Of course, hosted participants are expected to undergo cultural adjustments while on program, but host families are also experiencing and participating in their own “journey” of intercultural learning and self-discovery. This may seem surprising at first, but this process of mutual enrichment and learning is what thousands of AFS Participants, their parents, and host families will tell you lies at the heart of the AFS experience.
You may be wondering, “How can I learn about myself through contact with someone different from me?” It is most often through the contrast between the two that new awareness and knowledge arise. In other words, we may not be aware of our own values, beliefs, and customs until we encounter someone who has values, beliefs, and customs different from our own.
The AFS experience provides opportunities for intercultural learning and personal growth for both the participant and the host family. Following are resources and information to aid your family in this process.
AFS Educational Goals for AFS Participants
Intercultural competencies are key skills in an increasingly interconnected and globalized world. As an educational organization that provides intercultural learning opportunities, AFS supports its mission in many ways, including by promoting 16 Educational Goals for our students.
The 16 Educational Goals are categorized into four Realms:
1. Personal values and skills: As a result of their experiences, students learn to turn difficult situations into valuable opportunities for personal growth. They are challenged to reassess their values, stretch their capacities and practice new life skills while gaining awareness of previously hidden aspects of their own personalities.
2. Interpersonal relationship-building: AFS exchange students become fully involved in daily living and working arrangements with a variety of people in the new environment, which are transferable to many other settings during their lifetime.
3. (Inter)cultural knowledge and sensitivity: The AFS exchange experience deepens students’ insights into their home culture as well as their knowledge of their host culture—both strengths and weaknesses— from the perspective of an outsider.
4. Global issues awareness: AFS students become able to empathize with their hosts’ perspective on multiple global issues, and thus to appreciate that workable solutions must be culturally sensitive, not merely chronologically feasible.
The 16 Educational Goals serve as the backbone for AFS exchange programs in which we support our students to develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to become global citizens. Students attain some of these goals during or by the end of their AFS experience; others involve a lifetime of reflection and building on what has been learned through AFS programs.
A Hosting Story: Sharing and Learning About Culture
This U.S. host mother’s story illustrates how host families commonly share their culture while learning about their participant’s culture:
About a month after our Danish student moved in, she asked why I always ate at the kitchen counter, but my husband and children ate at the kitchen table. The answer was because our kitchen table was too small to seat six people and we usually ate in the kitchen instead of the dining room. I would sit closer to the stove in order to refill others’ plates more easily.
Our Danish student also asked why my daughters always set and cleared the table, while my sons and husband usually did nothing to help out at mealtimes. She found all these practices quite odd. None of us had really questioned or discussed our family mealtime practices before that moment. We asked her about her family’s mealtime traditions. She shared with us about her Danish family’s norms - how everyone ate at the same table and all the food was placed on the table “family style” so everyone could serve themselves. Her parents took turns preparing the meals. Everyone took turns clearing the table and washing the dishes. Her parents often lit candles on the dinner table because of the shorter days of the Danish fall and winter.
This conversation caused a mini revolution in our home. Our family eventually made some changes, even though my sons didn’t love having to help out more! Now, we sit and eat together at the dining room table. Also, we regularly use the lovely Danish candleholder she gave us to brighten our table. Some things never change though; I am still the cook!
Thanks to the conversation between the host mom and the Danish student, both the host family members and the hosted participant became aware of cultural and individual differences. In this case, the family made some changes based on their new awareness, but some things stayed the same.
It’s important to remember that questions and comments about cultural differences are NOT necessarily criticisms of culture. Answering questions and asking about other people’s experiences are opportunities for personal development, culture learning, building rapport and looking at things through different perspectives.
Generalizations and Stereotypes
To help us in the process of mutual understanding, it is often useful to look to cultural generalizations. Cultural Generalizations are defined as “the tendency of the majority of people within a culture group to share certain values, beliefs, and behaviors”. Generalizations do not apply to all people within a culture group, so they should only be used as a guide to understand the group.
Not every U.S. American family shares the same practices as the family in the previous example, nor does every Danish family share the traditions of the participant’s family. However, the Danes are generally known for a more egalitarian outlook on gender roles, whereas in the majority of U.S. families, the mother does most of the housework and cooking, even if she works outside of the home. Therefore, these statements are generalizations about Danish and U.S. American culture.
An example of a cultural generalization is the strongly held U.S. American value of individualism. Individualism values personal independence. An individualist’s sense of self is defined more by who they are on the “inside,” minimizing the influence of factors, contexts, and people “outside” the individual, however, this doesn’t mean that all U.S. Americans value individualism in the same way and to the same degree. Rather, on average, U.S. Americans, along with Europeans, hold this value and within these cultures, individualism is viewed in a positive light.
In contrast, many cultures are more orientated toward collectivism, where people generally place a higher value on personal interdependence. A collectivist’s sense of self is defined more by who they are in relation to other people, or by their membership in a group. Maintaining social harmony, getting along with others, and meeting social expectations are more important in collectivist cultures. Many Latin American, Asian, and African cultures hold this value highly.
Cultural generalizations must NOT be confused with cultural stereotypes. Cultural stereotypes are “fixed ideas or exaggerated beliefs about every individual in a culture group.” Stereotypes are often negative in nature, biased, and based on limited personal or second-hand information. Examples of cultural stereotypes are “People from Country A talk loudly” or “People from Country B are all shy”.
Experienced Host Family Advice: You can never take for granted the presumptions and the stereotypes of a particular culture. We learned through our student that Thai people can be quite different than how they are generally portrayed.
Understanding Different Cultural Values and Expectations
If your hosted participant is from a more collectivist society, it is likely that they are accustomed to situations in which personal space and privacy are more limited than what we typically find in the U.S. As a result, they will need guidance in understanding your family’s norms and rules. For example:
- Which household and personal items can be shared or used, either with or without the consent of the “owner”?
- Which rooms in the house are off-limits?
- What does a closed door mean? (ex: the room is occupied by someone that doesn’t want to be disturbed; the room is empty, but you are trying to regulate the temperature of the room; you should knock before entering; the door is locked; or the room is off-limits for safety or personal reasons)
- Should people knock before opening doors?
- Are family members expected to greet each other during the day? (ex: in the morning, whenever they enter or exit the home, before going to bed etc.)?
AFS Participants from collectivist (i.e. “we”-focused) cultures often expect their parents and family members to be attentive towards and/or critical of their behavior, appearance, hobbies etc. Families from individualist (i.e. “I”- focused) cultures often respect students’ autonomy, encourage them to make their own personal decisions safely, and might prefer a more equitable style to parenting. So, it is important for you to be aware that a person from a more collectivist culture might interpret this kind of behavior as disinterested or uncaring, just as you might interpret their use of your hairbrush without asking as rude or inconsiderate.
Whichever the case, be careful not to jump to conclusions or automatically judge the behavior of your hosted participant. Instead, consider whether a cultural misunderstanding may be at play and approach the situation as an opportunity for mutual learning. Explore the difference in question with your hosted participant and if they come from a more collectivist society, gently explain or demonstrate how things are done in your home. We specify “gently” as another characteristic of collectivism is the tendency to use a more indirect style of communication, while individualism often corresponds with the more direct style of communication common in the U.S. However, it’s important to remember that these are cultural tendencies and not a guarantee of one’s preferred communication style.
Experienced Host Family Advice: When you run into something that seems annoying, such as a particular behavior or habit, view it first as an opportunity to learn - before getting into the issue of changing the behavior. Sometimes we needed to take some time to distinguish between poor behavior and cultural differences.
Click here to learn more about direct and indirect communication styles.