Let’s shake hands!

In many countries participating in the AFS exchange programs, this is the time of year when exchange students arrive to their new homes – they are just starting to get to know their new families and friends, the local communities and schools, as well as the first tangible elements of the culture they will be living in. All these new encounters will require a lot of greetings – but are we aware of the appropriate ways to say hello in a different culture?


Greeting another person is another one of those simple daily activities that we rarely think about when we are in our home culture. Not only for the purpose of leaving a good first impression, although this is very important too, knowing what the appropriate greeting style is reveals a deeper understanding of the values of the other culture. For example, the appropriate order in which you greet people in case you meet with a group may show that culture’s view on seniority and respect. Physical closeness or touching may speak about the notions of personal space upheld in that particular culture.


What is the common way to great people in your culture and which values do you think are behind it? 

Read more about specific greeting styles in this article by the BBC, covering different customs in Brazil, China, Singapore, UK, USA and the United Arab Emirates.



Search Google for Stereotypes

What is the first thing that crosses your mind when you think about another nation, country or a group of people? That Asians are so hard working? The French are really romantic? Old people are boring, but young are too careless? These assumptions are wide spread and they fall into the categories of generalizations and stereotypes.

Generalizing about cultures means that you assign the similar characteristics to most members of that particular culture, but you are still flexible enough to incorporate new information about that group once you have it. Hopefully, this flexibility can also turn into more cultural curiosity and awareness and improve your intercultural relationships. Generalizations are unavoidable and they can even be helpful in making sense of complex intercultural settings.

Generalizations become stereotypes when you assume all members of a group have exactly the same characteristics. Stereotypes can be linked to more than just gender, age or nationality. More often than not, they are very negative and tend to be less flexible to new information. They often create prejudice and discrimination, not allowing us to understand individual differences and understand others.

Even though everyone was at least once confronted with a generalization or a stereotype about a group they belong to, we often like to think that the internet is the one fair arena where equality prevails. But what happens when you type a question into a search engine starting with, for example, “Why do Germans…”? A list of suggested endings to those questions immediately pops up, and it might not always be a flattering one. Have you ever tried googling for your country or social group using this principle? We took a few examples, and here is what came out:

What results did you get?

Cultural diversity is of paramount importance for AFS programs, enabling our exchange students to have first hand experiences with other cultures rather than relying on old stereotypes. If you want to read more about generalizations and stereotypes or other intercultural topics, we encourage you to visit the ICL for friends of AFS section on our website.


Free Webinars and Resources for Interculturalists

The traditional picture of group learning happening in the classroom or at least in a physical space that the learners share together is not the only way how knowledge is  shared and acquired in the second decade of 21st century. In AFS Intercultural Programs, we see and appreciate the value of various virtual learning opportunities and we encourage the community of AFS volunteers and staff as well as others to seek and use on-line resources that can help us improve our work in the intercultural field (check out the list of on-line resources on this blog).

Today, we are featuring a list of free webinars for Interculturalists offered by our colleagues from the field. They cover a variety of different topics, they are all in English, happening at different times and most importantly, they are all coming up soon. Follow the link at the bottom of this post to register for the webinar most appealing to you!

1) Wednesday, August 14th at 2:00pm EST

Race in America: A followup to the events around the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman trial (by Melibee Global featuring TaNesha Barnes)

2) Thursday, August 22nd at 11:00am PST

Blogging as Interculturalists: A Reflective Practice & Global Community Builder (by Social Media Interculturalists – Vanessa Shaw & Sabrina Ziegler)

3) Monday, August 26th at 14:00 CET

How to Integrate Leadership in Simple Ways to your Everyday Life (by Personal Leadership Seminars)

4) Thursday, August 29th at 9:00am PST

Place, Culture, Home, Identity: The Meanings of Place in Our Lives (by Jack Condon and Tatyana Fertelmeyster)

Too see the full overview of events and a link to a free book about Diversity, visit the original list in a blog post put together by fellow interculturalists Vanessa Shaw and Sabrina Ziegler. Do you know about any other on-line webinars with intercultural focus? Let us know!

Culture in the Foreign Language Learning Classroom

The link between foreign language learning and culture learning has been established by the linguists and anthropologists a long time ago. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages has concluded that through the study of other languages, students gain a knowledge and understanding of the cultures that use that language. Moreover, students cannot truly master the language until they have also mastered the cultural contexts in which the language occurs. Linguistic competence alone is not enough for learners of a language to be competent in that language. From simple, everyday things, like forms of address to appropriate ways of expressing disagreement, culture forms an integral part of the language learning curricula. In any case, in order for communication to be successful, language use must be associated with other culturally appropriate behavior, not only linguistic rules in the narrow sense.

Culture is often taught implicitly, as a part of the linguistic forms that students are learning. To make students aware of the cultural features reflected in the language, teachers can make those cultural features an explicit topic of discussion and bring them to the forefront when appropriate. It is of utmost importance that cultural information be presented in a nonjudgmental way which doesn’t evaluate the distinctions between the students’ native culture and the culture explored in the classroom. Claire Kramsch uses the term “third culture” of the language classroom to describe an ideal learning environment, one where learners can explore and reflect on their own and the target culture and language.

However, it is also important to help students understand that cultures are not monolithicand so a variety of successful behaviors are also possible for any type of interaction in any particular culture. Teachers can make it possible for students to observe and explore cultural interactions from their own perspectives to enable them to find their own voices and language egos in the second language speech community.

There are several practical ways to effectively teach culture, along with teaching a language:

  • Provide students with authentic materials – Watching films, news broadcasts or TV shows can provide students with ample information about non-verbal behavior, such as the use of personal space, eye contact or gestures. On the other hand, reading authentic fictional or non-fictional materials can also be a good introduction about the values and norms of the target language culture. These materials also help the students improve their language skills, especially in terms of listening and understanding written texts.
  • Compare and contrast proverbs – Apart from being very informative about the two cultures, proverbs can lead to a discussion about stereotypes or values represented in the proverbs of both cultures. Furthermore, proverbs and idioms form a significant part of every language and knowing them is a plus for every learner.
  • Use role plays – They especially support students in making the shift in perspective from their own culture, which can become a strange one and is looked at from the outside, and the target culture, which becomes more familiar. In the process, students practice speaking and using language in unpredictable situations.
  • Research cultural items – While also practicing their presentation or writing skills in the target language, the students can inform their classmates about an assigned item from the foreign culture and contextualized the knowledge gained.
  • Students as cultural resources – Many classrooms nowadays are very culturally and ethnically diverse and they often have exchange students from foreign cultures or returnees from an exchange program in the target culture. They can be invited to the classroom as expert sources and share authentic insights into the home and cultural life of native speakers of the language.

We strongly encourage you to also look at the our series ICL …for friends of AFS and find more culture related topics which can be used in the classroom, as well as some deeper explanations about the terms mentioned in this post.

Impact of Non-Formal Education in Youth Organizations on Young People’s Employability

“Do the competences and skills obtained through non-formal education activities in youth organizations contribute to the employability of young people?”

This was the main topic of the study the European Youth Forum conducted in cooperation with the University of Bath and GHK Consulting. More than 1300 young people from over 245 youth organizations based in more than 40 European countries took part in a survey, while qualitative workshops and interviews were conducted with employers and relevant stakeholders in order to obtain data for creating the study. European Federation for Intercultural Learning (EFIL), the umbrella organization for AFS in Europe, also took part in this survey and invited its members to give their contributions. The topic of the study was of particular interest for AFS, seeing that this organization provides non-formal learning opportunities both for its program participants and volunteers, who are often from the age group covered by the study.

The study found that there is indeed a strong positive correlation between involvement in youth organizations & non-formal education and the employment possibilities for young people.

The study concluded that five of the six skills most frequently demanded by employers are developed in youth organizations. These soft skills are often seen as key elements of successful job performance and they include:

  • communication skills,
  • organizational or planning skills,
  • decision-making skills,
  • confidence or autonomy, and
  • team work.

The study also reported that the more involved people are in youth organizations and the higher level of formal education they have, the higher skill levels they will develop. Participation in non-formal education outside their home country brought young people even higher levels of development of some competences, especially in relation to intercultural communication, foreign languages and leadership skills. Many young people are aware that such opportunities lead to personal growth, even though this can be further enhanced by the existence of an assessment or strategic plan for skill development within the organization.

Employers also have a positive attitude towards young people’s experience in youth organizations. They perceive the youth sector as offering a pool of specialist skills and say that involvement in such organizations is a good indicator of a person’s motivation level and potential to fit in with the new company. A background in non-formal education activities is especially important for young people with less work experience, particularly with regard to the number and type of previous involvements in the field.

A few things that are important to note are that a special emphasis is put on the way and timeliness of presenting the skills and competences acquired during the participation in youth work, which is an area where there is still room for improvement. Also, youth organizations need to brand themselves better to employers, who are insufficiently aware of what is happening in the youth sector, which makes some employers mistrust the information presented about the involvement in youth organizations by job seekers.

An added value of youth work is the opportunity for young people to create social capital, networks and connections, which can aid in obtaining information about employment possibilities, and broaden the range of possible occupations and geographical locations where young people would consider working.

The study strongly recommends investing in non-formal education. It particularly stresses that the quality of non-formal education and the accessibility of it to more young people, on top of increased mobility, are core factors influencing the employability of young people. The findings of this study are significant for AFSers around the world, as they comply with the organization’s educational goals, which aim at developing personal and interpersonal skills as well as intercultural knowledge and global issues awareness. Through their exchange experience, sojourners and volunteers alike have the opportunity to develop higher levels of intercultural competences and leadership skills, which prove to be beneficial for their future careers. You can read the full study or its executive summary for more information.