that while abroad you will learn to love and embrace them – make them your own. If you begin your journey with an open mind, soon you will be “yelling” just as loud as your Spanish Immersion family, questioning when people want to have dinner at 9 instead of 10pm, and giving bisous to your American friends!

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