Traveling, living and studying abroad can be an incredibly exciting and fulfilling experience. Sometimes, it is so fun we forget that we are guests in the countries we are studying. And while we might be having the experience of a lifetime as we laugh, gawk, and take pictures of all the interesting things around us, for the local people it is just another day, and often, another tough day. This is why cultural awareness may prove to be very valuable.

What is Cultural Awareness?

Cultural awareness is being proactive by speaking some of the local language, understanding the local social norms, and maintaining a sense of being a “guest”. These type of culture immersions can go a long way in maintaining positive relations between yourself and the local people you will be interacting with on a daily basis. As an expat since 2014, I have found the best way to minimize the chances of being seen as just another obnoxious tourist is to display cultural awareness during my time abroad. 

Here are a few of my suggestions for fostering those positive vibes between you and the local people of your new community abroad.  

Speak a Little of the Local Language

I have lived in Vietnam for two years and speak maybe 20 words of Vietnamese. Obviously, that isn’t a lot.

Despite that, I still get the pleasure of seeing the look of appreciation on Vietnamese people’s faces when I can at least say “hello,” ask how they are doing, and order my food in Vietnamese. Just speaking a little of the local language is a nice nod of respect to the local people and can go a long way in helping them perceive you in a positive light.

Of course, how much this little act of cultural awareness will be appreciated will differ country to country, but there is little downside to trying. Not only might it help you assimilate more deeply into the culture, it can also be a great conversation starter with local people when they hear you speaking with a heavy accent.

Ordering a beer in the local tongue with a heavy accent can peek interest from those around you, and soon you are off to the conversational races with questions about where you are from and what brings you to their country.

Understand the Local Social Norms

You may not notice it until you are immersed in another culture, but your culture has some very ingrained social norms that make you uncomfortable when broken.

For example, as an American, what I consider my “personal space” in a public setting and what people in Hong Kong or Vietnam consider “personal space” is radically different. At first, it really bothered me standing in line at coffee or waiting to use the ATM to have the person behind breathing down my neck. Or to be so close to others on the train we are physical touching. But I quickly learned that I was the only one who thought this was odd.

Adapting to Life Abroad

Understanding social norms is important for ensuring you maintain as much respect for the local people and culture as possible.

When you study abroad, you may not only have to let go of some of your norms, but you also might have to take on new ones. You may not think twice about pointing at someone with one finger or offering a casual handshake to someone of authority, but in doing so you could be giving them their version of “the finger.”

It is worth your time to do a quick Google search before you begin your international studies and at least inform yourself of the basic do’s and don’ts for the culture you will be a guest in.

Understand Your Historical Context

At this point, as an American, there are few places in the world that I could visit or live where my country hasn’t at one time in history or another invaded, dropped bombs, or helped overturned the government. And, whether or not America was right or wrong in any particular instance, those moments between countries shape my context when living in a country.

Nowhere is that more pertinent than my current home of Vietnam, a place where I am treated incredibly well. Even so, informing myself with at least a basic understanding of the role America has played in Vietnamese history is an important reminder for me to remain respectful, especially given the kindness that Vietnamese people have shown me.

Cultural Awareness

Understanding your historical context in a new country can help you avoid social faux pas. 

Before you head off to study, no matter where you are going, try to understand how you are likely to be viewed by the local people and what their past experiences with people who “look like you” might have been. Not only is it a good chance to learn, it can help inform you of how you may be perceived by the local people of your new community.

Act Like a Guest

We are all conditioned to believe that the way we do things in our native country is the “right” way of doing things. But what you find when you go abroad is how many different ways, how many different perspectives, and how many different solutions there are when it comes to common problems. This is one of the most valuable aspects of living abroad. Whereas you may have thought there is only one way to do a particular thing, you discover that there are a thousand ways of accomplishing it.

This is really the purpose of spending time abroad. Fight the urge to do it “the way we do it back home” or to look down on how things are done in your host country. Take the opportunity to explore new ideas. It is not only a way to better assimilate with the culture, but also to add to your wealth of knowledge and enjoy the intellectual benefits of being abroad.  


Aaron Horwath is a project coordinator at an international technology company currently working in Da Nang, Vietnam. Originally from Portland, Oregon, he spent the last three years working internationally. Through his site 12hourdifference.co, he shares his insights, as well as those of other professional expats from around the world, with millennials who are curious about taking an international career path.

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