tammy at brownI’ve always possessed a healthy dose of wanderlust, so tackling a study abroad program in college seemed like a natural fit for me. I filled out the application, Dad wrote the check, and a couple of terrific professors provided recommendations for me. When I received the program’s acceptance letter, I was off and running.

Having completed a summer abroad program during high school, as well as having hosted an exchange student in our home for a year, I had this nailed. I knew the drill and figured that a mature, intelligent, worldly, 19-year-old college student like me (cue wry humor) had nothing left to learn; just give me the plane ticket.

The university insisted on a rigorous orientation to the program. Sessions were mandatory, including one that took place all day on a Saturday–a SATURDAY–starting early in the morning. Although that’s akin to collegiate sacrilege, I knew the school had the upper hand and dragged myself over to Wilson Hall to dive in.

One exercise still sticks with me today, twenty-some years later. The specific details are a bit fuzzy, but here’s generally how it went:

The class was divided into groups of four or five. Each group was given a description of attributes specific to our simulated culture. One group might have received something like: Everyone always smiles. No is not an acceptable answer, so answer every question with yes regardless of your intent. Don’t ever shake hands. Another group may have received: Direct eye contact is offensive. Never speak unless directly addressed. Smiling implies a kind of intimacy, so avoid it. Still another group may have been told: It is customary to shake hands with your left hand. Be as direct as possible when asking questions, but do not reveal any personal information about yourself. There was some goofy stuff, too, just to keep us all on our toes.

For the next hour, we had to mingle around the room and get to know our peers. We couldn’t tell anyone what was on our lists; we simply had to demonstrate those qualities. At the end of the time, we regrouped and tried to list the attributes of each group.

I loved this exercise. It emphasized that even when someone speaks your language (or you speak his), you can still get really off track. You can offend, misunderstand, or be misunderstood. So much of our “real” communication takes place outside of our words. Cultural constructs affect not only our own behavior, but the way we perceive others’ behavior. We approach things differently and we make different assumptions. We always have to be alert to the non-verbal cues of others.

This really hit home with me because I was headed to a very Westernized country. People looked the same, dressed the same, and even enjoyed the same economic standards as my fellow Americans. It would have been easy to assume that except for the language, we were all one big happy family. Thankfully I learned my lesson early, and though I sometimes had to re-learn it, it helped me navigate many situations with less arrogant bumbling.

Even if you’re not a world traveler, the lesson remains the same. Forget nationality; look around at your peers. Family cultures, educational backgrounds, and economic situations differ for everyone. We’re all the product of our collective experiences, and that collection is different from person to person. We can’t assume that everyone sees things the way we do. And actually, I’m glad about that. It is exactly that diversity that enriches our lives. We just have to recognize it first.

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