What are you smiling for? :)

The following post was written by our fellow AFSer, Suyin Chia. Find out who she is and enjoy her post:

I am the current ICL Responsible and Training Coordinator for AFS Malaysia who is happily tucked away in her mini cubicle dreaming up methods for social change and increased cultural awareness within the AFS network. I have been involved with AFS for 9 years now since my student exchange year to Japan. I am also an Intercultural Link Learning Program International Qualified Trainer candidate. Nothing delights me more than the sight of tail wagging puppies, a good read, the sound of ocean waves and interesting conversations. I believe that we need to learn to cut the cake differently.

When meeting a new person, often my first instinct is to show them a smile. It comes naturally to me, as I believe myself to be a friendly person, hence I smile to indicate that I am approachable and sincere. It tends to be difficult to hold back at least a meek smile even when I walk past strangers on the street. I obsessively end my text messages with a smiling emoticon to ensure the end receiver knows I am being cordial. During AFS orientations, I smile at my nervous participants to show them that I am not a threat but someone you can look to as a friend imparting survival knowledge from experience.

Coming back recently from the US to Malaysia, and being thoroughly exposed to the cheerful and friendly smiles of Americans with their pleasant “how are you?” for 3 weeks really did a number on me at home.  Firstly, I noticed that for every smile I receive back from passersby on the streets of Kuala Lumpur after myself breaking into one, there are three who remain stiff lipped and nonchalantly ignore me. Some even stare at me to determine If I am crazy! Initially I was really surprised. How did I not notice this “unfriendliness” before? I have lived here all my life! I would brush one or two off as uptight or plain unfriendly, but now I am beginning to understand that while smiling is universal, the intentions or motivations to smile may not be.

So naturally I put on my intercultural curious cap, and researched online smiles in cross cultural communication. Smiling is after all a facial expression, a non-verbal communication – now that I think about it. This is what I found.

While smiling is perceived as a positive emotion most of the time, such as in American culture where a smile is seen as a sign of trust, genuineness and determining expression of happiness, there are many cultures that perceive smiling as a less positive expression and consider it unwelcoming and foolish.

For example in Russia, it is generally considered poor taste to smile without a reason, and to smile at strangers in public is both unusual and suspicious. Meanwhile in Korea there is a saying that goes, “He who smiles a lot is not a real man.” To Koreans smiling is perceived as a frivolous act. Likewise, if I were in the streets of Germany today smiling at a German for no particular reason, people would quietly assume that I must be a little simple minded or have lost my marbles. Not that I mind of course. I still really want to go to Germany :) For many Scandinavians a smile or any facial expression used to convey emotions is atypical as it is generally considered a vulnerability to show emotions. In such cultures, smiling is mostly reserved for close friends and family members.

The degree of facial expressiveness – such as smiling – one exhibits varies among individuals and cultures. The fact that members of one culture do not express their emotions as openly as members of another does not mean that they do not experience emotions. Rather, there are cultural restraints on the amount of nonverbal expressiveness permitted. As a result, some Russians believe that Americans smile in the wrong places, while Americans believe that Russians don’t smile enough, still others think that the Dutch are virtually expressionless. At the same time smiling in official photographs and documentation, such as in driving licenses and passports, is a big no-no in Malaysia.

In other parts of the world such as China, Thailand or Vietnam, smiles may yet indicate other emotions such as feelings of awkwardness or embarrassment. Smiling is akin to a vehicle of ambiguities, as not all smiles are genuine expressions of happiness. People are able to still smile when they are horrified, sad, frightened or in emotional pain. People also smile when they are lying, as famously marveled by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.”

Furthermore, the degree or frequency of smiling diverges along gender lines. Women on average tend to naturally smile more. One of the main moderators for this seem to be gender norms nurtured from a very young age – boys are encouraged not to smile very much as expressiveness is taken by some cultures to be a sign of femininity. On the other hand, as the more social and softer gender, women are encouraged to always sound and look expressive (with a smile) even when they are not feeling much inclined. Women who are not very expressive are regarded by others with caution, as they may seem to be cold or withholding.

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that while our cultural background plays a significant role in influencing our views of culturally acceptable decorum, culture does not always determine the message of non-verbal communication. The individual’s personality, the context, and the relationship also influence its meaning. So now I know that it is crucial to have an awareness of what a smile may mean in different cultures, or simply the fact that smiles may be interpreted differently from our norms. Still I believe the best way to elicit a genuine smile from anybody is to go out and be somebody’s friend. Get to know somebody today, talk to them and be invested in their lives, ask questions, listen to their story – just be real. I promise you will eventually be rewarded with a real smile.


How are Intercultural Skills Valued in the Workplace?

The AFS world provides rewarding experiences to almost 13000 program participants every year and has an extensive network of volunteers and staff that forms affective, long-lasting relationships. These experiences also raise the level of interest to seek new intercultural encounters. However, we also believe that participating in AFS’s intercultural exchange programs can have a positive impact on the development of intercultural competences, which are positively valued in the workplace. We looked at some of the recent research about youth employment and also asked ourselves: Even if our assumptions about the value of the AFS experience are corroborated, how does this relate to our organization’s strategies?

To address this topic, the European Youth Forum and its partners conducted a study among young people and employers in European countries. Results of the Study on the Impact of Non-Formal Education in Youth Organizations on Young People’s Employability were published in 2013. More than 1300 young people from more than 245 youth organizations based in more than 40 European countries participated in a survey for the study, while qualitative workshops and interviews were conducted with employers and relevant stakeholders in order to obtain data for the study. The European Federation for Intercultural Learning (EFIL) also took part in the survey and invited its members to give their contributions.

The study highlighted a strong positive correlation between the involvement in youth organizations and non-formal education, as well as the employment possibilities for young people. It concluded that five of the six skills most frequently demanded by employers are developed in youth organizations. These skills are:

  • communication skills
  • organizational or planning skills
  • decision-making skills
  • confidence or autonomy
  • teamwork.

Moreover, involvement in non-formal education activities abroad is seen as helpful for young people to develop higher levels of competences related to intercultural communication, foreign languages, and leadership skills. Employers see prior experience and a willingness to participate in non-formal education as good indicators of a person’s motivation level and potential to fit in with a new company, as well as an opportunity to create social capital, networks, and connections.

The Value of Intercultural Skills in the Workplace, published in 2012 by the British Council and its partners, is yet another study that finds that there is real business value in employing staff who have the ability to work effectively with individuals and organizations from cultural backgrounds different than their own. More than 360 employers surveyed in 9 countries (Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Jordan, South Africa, the UAE, the UK, and the USA) highlighted the following as important intercultural skills:

  • the ability to understand different cultural contexts and viewpoints
  • demonstrating respect for others
  • knowledge of a foreign language.

Finally, The QS Global Employer Survey, an annual study conducted since 1991, combined online questionnaires, institution submissions, and databases from partners to get responses from employers around the world. The study asked its respondents whether they actively seek or attribute value to an international study experience when recruiting employees. Most hiring managers replied that this is a formal part of their interview and selection process, where intercultural communication skills and knowledge of foreign languages are evaluated during the recruitment process.

Employers also believe that candidates with international experience generally outperform those without it. While levels of appreciation differ at different levels of management and types of industry, significant value is placed on international education around the world.

It is reassuring to see that such findings from various studies highlight the need for competencies in the workplace that are very similar to the goals AFS aims to develop in the personal, interpersonal, cultural, and global realms.

For example, when it comes to the realm of interpersonal skills, AFS programs focus on enhancing empathy, flexibility, and social skills with a commitment to contributing to the group. These skills directly relate to the employers’ demand for young people who demonstrate respect for others and an ability to work in a team.

When it comes to communication skills, AFS program participants become more effective communicators and are able to express themselves more effectively in multicultural environments, including in a foreign language.

The AFS Long-Term Impact Study found that AFS alumni are 20% more likely to speak and use at least one more foreign language than their peers. Confident in their own abilities, they develop meaningful and long-term friendships across cultures, thus creating much desired social connections. Finally, all this is underscored by an awareness and knowledge of both one’s own culture and other cultures, along with an ability to adapt to various cultural contexts.

With research showing that AFSers have a greater level of intercultural sensitivity and seek careers that involve contact with other cultures, it is reassuring to know that there is a demand for such skills in the 
global workplace.

What are your experiences with entering the job market as an AFS returnee? To what extent do you believe your AFS experience was an appropriate education for the 
global workforce?


This article originally appeared in the AFS Intercultural Link news magazine, volume 5, issue 1.

Leaping Over Cultural Walls

Our work in AFS is rooted in cultural diversity. Whether we are volunteers, staff, program participants, host or natural families, teachers, or in other ways connected to AFS, we are often surrounded by people, values and languages from not only one but many different cultures. In our efforts to act and respond appropriately when interacting with people from other cultures, it is necessary that we understand cultural stereotypes and ways to overcome them.

One way to approach cultural differences is to enjoy reading and telling stories about and being immersed in cultures from around the world. While we have dealt with this topic on the blog before, this time we would like to invite you to consider a thought shared by Elif Shafak, a novelist, in her 2010 TED Talk: if we only remain in our enclosed culture groups and share stories with each other, are we creating and reinforcing stereotypes? And what is it that we miss out on if we only remain in the zone of cultural stereotypes, whether they relate to another nation, age group or gender?

Interpersonal Contact

Researchers at the University of Essex, in collaboration with AFS, have completed The Impact of Living Abroad, an 18-month study that involved almost 2500 sojourners enrolled in a 10–12-month AFS program, as well as 578 control group participants.

The project investigated four central components of intercultural contact: acculturative stress, cultural learning, intergroup contact and the effect of cultural distance. Look for more summary reports of the study in the previous issues of the AFS Intercultural Link news magazine.

It is no surprise that the Internet and many online communication tools available may make the gap between host and home cultures seem smaller. Just like their peers around the world, AFS students enjoy making the best of the online world, but excessive use of technology can also have harmful effects on cultural adaptation during an exchange.

We in AFS believe that our sojourners achieve the most meaningful and constructive intercultural learning during in-person interactions with the host community. The Impact of Living Abroad study set out to investigate and verify the significance of the quality of in-person contact sojourners have with both home and host friends and family during an exchange. The quality of contact is estimated based on the participants’ own evaluations of how good, close and strong their relationships with different people during the exchange were.

The importance of personal contact in intercultural learning has always been emphasized in academic literature. Notable psychologists, such as Gordon Allport claimed that personal intercultural contact is instrumental in decreasing prejudice and increasing positive feelings towards people from different cultural backgrounds. Social contact is another very important necessity when it comes to coping with stress and adaptation.

Meaningful contact with people encountered in the host culture as well as those from home is common for sojourners who show certain personality traits, such as extroversion.

Higher levels of cross-cultural competence and the knowledge of the host language prior to the exchange experience also lead to establishing better in-person contacts in the host country.

Unsurprisingly, sojourners who exhibited higher levels of intergroup anxiety had poorer contacts with host nationals. For more details on intergroup anxiety and how it relates to AFS study abroad programs, we recommend our article in the previous issue of the AFS Intercultural Link news magazine.

Interestingly, the study found that good quality contact with home during an exchange has no influence – positive or negative – on adaptation and sojourner’s well-being over time, yet better quality of contact with home will lead to more cultural learning and increased cultural competencies. This finding is encouraging since we know that it is in the AFS Educational Goals to deepen participants’ insights into their home culture as well as their knowledge of their host culture.

Finally, better quality contact with host community leads to better overall sociocultural and psychological adaptation as well as satisfaction with life by the middle of the (year-long) exchange period.

The study makes it clear that it is important for sojourners to spend their time in quality interactions with their host family, school and other friends in-person, in order to be able to make the best of their experience and to advance in their personal development.

For more information about The Impact of Living Abroad study results, contact us at icl@afs.org or visit www.ilaproject.org.

AFSers, see how you can use these study results in the latest issue of the Intercultural Link news magazine.

100 Years Young! AFS Youth Workshop & Symposium

In November 2014, AFS Intercultural Programs will celebrate its 100th anniversary and prepare to ring in the next hundred years of education for peace and intercultural cooperation. We want to ensure that this important event incorporates the direct voice of youth: the generation that will carry AFS into the next century and that must learn to live together in order to resolve our shared challenges in an interdependent world.

The 100 Years Young! AFS Youth Workshop & Symposium, taking place from 5 to 8 November 2014 in Paris, France, will be an important set of events bringing a critical intergenerational element. Between 100 and 150 youth representatives of AFS and other organizations from around the world will come together to discuss and share their perspectives about how to tangibly go about the work of developing global citizens. As the application deadline – 17 August – is fast approaching, we would like to encourage you to submit your application as soon as possible!

As we welcome diverse perspectives at the table, this event is open to all young people ages 30 and under who are interested in Intercultural Learning and Global Citizenship  from different youth organizations. Participating in this event is an opportunity to:

  • take part in a vital conversation of young people from around the world
  • contribute to shaping the future of Global Citizenship Education
  • connect and network with volunteers from other youth/intercultural organizations
  • take part in the 100th anniversary of a leading intercultural education organization

You can sign up for virtual and in-person participation: visit the event website for more details. This event is held under the patronage of UNESCO.

Navigating Intercultural Relations

Do you have to like a culture to be able to behave competently in it? Do you think your communication style is better and more effective than that of others? What are the implicit, daily biases that you encounter?

These questions and many more were addressed in a radio interview with Dr Janet Bennett. Ms Bennett discussed the issues of prejudice and racism, while suggesting the answer to the question of who should adapt when two different cultures interact. We recommend the interview for its interpretations of the topics of culture in business, gender and diplomacy, as well as for tackling the issues of privilege and intercultural effectiveness. Click on the link below to listen to the full interview:

Dr. Janet Bennett is the executive director and co-founder of the Intercultural Communication Institute (ICI), well-known in the AFS world for its Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication (SIIC), which is attended regularly by AFSers from around the globe. As a trainer and consultant, Janet designs and conducts intercultural and diversity training for colleges and universities, corporations, social service agencies, healthcare organizations, and international aid agencies. She teaches and publishes numerous articles on the subjects of intercultural training and adjustment processes, including the Handbook of Intercultural Training. Ms Bennett is a long-term supporter of AFS, as she helps us enhance our intercultural learning expertise.


AFSers attend the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication!

From 14 – 25 July, more than 20 AFSers gathered at the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication (SIIC) in Portland, Oregon. The AFSers attended workshops on a variety of topics within the realm of International Communication, ranging from Training Design for Intercultural Communication to Storytelling for Intercultural Reflection. AFS attends SIIC each year because of our commitment to learning from lead scholars and practitioners in the field in order to improve our capacity as an intercultural learning organization. Our commitment extends to the whole network, as this is the 4th year that AFS has been able to sponsor staff and volunteers from around the network to attend SIIC.

Attending this year for the first time was Vincenzo Morlini, President of AFS International. Leading by example, Vincenzo demonstrated that intercultural learning never stops no matter what your role or how great your experience. “Even if I am not a newcomer to the subject, the workshop I attended was very inspiring and what I learned will be very useful in future traveling and communications with the network and outside audiences,” stated Morlini. “I also had the opportunity to meet with wonderful AFS staff and volunteers from different countries, to talk and exchange ideas with interesting people outside of AFS.”

Also at SIIC for the first time was AFS International Board of Trustees member from Costa Rica, Guillermo Barquero. “My learning experience at SIIC on Culture, Communication and Team Collaboration was beyond my expectations and it was a great opportunity indeed.”

Apart from the workshops during the day and evening sessions after dinner, other SIIC highlights include two AFS-sponsored karaoke nights, where AFSers took turns quizzing other SIIC attendees on their AFS trivia; an off-campus barbecue; and of course, exploring the city of Portland. Reed College’s campus itself made for a restorative time, with its native plants, wildlife, lake and pedestrian bridges.

We would like to give an extra special thank you to the gracious Janet Bennett, Executive Director and co-founder of the Intercultural Communication Institute (ICI). The ongoing love and support for AFS and her team of ICI staff make the AFS-SIIC scholarship program a successful collaboration every year.

Now back in their respective countries, the AFS-SIIC scholars intend to apply what they have learned to advance key AFS Network Intercultural Learning projects and goals. SIIC 2014 was a success and we look forward to providing the opportunity for more AFSers to attend next year!

The AFS Intercultural Link Learning Program goes to Costa Rica!

From 11-14 July, 14 volunteers and staff members from AFS Costa Rica and 2 volunteers from AFS Paraguay gathered in San José, Costa Rica, for a 4-day AFS Intercultural Link Learning Program National Qualified Training (NQT) Workshop. The Learning Program is an AFS network-wide Intercultural Learning training and assessment program designed to improve the collective intercultural competence of staff and volunteers, and enhance our expertise in developing this in others.

The workshop marks the first of three steps towards becoming a National Qualified Trainer. This means that once certified, the 16 Qualified Trainers will be able to implement the Learning Program locally, according to their country’s national strategic plans.

María Fernanda Batista Lobo, a previous volunteer for AFS Costa Rica and currently the Intercultural Learning Center Educational Coordinator at AFS Costa Rica, participated in the NQT workshop. “I really enjoy deepening and strengthening my knowledge of the Learning Program’s curriculum as well as learning about facilitation techniques and strategies. Also, I thought the level of organization of the facilitators was impressive,” stated María Fernanda.

When asked what surprised her about the workshop, she said, “I felt wonderful throughout the workshops not only because it was the closing of a long preparation cycle but also because I felt I was learning lots of new things that will help me perform my job better. After being part of AFS for so many years it’s easy to feel like there is nothing new or that you’ve seen all the techniques, so I loved that after so many years of belonging to an organization I am still able to be surprised.”

AFS Costa Rica is dedicated to Intercultural Learning. Victoria Soto, an International Qualified Trainer for the Learning Program and long-time volunteer at AFS Costa Rica echoed this sentiment: “I think it’s worth recognizing that this [the NQT certification] is a result of a process of years of our organization insisting on going beyond the “tip of the iceberg,” of not staying on the sidelines of our intercultural encounters but instead strengthening the educational competencies of our staff and volunteers. From the coordination of the Intercultural Learning Center (CAI), AFS Costa Rica views the NQT workshop and certification as a valuable resource towards achieving the educational goals of our strategic plan.

Congratulations to AFS Costa Rica and AFS Paraguay on the hard work towards facilitating Intercultural Learning at the national level and your commitment to doing so within the framework of the AFS Intercultural Link Learning Program!

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.