Common Cultural Differences
We strongly recommend you discuss the following topics with your hosted participant to help with their acclimation to your home and U.S. culture. These issues are dealt with in the Welcome to the USA booklet that hosted participants receive prior to their arrival in the U.S.
Experienced Host Family Advice: It is challenging to determine which behaviors of a hosted student are due to their culture, and which may be due to their unique personality or upbringing. It is difficult to know when the communication problem is due to language or deliberate self- direction. It's very important to establish a routine of communication, perhaps a place (the kitchen table) and a cue for either party, such as "we need to talk". We did this and still had difficulties, but it helped enormously to have established that simple routine, which could happen at any time.
Please and Thank You
Many host parents have been surprised by their hosted participant’s initial lack of the use of “please” and “thank you.” In the U.S., we generally use these words with everyone all the time. This reflects the egalitarian nature of our society and the basic respect that we feel is due to all, regardless of their relationship to us. In cultures with a more hierarchical structure or division between social classes, these terms are NOT used as freely and would not generally be expected by someone who is perceived to be of a “lower” status when speaking to someone of a “higher” status.
In cultures that place a higher value on familial relationships, parents (especially mothers) would NOT necessarily expect their children to use these terms, and vice versa, because they are only providing or doing what is expected of them as a member of the family.
If the use of “please” and “thank you” is important to you and your family members, please explain this early on to your hosted participant and remind them of this until it becomes a habit. Don’t let it slide in the beginning or unnecessary resentment will build!
Your hosted participant may be more or less independent than your own child(ren)/teen(s). Be prepared to give more guidance, if necessary, and to make your household rules clear. Depending on the home culture, many hosted participants are allowed by their parent(s)/guardian(s)s to drink alcoholic beverages in their own homes. Some hosted participants are accustomed to smoking/vaping and come from cultures in which the majority of adults are smokers.
Some hosted participants may also be unaccustomed to performing chores around the house. This may be because in their culture, hired household help is very common or because their mother or someone else in the family (such as sisters or grandmother) takes full responsibility for the household work. Cultural norms in your family and community may be quite different from those to which your hosted participant is accustomed.
Discuss similarities and differences openly, and work to arrive at an agreement that is acceptable to your family. We recommend you complete the Participant and Host Family Questionnaire early on with your student. As in any situation, if you have difficulties communicating or reaching an agreement, contact your AFS Liaison. Be open to sharing and exploring your cultures with one another.
The Cultural Exploration Questionnaire has been created to assist host families, local volunteers and students to collectively explore how culture may be impacting their experience. This resource allows all parties the opportunity to share how culture may influence certain behaviors, ways of communicating and also responding to conflict. In many cases, we find that culture may be at the root of an issue which is being perceived as behavioral and/or personality. This tool will assist in flushing out where these cultural differences may be hidden or not readily visible to the eye while also promoting intercultural learning.
Cultural Attitudes Towards Sexual Behavior
Relationships between young people, dating, and cultural attitudes towards sexual behavior may be different in your hosted participant’s culture compared to your family expectations or your local cultural norms. AFS Participants may misinterpret the behavior of their new friends, or their own actions may convey unintentional messages.
While AFS recognizes that cultural attitudes towards sexual behavior vary from country to country, community to community, and indeed from family to family, we also recognize that there is an equally wide range of sexual behaviors among young people throughout the world. Ultimately, it is the decision of an individual whether they become or remain sexually active during their stay in the U.S.
However, it is important for the hosted participant to understand early on what your family’s standards are for this behavior. As in other situations, hosted participants are asked to be sensitive to and respectful of these views. In addition, they should be made aware of the risks posed by HIV and other STDs/STIs (sexually transmitted diseases/infections).
Although discussions regarding these subjects can be emotionally charged, it is important that you be candid and clear in order to avoid conflict later on. Talking about these issues openly and objectively helps a great deal. It is important to remember that your hosted participant’s family and home culture’s views may vary from your community’s views towards pre-marital sex. For example, it’s perfectly fine to have a rule that your hosted participant may NOT have sex in your home. However, keep in mind that AFS does not have a policy against consensual sex between individuals of legal age.
Your hosted participant may have very different religious beliefs and practices from your family and may or may not wish to join you in your worship. Attending a place of worship is an individual choice, and respecting each other’s religious beliefs is a fundamental step in the intercultural learning process. If your hosted participant prefers not to attend services with your family, do NOT try to persuade them to do so.
Per U.S. Department of State regulations, exchange students can’t be required to attend religious services of any kind. AFS does encourage hosted participants to attend religious services with their host family at least once, however, to better understand that aspect of the family’s culture.
Should special arrangements need to be made for the hosted participant to observe their own religious practices, AFS Volunteers can assist you. AFS strives for compatibility in all placements. However, should religion become a serious issue between you and your hosted participant, it may be necessary for you, your hosted participant, and local volunteers to consider a change of family.
Diversity has different meanings or distinctions across different countries and cultures. Your hosted participant may have had varying levels of exposure to cultures, ethnic identities, religions, gender identity expression, orientation, and lifestyles different from their own in their home country. Be prepared for your hosted participant to potentially ask you questions about the types of diversity that may be unique to the U.S. American context, or even within the local host community. Remember that every hosted participant’s experience with diversity will be different; there may be significant differences in experiences between two hosted participants from the same country.
Be aware that your hosted participant may be from a country or culture that is more egalitarian or more hierarchical than the U.S. It is important to be aware that your hosted participant may not have experienced having classmates from different socioeconomic, social and/or ethnic groups. Prepare your hosted participant for this reality and tell them that regardless of one’s perceived status in the U.S., it is important to treat all people equally and with respect.
You should also be aware that your hosted participant may be coming from a society in which they are part of an ethnic or religious majority, whereas they may be in the minority in the U.S. Additionally, they may be coming from countries where they represent the minority, though in the U.S., due to limited understanding, U.S. Americans may assume that hosted participants are part of the majority group. For example, U.S. Americans may assume that all hosted participants from India are part of the majority religion (Hindu). However, a hosted participant from India may be of any faith background or even none at all.
As a host family, you can help your hosted participant develop a realistic understanding of the U.S. by exploring cultural, ethnic, identity, and religious diversity through attending a variety of ethnic celebrations, pointing out and perhaps even visiting different religious centers (i.e. churches, mosques, temples, synagogues etc.).
In the U.S., the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has made accommodating those with disabilities a national requirement. The same is not true everywhere in the world. Your participant may have had limited contact with individuals with any kind of disability. As such, it is a good idea to include this topic in the conversation you have with your participant about treating all people in the United States with respect.