The Role of Social Media in Intercultural Learning

This article originally appeared in the AFS Intercultural Link news magazine’s volume 5, issue 2. You can read or download the entire issue here.

A day without access to new technologies, online tools and digital media is something many of us cannot imagine.  We use Facebook to keep in touch with friends, Twitter to follow the news, Pintrest to organize our hobbies, Instagram to share our pictures, Whatsapp and many other instant messaging systems to chat with friends, family and colleagues all over the world. A recent survey commissioned by Nokia shows that on average, people check their phones at least 150 times per day. This made us wonder: How does the online interaction between people affect the development of intercultural competences and what are its implications for issues such as support for social adaptation?

Jason Lee, Ph.D. of AFS Malaysia (Yayasan Antarabudaya Malaysia) and associates conducted a study at the National Institute of Education in Singapore in 2012 aiming to find these answers as they relate to AFS exchange students. The study entitled Uncovering the Use of Facebook during the Exchange Program was conducted in order to find out whether Facebook has a 
role in coping with exchange-experience related stress, and in building social identity and intercultural competences.

The research methodology was based on examining status updates of Malaysian secondary school students going on an exchange in the USA, as well as interventions such as interviews and questionnaires before and after their year abroad. A total of 917 status updates and 3246 corresponding comments made between January and July 2009 were analyzed. The material was classified into categories and traced over the 
U curve cultural adaptation model in four critical periods: pre-departure, arrival, in-exchange and return.

Even though there is no hard evidence that the use of new media creates cultural awareness, it is possible to look at certain impacts of Facebook through the so-called “ABCs” of intercultural adjustment – its Affective, Behavioral, and Cognitive aspects.

The affective side of intercultural learning can be seen as a result of undergoing a series of stress-provoking life changes, according to Colleen Ward in The Psychology of Culture Shock. In this case, stress does not need to be only a negative event, but also a learning opportunity and a motivating factor to do better in the future.

This study showed that, in the affective, or feeling, domain, Facebook is used as a resource for coping with stress: Sojourners express emotions in status updates and in return receive support from their friends. Facebook statuses are a way to acknowledge the stressor and sometimes even add humor to the situation. This is perceived as an indirect way to seek help, while lightening the problem and minimizing vulnerability with humor.

Although friends’ comments can have a negative effect too, the positive responses from them often serve the purpose of support and can inspire further reflection about the issue. They also make the participants learn something about themselves – their own identity and culture, and this increased self-awareness is one of the Educational Goals of AFS exchange programs. Facebook status updates are also used for coping with the changed environment and keeping in touch with people from home. Such statuses may lead to “group mediated cognition”, a situation where the opinion of an individual is influenced by the thinking of peers involved in the same activity.

In exchange, social media is also a space where participants often compare their performance, or cultural adaptation process, with their peers. This comparison can affect them in two different ways: An “upward comparison” with somebody who is perceived to be coping with the challenges better than them can result in increased motivation to progress. Or, in a “downward comparison”, exchange students can look for self-validation and ways to cope with adaptation-related stress by realizing that they are not the only ones in such a situation.

The behavioral aspect of intercultural learning, on the other hand, as it is defined in this study, describes the need to acquire culture-specific knowledge and social skills in order to successfully adapt in an environment, according to this study. While the use of Facebook can be analyzed in the affective and cognitive domains, the behavioral aspect was not included in this analysis as participants did not 
use this social medium frequently 
enough in search for culture-specific information.

In this study, the cognitive aspect is based on Tajfel’s social identity theory, which describes the formation of one’s identity as a dynamic process involving intergroup relations and acculturation strategies. In the cognitive domain, Facebook status updates and interaction can play a role in acculturation (see Cultural Adaptation Models for Friends of AFS for more information). While also building their virtual identities, students gain awareness and take critical stands on their own culture while maintaining their identity.

This research shows that through their postings, sojourners were able to identify aspects of their own culture which are particularly important to them, or which may have previously been invisible to them. At the same time, Facebook status updates are also used as a means to seek or build relationships with the host community.

This research shows that social media can be used by exchange students to externalize feelings and as a resource of social support throughout the learning experience. While this kind of online communication does not replace in-person contacts and support structures that AFS has for its participants, it can be a useful supplement. And, it is important to bear in mind that excessive Internet use is one of the dysfunctional coping strategies, which was confirmed by the results of the Impact of Living Abroad study (more on this in the 2013, volume 4, issue 1, edition of the AFS Intercultural Link news magazine).

Some other reports also indicate that social media can also be useful in the post-exchange communication and dealing with the so-called reverse culture shock or re-entry problems. In the upcoming issues of this news magazine we will look at the post-exchange challenges sojourners face and how digital tools can help in overcoming them.

Paddling in the Sea of Cultures

The following blog post was contributed by Csilla Fodor from AFS Hungary. Find out more about Csilla, and enjoy her blog post:

I wish I could have been an AFS student myself! I started to learn about AFS as a hosting coordinator and after 3 years at this position I switched and continued working at the office as the organizational development coordinator, which I really enjoyed. I just realized last year, when I turned 30, that I felt like a teenager, really young and was surprised at the number of candles. Volunteers keep me young, and AFS is the best face lifting ever. I am a Qualified Trainer for the AFS Intercultural Link Learning Program and a member of the European Pool of Trainers at EFIL. I took up the role of the ICL responsible of AFS Hungary that now I am transmitting to my successor as I have decided to leave AFS as staff in the middle of June and experience what life brings to my way as a free lance trainer and coach. This bio is not a farewell, but a big step as a volunteer. I would like to remain an active member of this wonderful organization and will contribute to the organization with articles.
- – - – -


Before leaving AFS Hungary’s office, I was preparing carefully and accurately the handover of my position to my successor. I wrote some booklets, finalized all the ongoing projects, tightened the folders… Everything went well and smoothly, and the transition wasn’t seen as a setback.

But at the end I felt exhausted and needed a rest badly. A last minute sailing at the Adriatic Sea just came in handy.

I haven’t been an exchange student myself, but when I was preparing my suitcase I felt like one who is just before an adventure. I was on the sea for three days two years ago and had nice memories of blue sky, endless see view and sunshine. I didn’t know that sailing is like going on exchange. Trust me, it is.

I quickly realized this when I needed to pack my entire suitcase into a small cabin, on one shelf. Shared with my ’cabin mate’. After packing, we got an orientation on how to use the equipment on the boat. Everything seemed to be easy to use at first. Of course, we soon realized that we did not understand clearly how to drain away water after showering or the usage of the loo… I immediately remembered dozens of AFS exchange students who thought they understood what they were told, but it turned out finally that they didn’t get the point and ended up having a big misunderstanding.

Becoming a sailor is not easy. Sailing has its own identity, culture and nautical language, the sea talk, that you first have to become aware of, then understand. When we first pulled the sail together I didn’t understand half of what the skipper asked us to do. Boom, jib, tiller were all new to me. But we needed to help in order to sail, so doing without understanding showed how difficult it was.

Interested sailors could try out navigation of the vessel. The next challenge was to keep the direction on sea. Those who have sailed already know that a boat is not a car even though the steering wheel is similar, just bigger. The boat reacts later, and there are other circumstances that may influence the right direction: wind, waves or both of them together. Navigation on the sea showed me how difficult it is to leave out of consideration what we already know and practice. ’Nothing works as it should’ – you may think when the boat keeps on turning after you steered.

I found it overwhelmingly challenging to learn that you must adapt culturally to any circumstance you experience or else a giant force will direct you. In my case this giant force was the boat itself. When parking at the gas station on sea, I was responsible for fixing the front of the boat to the land. I needed to loop the rope to the boat, jump out at the station, loop the rope to ground again and finally back to the boat. Not a complicated movement, especially if you do it quickly and accurately, you manage to fix the boat close to the land. Somehow after jumping out at the station and looping the rope to the hook, I found myself standing with both ends of the rope, meaning that I fixed only myself to the land but not the boat. I quickly and logically reacted: I took the boat’s handrail with my hand and tried to hook the rope back. The idea would have been good on the land, but not for a moving vessel on the sea. I didn’t manage to do this maneuver. The wind blew stronger, and all of a sudden I found myself trying to stay on the ground while clambering with two hands to the boat which was moving away. For the audience that gathered behind me, it might have seemed I was trying to keep the boat of 47 feet with my whole body of 55 kilos.

The skipper helped me in the end, so the boat could park correctly to refuel and we had a good laugh. But after we handed over the boat I was still astonished how my logical, natural way of solving a problem didn’t work out well in another environment which was new to me. It brought me an ’aha’ moment of the orientations we hold for the students. We try to prepare them for situations where they have to solve problems or conflict situations where their logic and well known conflict handling experience may not work at all. Even though the skipper gave us a proper orientation on sailing, I was without means.

I was thinking weather we can prepare a student for an urgent or a conflict situation that may happen in the future?  Or should we just acknowledge that each student should learn the lesson in a hard way? I still don’t know.

Anyway, I have learned this lesson. And I am happy to have had the chance to experience a bit what it may feel like to be on exchange in a culture you are just about to discover.

Flexibility in Training Design and Delivery: Summer Academy Experience in Istanbul

The following blog post is contributed by our fellow AFSer, Omer Ongun. Omer went on an exchange to USA in 2003 with AFS and since then has been a volunteer, volunteer trainer and project coordinator in AFS Turkey. After finishing college in business administration, with a great inspiration from AFS, he chose the intercultural learning field and intercultural competence as his area of profession. He is currently a graduate student at Galatasaray University, doing a research in understanding mobility programs as cultural diplomacy tools and developing a better mutual understanding of diverse groups in Turkey through cultural exchanges. Omer is also a folk/contemporary dancer of various cultures in Anatolia. He practices body music and dance too, trying to experience body music in different folk cultures throughout the world.

- – -

For the second year in a row, I was honored to be a trainer at the Summer Academy on Sustainability from an Intercultural Perspective which took place in Istanbul in July 2014. The Academy is organized by four partners from Germany and Turkey, InterCultur (subsidy of AFS Germany) and Karlshochschule International University as well as AFS Turkey and Istanbul Kültür University, in cooperation with Stiftung Mercator, one of Germany’s largest foundations. The Academy focuses on the intercultural perspective of international energy politics, environmental ethics and further ecological issues.

The model brings together lecturers from formal academic world and trainers from non-formal learning environments. The atmosphere itself deserves another long blog post but for now I will concentrate on the training experience I had with my co-trainer Laura Armborst from AFS Germany. As usual, long Skype calls, email exchanges and prep days were behind us on the first day of the Academy. We had designed three-hour sessions for four days to be delivered in one week. Though trainers generally receive the list of participants and further information on the group profile and their knowledge level of the subject beforehand, you never really know until the first day what kind of a group you will be working with.

To avoid concentrating on one learning style only, our design included various methodologies for each day. At the end of the first day, we already knew we needed to make some adjustments to the design for the following days. Our group of 18 university students turned out to be very bodily-kinesthetic learners and we were very aware of their expectations: interactive, physical and visual activities. As soon as “lecturing” or “presenting” methodologies were used, we had the risk of “losing” the group.  It is quite important to increase interactivity and the sharing aspect of non-formal learning to avoid “learner-teacher” distance. It is also highly essential in non-formal learning to give participants a chance to stand up, speak and/or present in order to maximize the learning, increase the participation and ownership of the training. This is how we rearranged or highlighted the design:

  • Each day started with an energizer that would focus on increasing the group feeling and group spirit. The participants loved learning a folk Turkish dance which was actually an energizer after a long morning lecture and before a long training afternoon.
  • On day one, we created all the rules together and called them “norms”. Since all the norms were created and agreed upon collectively, it was much easier to remind participants who would forget them through the week :)
  • There was a board in the workshop room on which participants could write open questions or topics that would arise during the sessions, breaks or evenings. At the end of each day, we looked back at them all together.
  • Each participant felt free to play their music during breaks.
  • We used participants first names to show we really try to address them and that we were interested in getting to know them. In some groups this might be found disrespectful so it is highly important to check during the group norms how comfortable the group would be.
  • For the daily reflections, we tried a variety of tools and means such as balls, postcards, music or movement to increase the creativity and promote other ways of reflection then just speech.
  • Instead of standing up in front of the group, trainers usually preferred sitting with participants in a circle and decreasing the visual image of the “powerful” trainer or educator.
  • We increased active/interactive methodologies. e.g. nonverbal communication elements were supposed to be understood through individual case studies though later we asked participants to work in groups and prepare a sketch for each nonverbal communication dimension and later they reflected this activity with great positive feelings.

After all, it is still a challenge for any trainer to design a training non-formal learning. We can feel satisfied creating the link with the aims, objectives or general concepts but how flexible are we when the group profile seems much more different than what we expected? This seems to be an exciting challenge for innovative trainers.

Global Citizenship Education – Preparing Learners for the Challenges of the 21st Century

“We must foster global citizenship. Education is about more than literacy and numeracy. It is also about citizenry. Education must fully assume its essential role in helping people to forge more just, peaceful and tolerant societies.”, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

* * *

Global Citizenship Education (GCE) demonstrates how education can develop the knowledge, skills, values and attitudes learners need for securing a world which is more just, peaceful, tolerant, inclusive, secure and sustainable. UNESCO has recently published a document entitled Global Citizenship Education – Preparing Learners for the Challenges of the 21st Century, which explores conditions for the promotion and implementation of global citizenship education, including universal values, transformative pedagogy and youth-led initiatives.The goal of this publication is to:

  • Improve the understanding of GCE as an educational approach, and its implications for education content, pedagogies and approaches;
  • Identify innovative approaches and good practices in GCE globally; and
  • Share lessons learned and pathways to scaling up GCE.

There are different approaches to global citizenship education, including both formal and informal. In formal settings, GCE can be delivered as an integral part of an existing subject or as an independent subject area, while the application in informal settings includes the use of information and communication technologies and social media, sport competitions and the use of art and music, and youth-led initiatives.

The universal values and skills promoted by GCE directly overlap with what AFS stands for and its Educational Goals: developing certain skills, such as critical thinking, empathy and the ability to shift cultural perspectives, as well as having an understanding of global and local issues and striving for justice.

How can you incorporate the values of global citizenship in your community?

First Thiagi Publication on Interactive Trainings in German

AFS is proud to announce that InterCultur (subsidiary of AFS Germany) is the co-author of the first German publication with Thiagi’s interactive training methods. Thiagi is one of the most innovative game designers whose interactive trainings are performance-based, motivating and effective. He designs leadership, soft-skills, and technical training for corporate clients and conducts training in classroom and online environments.

Thiagi was a speaker at last year’s AFS Academy, an AFSers-only training event in Florence, Italy in November 2013. He has published more than 50 books so far, but to date none of them in German.

For this publication a cooperation which included Thiagi’s Swiss business partner Samuel van den Bergh and the German Metal Worker Union (IGM) (which is a long term partner for InterCultur in intercultural trainings) was formed. InterCultur was presented by Annette Gisevius, Head of Training at InterCultur and Director of Intercultural Learning at AFS Germany.

In a one-year process Thiagi’s exercises were translated and adapted to be used in intercultural and political contexts. InterCultur provided the intercultural content for Thiagi’s frame games and contributed some of its own exercises.

On 28 June, the new book was first presented at a trainers meeting of the IGM where 180 people gathered to attend a workshop run by Thiagi and Samuel van den Bergh.

The book can be ordered at:

photo credit: Tiago Phelipe

One Step Forward: China Advanced in Educator Training on Program Development and Intercultural Learning

The following blog post is contributed by our fellow AFSer, Margaret Yang Zhao. Margaret is the ICL Responsible and Volunteer Development Supervisor at AFS China, and a candidate for the AFS Intercultural Link Learning Program International Qualified Trainer. She was an exchange student to Japan and holds a Master degree in Intercultural Communication at Communication University of China. She facilitates intercultural trainings for target groups of volunteers of all ages with a focus on cultural awareness, cultural adaptation and cultural values in non-formal education settings. We thank Margaret for her contribution, and hope you enjoy her post!

 * * *

The first ever Educator Training Workshop on Program Development and Intercultural Learning took place in Beijing, China from 12 to 15 June 2014. Organized by the Volunteer Committee for Intercultural Education (AFS China), this workshop successfully brought together 17 volunteers from all over China who work as educators at different academic levels.

During the workshop, participants learned about the vision and mission of AFS, got to know the support structure, discussed topics on how to embed intercultural learning into program development and together designed materials/curriculums for future training and marketing.

To make the workshop a new experience for these educators, the prep team put lots of effort into details: (1) A pre-workshop online survey was delivered to collect expectations and demands of participants so that adjustments could be done in time; in addition to that, this also gave us some hints about the state of volunteer (intercultural) training in China. (2) Every participant was asked to bring one or two kinds of local snacks to exchange, which gave them a chance to learn about each other’s regional food culture. (3) Western and Chinese flavors were served on different days to help participants better understand cultural differences between west and east: Pizzas were ordered on the first day and dumplings on the last.

The workshop had four main sessions:

  • Me and AFS
  • Linking intercultural learning with AFS realities
  • New materials for marketing and branding
  • School Relations

These educators shared a common feeling that AFS is more than an exchange organization; it has stepped out firmly in making itself an educational organization that offers intercultural learning opportunities to better connect the world. They had the chance to get acquainted with the AFS Intercultural Link Learning Program, a multi-step training and assessment program designed to further develop intercultural learning facilitation competencies for AFS volunteer and staff worldwide. They also discussed the volunteer development strategy together with staff members of AFS. Given their professional backgrounds, worked very hard on developing training materials and introducing many different approaches that work effectively on strengthening school relations.

We hope that the participants of this training will act as task forces in promoting AFS in non-formal education settings in order to spread the name of it as much as possible.

New Intercultural Link News Magazine is Here!

The latest edition of the Intercultural Link News Magazine has just been launched. Read it on-line or download it here. Enjoy!

AFS Intercultural Programs is pleased to announce the new issue of AFS Intercultural Link News magazine, second in 2014 and volume 5. Feel free to share it with everyone interested in learning more about intercultural education!

This issue of the news magazine looks at intercultural learning in the digital age. We looked at the possibilities for wise globalization, especially in the context of the use of digital media and technology:
  • the role of social media in intercultural learning;
  • an interview with David Buckingham, a media education specialist;
  • a new way of describing cultures: the dune model by Juergen Bolten

and much more!

The AFS Intercultural Link News Magazine is the quarterly magazine on intercultural learning in the AFS network. The magazine features content shared by AFS organizations around the world and guest writers, including information on trends in intercultural education, interviews with experts in the field and overviews of upcoming and previous conferences.

Advancing Global Citizenship Education

What are the the skills and values necessary for being an effective citizen of the world and how can we measure if worldwide educational systems are helping students develop them? Motivated by the challenges of low learning levels and a global data gap on learning, 30 organizations have joined efforts with the ultimate goal of improving learning experiences for young people around the world. They will tackle these issues through The Learning Metrics Task Force 2.0 convened by UNESCO, the Center for Universal Education (Brookings Institution), and the UN Global Education First Initiative: Youth Advocacy Group. We are proud to announce that Melissa Liles, Chief Education Officer for AFS Intercultural Programs, has been appointed to the Global Citizenship Education stream of this task force and will actively take part in its work.

The Learning Metrics Task Force 1.0 already worked on the issue of how to measure global learning and get data about the quality of education on the international level. Its goal was to advocate that mere access to education is not enough, and that it should be complemented by good quality learning. The recommendations presented in its first report entitled Toward Universal Learning: What Every Child Should Learn provide a framework for what knowledge and competences should be obtained in primary education. Through a consultative process, the first task force decided to select an initial number of global learning indicators and will continue its work through an even more comprehensive group of experts.

The goal of The Learning Metrics Task Force 2.0 is to improve the assessment systems of learning at country level in order to better understand the global learning crisis and to provide for the better use of data obtained. The main issues for the task force working on the global citizenship education stream will be to answer the following questions:

  • Are there a small number of core Global Citizenship Education (GCE) competencies that are relevant in all countries?
  • If so, what are some options for how they can they be measured to improve learning and track progress globally?
  • How do we ensure education systems and programs foster and integrate GCE curricula and instructional practices?

AFS’s involvement in the task force is in line with our mission to provide and support intercultural learning globally. With 100 years of experience in working towards global understanding, AFS continues to facilitate global citizenship education (learn more on our website: The AFS exchange experience – including the many volunteer opportunities afterwards – deepens participants’ insights into and knowledge about the strengths and weaknesses of their home and other cultures. This way, they become more aware of global issues and employ culturally sensitive and cooperative approaches to problem solving. As an educational organization dedicated to creating global citizens, AFS plans to collect and provide input from its member organizations from around the world as part of its contributions to the group.

Extending Our Empathy

Have you ever heard somebody across the room laughing and smiled yourself, without knowing what inspired the original outburst of laughter? Do you sometimes cry while watching an emotional scene in a movie? The ability to empathize, to share and understand the feelings of others, comes easily and naturally to many of us. It is an important trait to be practiced daily especially in a globalized world where we encounter people who are somehow different from us on a daily basis.

Together with its commitment to provide enriching intercultural experiences to its program participants, AFS works on implementing its Educational Goals in the four major areas: personal, interpersonal, intercultural and global. These goals help us achieve our mission, which is to work on establishing a peaceful and tolerant global society. Students who go on an exchange with AFS develop certain personal traits and skills which help them become global citizens. But on top of personal growth, during the exchange or afterwards, those touched by AFS programs also develop in the interpersonal realm. One of the important characteristics of this sphere is empathy.

Among major traits of a truly empathetic person is the ability to listen and be mindful of the needs of other people as well as the ability to use different perspectives in approaching problems and everyday situations. An empathetic person shows a deeper concern for and sensitivity to others and perceives and responds to the values, feelings, and realities of others. All of this leads to the ability to manage disagreements with others in an effective and respectful manner.

We invite you to watch the following video and learn more about empathy:

Overcoming Obstacles in Intercultural Communication

Adapted from Stumbling Blocks in Intercultural Communication by LaRay M. Barna, featured in Basic Concepts of Intercultural Communication, edited by Milton J. Bennett (1998). This article originally appeared in the AFS Intercultural Link news magazine’s volume 4, issues 2&3. Read or download the entire issue here.

The desire to get to know more about another culture is often stated as a reason for a family or school to host a foreign exchange student. Why travel when another culture can come to you?

While this may be a good motivation for host families and schools, many people don’t realize the potential for frustration and misunderstandings intercultural encounters may bring if they are not approached with the right attitude and preparation. Good intentions, the use of what one considers to be a friendly approach, and even the possibility of mutual benefits might not be sufficient for successful intercultural communication.

Thankfully, LaRay M. Barna singles out six potential challenges, or stumbling blocks, that may get in the way of a positive exchange experience. Although it is not easy, being aware of these six stumbling blocks is certainly the first step in avoiding them. AFS staff and volunteers use this knowledge to assist and prepare our host families and schools to develop proactive coping strategies and take a constructive approach toward their upcoming encounters – and inevitable challenges! – with sojourners from different cultures.


One answer to the question of why misunderstandings occur is that many people naively assume that certain similarities exist among all people of the world; they expect that simply being human makes everyone alike. Unfortunately, vastly different values, beliefs, and attitudes that vary from culture to culture are often overlooked. Saying that “people are people” is a common trap, even when it reduces the discomfort of dealing with difference.

The assumption of similarity does not often extend to the expectation of a common verbal language, but it does interfere with decoding nonverbal symbols, signs and signals. A person’s cultural upbringing determines whether or not an emotion will be displayed or suppressed, as well as on which occasion and to what degree. The situations that bring about an emotional feeling also differ from culture to culture, as humans are in many ways dependent on their culture.

Since there seem to be no or very few universals that can be used as a basis for automatic understanding, we need to treat each encounter as an individual case. Only with the assumption of differences can reactions and interpretations be adjusted to fit reality. Without this assumption of differences, one is likely to misread signs and symbols and wrongly judge the scene.

Many people who prepare for intercultural encounters might only gather information about the customs of the other country and learn a bit of the language. Behaviors and attitudes of its people are sometimes researched, but often from a secondhand source. However, information gained this way is general, rarely sufficient and may or may not be applicable to a specific situation. Also, knowing “what to expect” often blinds the observers to all but what confirms their preconception. Any contradictory evidence that does filter through the screens of preconception is likely to be treated as an exception and thus discounted. A better approach is to form a framework for on-site observations. It is even more important to develop an investigative, nonjudgmental attitude, along with a high tolerance for ambiguity.


Vocabulary, syntax, idioms, slang, and dialects can all cause difficulty in understanding people from other places, but the person struggling with a different language is at least aware of these challenges. A worse language problem is clinging to just one meaning of a word or phrase in a new language, regardless of connotation or context. Even simple words like “yes” and “no” can cause misunderstandings. In some cultures, it is polite to refuse the first or second offer of a refreshment, and many sojourners have gone to bed hungry because they never got a third offer. Being aware that these differences exist and having an open conversation about them can help overcome these unwanted misunderstandings. Discussing the differences in connotations and adjusting to the other’s communication style will be useful to get to know each other well.


People from different cultures inhabit different sensory realities. They see, hear, feel, and smell only that which has some meaning or importance for them. They focus on whatever fits into their personal world of recognition and then interpret it through their own culture’s frame of reference. The misinterpretation of observable nonverbal signs and symbols such as gestures, postures, and other body movements is a definite communication barrier. However, it is possible to learn the meanings of these messages, usually in informal rather than formal ways. It is more difficult to understand the unspoken codes of the other culture that are less obvious, such as the handling of time and spatial relationships and subtle signs of respect or formality. It is useful to know that a student who often sleeps in is not being rude on purpose, but may rather have a different sense of time orientation. Rather than taking offense or simply giving up, it is good to bring up the behaviors which seem odd and see what different values stand behind them. Sharing your cultural norms and learning about those of the sojourner will help you better understand and cope with different nonverbal styles.


Stereotypes are overgeneralized, secondhand beliefs that provide conceptual bases from which we “make sense” of what goes on around us, whether or not this is accurate or fits the circumstances.

In an intercultural setting, their use increases our sense of security and is psychologically necessary to the degree that we cannot tolerate ambiguity or the sense of helplessness when we cannot understand or deal with other people and situations. Stereotypes interfere with our objective viewing of the world around us, and they are sustained by the tendency to perceive selectively only those pieces of new information that correspond to the image held, which is not easy to overcome. A simple way of not stereotyping is to avoid qualifying the behavior of one person as being representative for the entire culture, but instead being aware that it only the example you have encountered. Staying flexible and curious about new information about the members of one culture can help you make sense of complex intercultural situations.


Another obstacle to the understanding between persons of differing cultures is the tendency to immediately evaluate and judge someone’s actions – and do so through our own cultural values lenses which we often assume is right, proper and natural – rather than try to comprehend completely the thoughts and feelings expressed by the other person or group. It is easy to avoid a communication breakdown by not immediately evaluating a behavior, especially in situations when deep feelings and emotions become involved. That is just the moment when we most need to pause, listen, and observe non-judgmentally.


Facing new and challenging situations inevitably causes feelings of stress, anxiety, and even possible physical tension. As long as these feelings are moderate and accompanied by positive attitudes, they provide us with the necessary energy to meet these challenges. However, too much anxiety requires some form of relief, and this too often comes in the form of a defense mechanism, such as the skewing of perceptions, withdrawal or hostility. High anxiety, unlike the other five stumbling blocks, often underlies and compounds other misunderstandings.

Anxious feelings may exist in both parties involved in an intercultural dialogue. The host national can be uncomfortable when talking with a foreigner because (s)he cannot maintain the normal flow of verbal and nonverbal interaction. On top of language and perception barriers, the other person’s unknown knowledge, experience, and evaluation can feel threatening.

The sojourners often feel more threatened. They can feel strange and vulnerable, helpless to cope with messages that overwhelm them. Their own “normal” reactions are perceived as inappropriate. Their self-esteem is often undermined and a bad way to cope with that is to withdraw, overcompensate or become hostile. A more effective approach is to use the existing support structures within AFS, such as in-person meetings with counsellors and other volunteers who are properly trained on intercultural issues.

Being aware of these pitfalls can prevent many misunderstandings and create a productive intercultural environment for the sojourner and the host community. Achieving effective and appropriate intercultural communications – one of the 16 AFS Educational Goals – means building the internal capabilities to manage the key challenges of intercultural communication, including being comfortable with cultural differences and unfamiliarity, creating and maintaining relationships, and the overcoming the inevitable accompanying experiences of stress.

AFS volunteers and staff working with potential and future host families and schools can use these examples as a tool for increasing their intercultural competencies and better preparing all participants for an AFS experience. For instance, in the initial recruitment phase, AFS can check for pre-existing knowledge of the possible pitfalls of assuming cross-cultural similarities or using stereotypes as defense mechanisms. These can then be put into a clearer perspective, analyzed and avoided – or recognized and worked through.

Additionally, sharing this information with future host families and school counsellors upfront can be reassuring: greater awareness allows them to better anticipate where the possibilities for a communication breakdown and conflict lie, recognize intercultural miscommunications, and then use coping strategies to either avoid or work through these stumbling blocks for greater intercultural understanding.