Becoming Culturally Savvy

I stumbled downstairs, after a long flight, to my first breakfast with the nurses at the Krankenhause Schüle in St. Polten, Austria. Brown bread, butter and jam and the thickest and most delicious yogurt with Müesli.  “Guten Morgan“, I shyly mumbled in my American accent.”  Jet lag, a new language and a new culture all rolled into one. My task wasn’t going to be easy after 6 months of informal language learning …I needed to be ready to welcome 150 youth to the city in one month– find beds and food for each person and a facility to put on the musical theater performance.

For me, my time in Austria marked the conscious beginning to cultural learning and adaptation. Our whole lives we do this, but at a certain point, it’s helpful to reflect on what makes these experiences really successful. What are the elements or actions that help a person learn and grow in a new culture and feel at home or, at least, comfortable and functional?

According to recent research, there are a few prerequisites for this thing we’ll call intercultural development or being culturally savvy. In her model, Deardorff (2006) cites a number of attitudes that are essential for laying the groundwork for this type of learning. Ask yourself the following questions:

Are you curious to learn about other cultures? Can you handle ambiguity in your everyday life or even social interactions? Do you respect people from other cultures? Can you interact with others while withholding judgment? Are you open?

What did you find out?  Hopefully you are a curious person that is open to new ideas, people and cultures, if not, stop reading here! If you’ve got the groundwork for being culturally savvy, then there are a few things that you can do as you live abroad to help accelerate your leaning and adaptation.

Stick with the Natives

When I first arrived in Chile to the university campus, I was fumbling around looking for the “teléfonos azules” which at that time allowed you to make international phone calls given enough peso coins shoved into the little slot. A short man with dark hair and a kind face approached me and offered to help.  He spoke to me in English and directed me to the nearest blue phone where I called my mother. My Spanish was so poor, and particularly my Chilean Spanish, that I was grateful for his help, even though something inside of me told me that I shouldn’t be speaking English during my study abroad semester. Well, never mind – the great thing was that he was Chilean and I was quickly introduced to all of his friends and incorporated into lots of social events!

As I walked through campus, I noticed a cluster of Americans chatting away together about last night’s events or their studies. What was I missing? – They only had an outsider’s view on Chile. I was lucky to be on the inside. Through those six months, I traveled with my Chilean friends, fell in love, visited families, ate diverse food, danced and had lots of reflective conversations about culture and values. Sticking with the natives helped me have an authentic experience of the Chilean culture and, well to this day, I’m still returning every other year to my in-laws house in Santiago and chatting about, “in the States, 7 O’clock means 7 O’clock…” or “in the United States, we usually do things like this…. ”

Have Time Out

It’s important to know where your priorities lie in terms of hanging out with the natives, but all of us need a break from time to time. Research shows that a combination of support and challenge is vital to a successful experience abroad (Van Berg, 2009). If we have too much support, like in the case I described where all of the Americans were moving around in an American blob all of the time, then we don’t learn. Conversely, if we’re pushing ourselves too much and we’re only around the natives all of the time, we can feel so fatigued that we eventually withdraw completely from the culture.  While you’re abroad, find a little group or a person to check in with from time to time.  It’s healthy to talk about the host culture with someone that can understand and support you.

Read About and Read from

My husband got his hands on the book, “Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t be Wrong” by Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow, by the first year that we were living in France.  Soon, we uncovered the mysteries of the famous, “fonctionnaire” and what was the “prefecture” anyway – is it the embassy? Is it the town hall? What the heck? We quickly read chapter after chapter and had conversations like, “oh, right, I remember in the chapter about the terroirs, that’s why Champagne is from Champagne…. Blaa blaa blaa” What a relief to have some light shed on so many things that either we didn’t understand, or in fact, hadn’t yet come to our attention.


Additionally, as our French reading proficiency increased throughout our time, we started to read some academic work and even novels written by French authors.  Surrounding ourselves and immersing ourselves in the culture, we started to make observations and reflections which in turn has aided in our cultural acceptance and adaptation to the culture.

Get Involved

Sometimes I say that I’m shy, just to justify the reasons why I don’t get involved.  It’s so hard to sign up for the tennis club or get involved in a volunteer program in another country.  It takes tons of will power, but just doing it the first time makes it all the easier for the second and third times! I just signed up for a CSA (Community supported agriculture) share last Tuesday; my neighbor introduced me to the gardener…and puff, so easy! All of a sudden, I know that I will be invited to a dinner at the gardener’s farm at the end of June; what a fantastic way to meet people, to get involved with my community. And, for me, who grew up with lots of fresh veggies every summer, it’s a way to get back to something that has been important all of my life!

So, think about either things that are important to you in your everyday life in your home country or perhaps something in the new culture that really catches your interest.  Find out about it and take the leap. Be aware that there are activities that will give you more or less contact with locals! So join the local choir, run in the marathon or take parenting classes; sign up for a wine making class, a music lesson or learn a handcraft of the area. Put a smile on your face and go for it!


I have a very good friend who lives far away, but we still talk on the phone from time to time about observation and reflection. He’s a family counselor and it seems that our thoughts cross as we both deal in different areas, but with some fundamentally similar material – humans solving problems and adapting to changing environments.

In our lives as we encounter new experiences, our identities change – as I went from not a mother to a mother status, my outlook on life completely shifted. As I moved from a small town of 60,000 to a huge city of 2 million, my identity changed and my perspective on life changed. As we evolve throughout our lives, so do entire cultures; I visited Tokyo in 1997, and I haven’t been back since. What has changed, I wonder?

What I’ve just described are two moving objects - me and the culture - that are continuously evolving and changing in time.  How can we adapt? Are there moments in time when I feel very in-tuned with myself and the culture I’m living in? Are there moments that I feel very disconnected? Absolutely – this is the normal human condition.  

My counselor friend describes an activity that he does with new groups that come to see him. He hands out a raisin to each person and asks them to hold it in their hand. Then he asks them to describe how it feels… little, light, insignificant. Then he asks the group to bring their raisins up to their noses and smell it. Note the sensation. Now, they bring it to their mouths. Note what happens in the mouth… He goes on a bit and eventually, as you can guess, the participants get to eat their raisin. The point of the exercise is, in fact, pure observation in the moment. This act of observing how our body feels, acts, what happens in our mind aids the participant in - participating in her life if only for just a moment – being completely in the here and now without judgment.

This act of being present is a key force in your cultural learning. When you encounter a new situation, can you step back and just observe your reactions, what your mind is saying. Do you have the same dialogue in your mind in certain circumstances? How does it make you feel – good? Bad? The more you practice the art of observing, the more you become an author of those experiences. You can find the ones you like, and choose to repeat those, and for those you find unpleasant, you may discover upon further reflection ways to accept what you cannot change in the culture.

So… after one month of living in St. Polten, Austria, not only had I played my part in finding host families, food and doing marketing for the big show, I had also made lifelong friends with a family I met at the lake one lazy afternoon strumming my guitar.  And that very experience thrust me forward into a great curiosity and love for the discovery of new cultures that I still carry today.