One of the truly wonderful aspects of study abroad is making friends with people who have grown up in a culture that is different from your own. It can be exhilarating to be able to exchange ideas and find common ground with people who speak a different native language and come from a very different background.
Socializing abroad can be risky, however, because of cultural differences and misperceptions about Americans. Many of the social practices that serve you well in the U.S. don’t apply abroad. Some American behavior that is acceptable at home may be viewed as provocative overseas. Foreign tones of voice, gestures and ways of touching may cause Americans to feel threatened by people who mean them no harm.
One of the most common cultural differences you will encounter overseas concerns the consumption of alcohol. In many countries, alcohol is available at younger ages; however, drinking occurs in different contexts than those found on many U.S. university campuses. People drink in moderation at meals, whether at home or in restaurants, clubs, and pubs. Alcohol is a complement to a meal and drinking is merely one aspect of convivial socializing. Nearly everyone abroad, including young people, considers binge drinking crass and rude. If you drink to excess, you reinforce negative stereotypes of American students abroad, and you put yourself and your friends in danger.
Things to Keep in Mind
Although the following recommendations are sometimes geared towards specific genders or groups, they are applicable and useful for all students – women and men of all races. Here are some specific suggestions you can take to avoid unpleasant encounters and reduce the risk of being a victim of a crime.
- Learn about the cultural norms (especially male/female relationship norms) for the country where you will be studying. A good way to do this is to talk with other Americans who have spent time in the country or with people from that country.
- Use discretion and common sense in your behavior and dress. Strive to blend in and be prepared for unsolicited comments and stares.
- Eye contact with strangers on the street may be interpreted as flirting. Ignore catcalls and keep moving purposefully to wherever you are headed.
- Be aware of the unconscious messages you may give out through your posture, gestures, tone of voice, clothing and eye contact.
- Be aware of others; don’t daydream.
- Don’t walk alone or in isolated areas, especially at night. It is always advisable to walk with your friends. If you are a female student, you may wish to ask a male student to accompany you when returning home after socializing.
- Never get into a car with someone you have just met.
- Never let your friends go home without you late at night and do not go home leaving your friend alone with people you both do not know.
- Until you feel comfortable and culturally adjusted, invite another student on the program to join you when you socialize. You can help each other figure out cultural norms and good practices for safe socializing.
- If you find yourself in an encounter that makes you nervous, don’t worry about being the "ugly American." State your views clearly, give offense if necessary, and get out of the situation.
- If you are the victim of an assault or persistent harassment, please contact a counselor at our Syracuse University centers immediately. The counselor will be able to provide you with confidential advice and assistance.
- Be aware that someone may surreptitiously put a drug in your drink.
- Just as in the United States, fights can break out late at night. This is especially true after a big sports event.
- Disconnect and leave the scene where there is violence or potential violence.
- Discontinue a conversation if you or your interlocutor become heated.
- Avoid restaurants and bars near the stadium after watching a game.
- Rarely are American students of color confused with visitors or immigrants from other countries. In other words, if you are an American you will generally be recognized through your cultural bearing as such regardless of your outward appearance. Nevertheless, old stereotypes are still evident in all countries and are openly expressed in many ways.
- It is acceptable and advisable to draw attention to negative racial references and behavior especially if you are uncomfortable with them.
- Be aware of radical groups that target non-host country residents in Europe. It is not common for US students to encounter problems but you should be aware of the social challenges presented.
- Keep in mind that Europe isn’t as prepared as the US to accommodate wheelchairs or provide special accommodations.
Enjoy your time abroad, but use your head. If you temper curiosity with good sense, your trip will be one of the most unforgettable educational experiences of your life.