Lesson 5 - Crossing Cultures / Foreign To Familiar


Culture is like AIR; it’s INVISIBLE, automatic. We don’t think about it – we don’t really even take note of it, until it’s gone – or in the case of our trip, until we find ourselves in a land where things are done very differently from the way we are used to.

Consider This: Generally speaking Latin, Kenyan, and many Southeast Asian cultures are "hot," since relationship is the basis of everything, even in the work setting. Northern Europeans are considered "cold," since efficiency is their ruling value.



The best way to learn a culture is through OBSERVATION AND INQUIRY.

Through observation we can learn the EXTERNAL aspects of a culture...the things we can see, hear, taste and touch will teach us about how they dress, speak, eat and act. But the INTERNAL aspects of a culture we can only learn through inquiry as we develop relationships and begin conversations. If you want to learn about their beliefs, their values – you need to establish a dialogue. Recognize your biases and ask questions.

We will all face cultural differences. There will be times of frustration and confusion as we struggle to understand the culture we are serving in and this produces cultural stress.



Culture stress is a condition caused by anxiety from being in new surroundings without familiar social cues. It may be experienced in varying degrees when traveling abroad.

Social cues are the verbal and nonverbal signs, gestures, customs and norms that help orient people to everyday life. They include things like when to shake hands, how to greet strangers, when/who to tip, etc. Social cues vary from culture to culture.

The distress experienced upon entering a culture can be very real for newcomers. Issues like the inability to communicate and understand the culture, as well as physical problems resulting from new foods and weather, can compound frustrations. Humans naturally tend toward ethnocentrism - the belief that one’s own culture, race and nation are the best. While this is a widespread feeling, it also hinders positive cross-cultural experiences.


Symptoms of Culture Stress

Symptoms include:

  • Over-dependence on members of one’s home country
  • Exaggerated concerns about cleanliness
  • Unrealistic fears of being robbed and cheated
  • A great desire to be back home
  • Unwillingness to learn the language
  • Excessive frustration over differences in the country


The Stages of Culture Shock

  1. The first stage of culture shock is the “honeymoon” stage. When a person first enters a foreign country, he/she is excited and interested in the new surroundings. However, when the individual has to cope with real differences and everyday conditions, feelings can change.
  2. The second stage is characterized by varying degrees of aggression and angry attitudes as the person starts to struggle with the language, transportation and differences in culture. The residents of the host country often do not understand the extent of the individual’s discomfort. A common reaction on the part of the visitor is a rejection of the host country practices and a desire to return home. Those suffering from culture stress may create negative stereotypes about people in the country.
  3. One moves out of culture stress when he or she is able to accept the customs of the country as a different but viable way of life. Anxiety decreases, problems are put into perspective, and attitudes change. Not everyone is able to overcome culture stress fully, and some feel better only after returning home.



  1. Open-mindedness. Be receptive to new experiences and different opinions.
  2. Sense of Humor. Smiles and laughter are great deterrents to fear.
  3. Ability to Cope With Failure. No one can be perfect in a completely new situation.
  4. Communication. Identify people with whom you can share your thoughts and feelings in an appropriate way.
  5. Flexibility and Adaptability. Keep your options and mind open to the new surroundings.
  6. Curiosity. Ask questions to understand those around you better.
  7. Positive and Realistic Expectations. Ask questions of trip leaders or in-country staff about what to expect so that you are not disappointed or shocked.
  8. Tolerance for Differences and Ambiguities. Understand that there is more than one way to do many things.
  9. Positive Regard for Others. Have respect, love and empathy for those who are different.
  10. A Strong Sense of Self. Stand up for what you believe in, but be open to new perspectives and the experiences of others.



1. Begin by sharing an example of a time you witnessed someone doing something in a way that was so different to you that it seemed strange or awkward?  How did you react and did you work through it?


2. What specific things do you believe make our American culture “cold”? What are the broad differences between hot and cold cultures?


3. Review your notes from our Team Training session, what differences between hot and cold cultures do find comfortable? What portions will you have to work at?


4. What aspects of the culture have you already “picked up on” concerning your host destination?


5. What aspects of the host culture are you ready to “Vive La Différence?


*Are you prepared to go as a servant-learner... ready to be of service and open to learning from our national partners? What are you doing to prepare yourself? Researching your host country? Learning a bit of the host language? Have you finished reading, Foreign To Familiar?