Social Intelligence: How to survive while studying abroad

Contributed by Amanda Anastasio, M.S.W., L.C.S.W.

“I know that the stereotypes of the United States are out there, and I know that many of them are informed not by direct exchange or dialogue, but by television shows and movies and misinformation.” – Barack Obama

As our president states, much of what the world knows about Americans is not from real-life experiences but from movies, TV, and other sources that are not the most accurate. For many students, studying abroad is their first time away from home, and often they have little knowledge of the world beyond America. What to do?

Do Obama and your school proud by realizing that, by choosing to study abroad, you turn yourself into a representative of your college and all Americans. You can help break up some of those stereotypes!  Here are three things to remember for social survival abroad, from an ex-Parisian study-abroad student:

Students studying abroad

Keep an open mind

Be curious. Try the food and enjoy the differences in the people, music, and history. The best way to get the most out of study abroad is to embrace it and be involved! Exploring how people in the culture live their daily lives can open your mind and grow your communication and personal skills. (Don’t be like my friend Sal, who went to Europe to discover more about his ancestry but ended up doing a tour of Italian McDonalds’ locations, and learning only that he preferred Il Big Mac.)

One thing I recommend to students today is writing a blog about your study-abroad trip as you live it. The internet provides you with an interactive and visual alternative to keeping a journal of your experiences. Your family and friends will read in real time what you are up to. You might not feel so far or disconnected if you can share your latest pics and read their reactions and comments. Check out – it has student blogs from countries all over the world that you can browse if you are interested in cyber-recording your trip! Writing down your thoughts in a blog is a great way to reflect on your own insights as you discover a new country.

Learn the language and increase awareness of social norms and values

Actions perceived as rude or unfriendly might just be a misunderstanding in communication or cultural differences. The key here is to make it a point to learn and communicate in the local language. Don’t assume that people speak English or want to. In Paris, I found that when I spoke French (even incorrectly), Parisians lit up with appreciation that I acknowledged and showed respect for their culture by speaking their language. If you are in an English-speaking country, don’t be quick to judge what’s better or worse about the country and the differences you see.

Respect is a an important factor to emphasize, according to Brian Swanzey, Director of Wroxton and Study Abroad at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. “As a guest in another country, especially in some of the more exotic locales, students are often unaware of simple, daily etiquette and cultural norms, but with a respectful demeanor folks are usually happy to explain their culture to an American who behaves with a genuine interest. I always tell students that there is nothing wrong with being a proud American, but to also understand that people are equally proud of their own countries and to always keep this in mind throughout their time abroad.”

Read up on current affairs in your host country

The United Nations’ website allows you to click on the country you’re interested in and find out what is going on right now. Your college’s study-abroad program will most likely give you information about the host country as well to prepare you for the trip. Additionally, it’s especially important to learn the history and roles of different people in society. In some countries, you’ll need to be aware of dress and behaviors to which normally you wouldn’t give a second thought in America. Other ways of life are not necessarily wrong or scary, just different from your own. You can stay safe by being well-informed.

Know that it’s okay to not be okay

It’s completely normal to feel homesickness, loneliness, or anxiety due to culture shock. You may feel any combination of these when you’re far from home and family. It may be tempting to use alcohol to ease the tension you may have, but it won’t make you feel better emotionally.  Share with other students in your program who are going through the same experiences. Listening to music that you associate with home or loved ones can decrease anxiety and elevate mood, so make sure to stock your iPod! For me, I made sure to call my family and keep up with weekly emails. Getting out and seeing the gorgeous green parks of Paris didn’t hurt either.

It may take some time to adjust, but your study-abroad experience will leave you with new perspectives on life and a more global perspective; just think, you may even help improve America’s foreign relations – ca, c’est chouette (Translation: Sweet!)

“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” – Miriam Beard

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3 thoughts on “Social Intelligence: How to survive while studying abroad

  1. Pingback: I am thinking of studying for a MBA. What school should I apply to? | Scholarships and Grants

  2. I studied abroad in a few different places and each time I was as part of a larger group. While I formed really tight bonds with my classmates – some life long friends – if you are in a similar situation I would recommend trying to do somethings on your own too. The Greek family that “adopted” me after I stumbled into a local celebration, the trip to Normandy where I wandered in and out of old bunkers, an older man named Demitri that compared my skin to a Pringle – are great memories that I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t broken I away from my class for some solo adventures.

    This post is full of great tips – especially the last one. Homesickness is to be expected and actually helps make the experience more meaningful and personal.

    Enjoy your travels!

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