Preparing for Change
An Orientation on Cultural Differences
Cultural differences can be enjoyable or irritating depending on your attitude. To minimize the frustrations of strikes, delays, and complications, remain informed of current events and, most importantly, remind yourself that you are in a new and different environment. Just relax and go with the flow. Try to find something to smile about even under a trying circumstance.
Make an effort to explore Ascoli and Italy; try to weave into the fabric of the Italian spirit. Take the time to appreciate the beauty around you, be it an art treasure or a breathtaking landscape. Enjoy the leisure of sitting in a café and sipping a cappuccino, watching people go by. Or be one of them, strolling through Piazza del Popolo at sunset, mingling with the Ascolani. In other words, be open to new ways of understanding and experiencing life . . . and perhaps the inconveniences will seem well worth it!
Generally speaking, you will find people very warm and friendly. The persistent attention that some Italian males pay to foreign females, however, may often seem aggressive and downright annoying. Remember: do not give out your telephone number unless you want to be pestered with calls! If you are not interested, the best tactic is to completely ignore them and to avoid eye contact. If they are still persistent, a firm No grazie, should do the trick. If you are feeling uncomfortable, do not hesitate to ask for help. Please remember that Italians rarely consume alcohol to excess: public drunkenness is rarely seen and frowned upon.
Try to be aware of common courtesies. For example, it is normal to exchange buon giorno or buona sera when entering shops or cafés, and arrivederci and/or grazie when exiting. When trying to get through a crowd, it is polite to say permesso.
It is not considered polite to handle merchandise in most shops: allow the salesperson to assist you.
Tipping in restaurants is not necessary unless there is no service charge. It is usually not expected in a family-run restaurant. Nor is it necessary to tip taxi drivers unless they have been helpful. In general, hotel porters expect a few euro. It is optional to leave a few cents on the counter at the bar.
When traveling on a bus, it is considered common courtesy to give up your seat to older passengers and mothers with small children. Also, many people will consider it rude if you eat on public transportation.
Note that strict dress codes are enforced in many places of worship, where your torso and upper arms must be covered; shorts and skirts must reach below the knee.
The three most important rules of study abroad are to observe, to observe, to observe. Try to enter into the fabric of Italian society by observing how people comport themselves. Remember, you are a visitor in Italy and are a representative of the United States.
You naturally expect to learn a great deal about Italian history and culture while you are abroad, but you may also grapple with personal issues while you are away from home. All students experience growth and change during this period of self awareness, but some of you may face unique challenges and adaptations abroad. Living abroad can mean leaving behind important social, physical and legal supports that you will not find in Italy; but most of you will find Italy comfortable and welcoming.
The passage of legislation such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act has spurred schools in the U.S. to accommodate students with varying abilities. Other countries are not bound by U.S. legislation, of course, and physical facilities and academic resources vary significantly from one overseas site to another.
The UNH-in-Italy Program endeavors to provide reasonable accommodation for students with documented disability conditions (e.g., physical, learning, etc.), but only if you disclose your needs to us well before the program begins. If you are currently receiving disability-related accommodations at your home school or anticipate needing them at your program site, send documentation that confirms the disability, information about the accommodation currently provided, and details about the accommodation requested abroad. The UNH-in-Italy Program will then be in a position to work with you to seek appropriate responses for your needs.
U.S. citizens often identify strongly with their family’s cultural and ethnic heritage and refer to themselves as Asian-American, Italian-American, African-American, or Hispanic-American. In other countries such ethnic differences are often overlooked, and U.S. students report that for the first time they have been identified (and have identified themselves) as simply “American.” Race and ethnic relations vary widely from country to country. Ask your study abroad office to put you in contact with a student or faculty member who has experience with race and ethnicity issues in Italy.
Living in another culture provides an opportunity for self-exploration and individual growth. You may question your sexual identity for the first time while you are abroad, or you may already have identified yourself as gay, lesbian or bisexual. In any case, it is important to know the attitude of the host country toward sexual orientation issues. The Gay and Lesbian Legal Guide for Overseas Travel gives a brief summary of how homosexuality is viewed in each country worldwide. An excellent web site on gay, lesbian, and bisexual issues is located at www.indiana.edu/~overseas/lesbigay/index.html. If you have concerns about this issue, contact your study abroad office and the program staff abroad regarding the situation Italy.
Part of your success abroad will depend on how well you have prepared the logistics covered earlier in this handbook, but it is even more important for you to prepare yourself for cultural adjustments and personal growth.
Take a personal inventory of your expectations. What do you hope to get out of the experience overseas? Identify your goals—in terms of language acquisition, academic growth and career. How are you going to achieve them? How will you track your personal growth during this experience? Outlining your goals now and then keeping a journal abroad will help you map both your inner and outer journeys. Indeed, daily writing, which attempts to interpret and reinterpret the cross-cultural meanings of your experiences, may be your most powerful learning tool.
After You Return
Give some thought to the way you will integrate your experiences abroad into your life back in the U.S. Once you have successfully integrated into Italian culture you will need to be intentional about picking up the threads of your American life after the program ends. Some advance planning will make the process smoother.
Before you can understand another culture, you should understand your own. What does it mean to be American? What characteristics, values and attitudes define American culture? What generalizations can you make about American attitudes towards education, gender, family, money, politics, race, relationships, religion, success, time, work? How do American values affect your attitudes toward others, your friendship patterns, your work habits, the way you spend your time and money? How do Americans measure success in life? What role does tradition play in our culture? A clear understanding of what is characteristically American (and the many variations) will give you a better chance of appreciating similarities and differences in another culture.
How flexible are you? Once you have identified your American values, patterns and habits, think about the strategies that will help you adjust to different ways of dating, dressing, eating, shopping, banking, relating to professors, and studying.
Learn about the United States
Every student abroad is inevitably put in the position of having to explain (or even defend) the home country’s political or economic system or its stance on global issues. If you begin now to keep abreast of the U.S. role in global activities, you will be more articulate when you are questioned about U.S. policies and reactions to world issues. In addition, students often report that they wish they had brushed up on such basics as how a bill becomes a law in the U.S. or the composition of the European Union before going abroad.
Remember, however, that you probably don’t want to get into a hostile debate with questioners or automatically defend everything that is American. What are some strategies for deflecting potentially hostile questions so that they lead to conversations in which everybody listens and everyone learns?
Carefully consider how you will dress. American students often comment that their clothing gives them away instantly as foreigners and can make them more vulnerable to derogatory remarks and as potential targets for petty thefts. While you shouldn’t expect to buy a new wardrobe while abroad, you may want to plan to wear items of your own clothing that fit in better with the local culture. You’ll discover that shorts, halters and skimpy tops are mainly worn near seaside towns, rarely in urban centers except by tourists. You’ll also discover that casual lounging clothes--including oversized t-shirts with humorous logos and flannel pants that are very common on college campuses--are not worn in big cities abroad or at urban universities. And before you don what many cultures might interpret as ‘revealing’ clothing (i.e. low-rider jeans, exposed midriffs, plunging necklines, exposed underwear) observe what native citizens who are your age in that country are wearing. You may also discover that flip flops and sneakers are not necessarily the norm for footwear outside of the U.S., at least not for all occasions. Part of the acculturation process is trying to blend in so that you minimize your role as an outsider. Be prepared to be as flexible about your clothing as you are about other aspects of your behavior.
Acceptable behavior in the U.S. may cause embarrassment, frustration or amusement in Italy. American women, for example, often discover that Italian males display what would be considered very aggressive behavior and that female responses considered to be merely polite here—direct eye contact, smiling, saying “Hi” as you pass on the street—can be interpreted as “come-ons” in Italy. For some women, the best technique is to ignore or pretend not to hear the unwanted advances, while moving purposefully and soberly toward a destination. A woman in short shorts or skimpy top on the street is likely to draw unwelcome attention. For safety’s sake, follow the same self-defense precautions you use in any large U.S. city: walk with a companion after dark, avoid deserted or dangerous areas, refuse rides from people you do not know, etc. Two tips:
- It is very bad form in Italy to show signs of overindulgence in alcohol.
- Shopkeepers and waiters should be addressed formally, as Lei, and greeted with Buon giorno or Buona sera, not Ciao.
Learn about the host country
Learn as much as possible about Italy before you go because understanding the culture will facilitate your adjustment to living there. How do you plan to inform yourself about Italy before arrival? Taking courses is one method, but you can also independently explore histories, periodicals, novels, travel books, videos, and tapes that inform you about the differences in daily life you will encounter overseas.
Both male and female students abroad will discover that growing up in the U.S. has prepared them for different roles in society than the ones their contemporaries in other countries expect. Many events in recent decades have heightened U.S. awareness of gender stereotypes, sexism and the limitations of traditional male-female roles. However, it may not be politic to suggest to your host country friends that U.S. patterns are appropriate for their culture. Instead, look at gender difference in the host culture from its historical and sociological perspective. Since you will be viewed according to the gender expectations of the host culture, you may feel uncomfortable at times. This is particularly true for female students who may find themselves the targets of unwanted attention.
Few countries have the religious diversity and pluralism that you find in the U.S. and few have such a strong tradition of separation of church and state. As a result, you may be struck by the number of public holidays that are based on a religious calendar and the extent of public prayer and public religious ceremonies. You will have to probe to understand the relationship between the external, ritual manifestations of religion and individual beliefs or the role of religion as a political element or an active social force.
If you wish to be affiliated with a religious community abroad, check with your local place of worship for contacts or discuss your interests with program staff overseas. Former students may also be able to advise you regarding your options.
Living in a new culture can be exhilarating, personally rewarding, and intellectually stimulation, but it can also be frustrating. It is one thing to visit a country, moving on when you have seen enough, and it is quite another to live there and function according to a different set of norms. Participation in the UNH-in-Italy Program provides a rare opportunity for you to begin to know another society from within, but with this opportunity come responsibilities. The most obvious one is to adapt your behavior to the customs and expectations of Italian society. This is not to deny your own culture, but to respect that of others. Another, even more subtle, responsibility you have is to remain open in order to become aware of similarities and differences, to learn rather than to judge. If you take advantage of this opportunity, it can be the most rewarding experience in your education.
“Culture shock” is the term used to describe the disorientation that every student experiences to some degree when spending an extended period in a new culture. An underlying cause of negative reactions to another culture is the tendency to judge something that is different as inferior. It is important to be open toward the culture into which you are going, to try to discard stereotypes, and to read as much as you can about the culture before your departure. Remember that adjusting to a foreign culture, and living through difficult times of change can be a satisfying experience, one worth the occasional discomfort and extra effort.
Nevertheless, it is almost inevitable that you will experience some symptoms of culture shock. You may be unaware that the frustrations and emotions you are experiencing are related to culture shock; in retrospect, this becomes apparent. If you understand the phenomenon and its possible causes, you can decrease its effects. Try to acquaint yourself with its signs. The common symptoms include homesickness, boredom, withdrawing from the culture by spending excessive amounts of time alone or with other Americans, excessive sleeping, compulsive eating, irritability, stereotyping of or hostility toward host country nationals, weepiness or even some psychosomatic illnesses.
Although you will probably experience some degree of culture shock, you certainly won’t have all these symptoms. If you recognize what is happening, keep busy, and ask friends and the UNH-in-Italy office staff for help when you need it, culture shock will not last long.
During your period abroad, you may move through several natural stages of cultural adaptation. These include:
1) Initial euphoria. When you first arrive in Italy, everything seems wonderful and exciting, and you are struck with how similar people around the world can be.
2) Irritation and hostility. As you are acclimating your focus may change from the similarities between cultures to the differences, and the differences become irritating and frustrating. Small problems loom as major catastrophes.
3) Gradual adjustment. The crisis of adjustment passes. The new culture seems more familiar and you move more confidently in it. You make friends. You learn to interpret some of the subtle cultural clues and cues.
4) Adaptation and biculturalism. You are able to function in two cultures with confidence. You are so well adapted to the new culture that returning to the U.S. will provoke a “reverse culture shock.”
There are several ways you can minimize the impact of culture shock:
1) Learn. Make a point of learning as much as you can about Italy before you go—its history, art, literature, current politics. Explore periodicals, novels, travel books, videos and tapes that inform you about the differences in daily life you will encounter overseas. Understanding the culture will facilitate your adjustment to living there.
2) Understanding. In Ascoli Piceno, try to understand the reasons behind the things in Italian culture that are different. Relax your grip on American culture; ours is not the only way of doing things.
3) Non-judgmental. Resist looking down on or making jokes and comments about Italy or Italians. Avoid others who do so.
4) Discussion. Identify an Italian who is sympathetic and understanding and speak to that person about your feelings.
5) Confidence. Have confidence in yourself and in the good will of the Italians. Maintain confidence that your time in Italy will be a positive experience.
Re-entry: Reverse Culture Shock
Once you have adapted to life in Italy, coming home will require readjustment to U.S. culture. You will have to integrate what you have learned abroad into your U.S. life. You will cope with re-entry at various levels:
1. Family: You may be expected to fit back into your family but find it difficult to communicate effectively because they have not shared your international experiences. They may have difficulty adjusting to your new independence and changed values.
Strategies: Try to share your experience with your family (slides, stories, etc.) and let them know how much you appreciate the chance they have given you to grow in new ways by studying and traveling overseas.
2. Friends: You and your friends may no longer be as close. Be sensitive about discussing your experience with them. You may also miss the new friends you made in Italy.
Strategies: Ask and listen to what your friends experienced while you were in Ascoli Piceno. Ask them to bring you up to date on local events. Try to do new things together to get the relationship on a new footing. Maintain contact with your Italian and UNH-in-Italy friends.
3. School: You are likely to look at your home campus in a new light, and you may miss being part of a close-knit group of UNH-in-Italy students.
Strategies: Talk over your academic experience with your advisor, especially if you are considering new career goals. Make contacts with international students on your campus through your school’s office of international student services. Contact the study abroad office and volunteer to talk to students who plan to study abroad. Seek out other students on campus who have studied overseas. Investigate the possibility of living in an international dormitory or take part in activities for international students.
4. Country: Aspects of the U.S. may no longer be entirely to your liking and you may have the sense that you no longer fit in. You will probably evaluate ideas and events in the context of the broader cultural perspective you acquired in Ascoli Piceno.
Strategies: Recognize that we all tend to look past the shortcomings of our home culture when we are away, and to criticize it on the basis of changed perceptions when we return. Seek out others on your campus, who are interested in international and intercultural matters. Keep up your interest in Italy through newspapers, literature, music, friends, etc.
5. Self: You have become accustomed to a level of activity and anticipation that your home and campus probably cannot match. It is natural to feel a little restless or a bit depressed for a while after your return.
Strategies: Recuperate from the physical journey. Think over the ways you have changed: Which of those do you like? What did you learn about yourself? How have your family and friends reacted to the new you? Keep a journal so you can see your thoughts evolve. Talk with other returning students.
Although the academic year begins with orientation in Ascoli Piceno, students should begin to prepare in advance by preparing themselves culturally for the study away experience.
The list of suggested readings in this booklet offers a guide to appropriate materials which are available in university and public libraries and specialty bookstores. Rather than focus on history, literature, and art, these readings are ones that students have found useful in preparation for the cultural adjustments of living in Italy. Students seeking an academic grounding should consult with the appropriate professor on their campus for pertinent texts in their disciplines.
Harrison, Barbara Grizzuti. Italian Days. New York: Wiedenfeld & Nicolson, 1989.
A travel narrative that moves from Milan to Calabria, it is at once lyrical, philosophical, and anecdotal. Each of the eight chapters covers a specific city or region.
Hodgson, Barbara. Italy Out of Hand: A Capricious Tour. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2005.
Barbara Hodgson embarks on an idiosyncratic tour of Italy that focuses on forgotten or unique facts concerning the history and culture of Italy.
Kertzer, David, and Richard P. Saller. The Family in Italy: From Antiquity to the Present. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.
This is a scholarly book that focuses on family life in Italy from ancient Rome to the present. The essays discuss a wide variety of topics, from matchmaking, marriage, and divorce to childrearing, sexual mores, and death.
Kohls, L. Robert. Survival Kit for Overseas Living. Yarmouth, Maine: Intercultural Press, 2001.
Kohls provides an excellent introduction to cultural differences.
Maggio, Theresa. The Stone Boudoir: Travels through the Hidden Villages of Sicily. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Pub., 2002.
Not your typical travelogue, Theresa Maggio veers off the beaten path to (re)discover the Sicily of today as well as the author’s Sicilian heritage. Each chapter is a stand-alone essay.
Mignone, Mario. Italy Today: At the Crossroads of the New Millenium. New York:Peter Lang, 1998.
Divided into sections on politics, economy, society, and culture, this textbook charts the changes that Italy has undergone since 1944.
Paige, R. Michael, Andrew Cohen, Barbara Kappler, Julie C. Chi and James P. Lassegard. Maximizing Study Abroad: A Student’s Guide to Strategies for Language and Culture Learning and Use. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota’s Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, 2006.
This flexible guide provides specific strategies for improving language skills and achieving cultural immersion in order to “maximize” the study abroad experience.
Parks, Tim. Italian Neighbors, or, a Lapsed Anglo-Saxon in Verona. New York:Grove Weidenfeld, 1992.
A ten-year resident of a village outside of Verona, Tim Parks celebrates the endearing and exasperating traits of his expatriate experience.
Severgnini, Beppe. Ciao, America! An Italian Discovers the U.S. New York: Broadway Books, 2002.
A correspondent for The Economist and a columnist for the daily Corriere della sera, Severgnini documents his year in Georgetown, Washington D.C. His observations provide as much insight into the foibles of the American psyche as they do to the Italian mind.
Venuti, Lawrence. Italy: A Traveler's Literary Companion. Whereabouts Press, 2003.
A collection of 23 short stories surveying the country’s rich cultural history by some of the Twentieth century’s leading Italian literary figures.
Ward, William. Getting it Right in Italy: A Manual for the 1990s. London: Bloomsbury, 1990.
This practical guide to business and pleasure in Italy aims to provide inside information and detailed assistance in understanding the people and the country. Suggestions include what to wear to a business meeting or a wedding, how to rent a flat, how to get into art galleries when they are shut, how to chat up an Italian girl and the easiest way to get rid of an Italian boy who will not go away.
Similar to the Suggested Reading list, the films that follow are suggested because of their relevance to contemporary social and cultural issues rather than as paradigmatic examples of Italian cinema.
Aprile (Dir. Nanni Moretti, 1998)
Family, work and politics mix in this humorous account of first-time fatherhood.
The Best of Youth (Dir. Marco Tullio Giordana, 2003)
Through the eyes of two brothers, The Best of Youth provides a sweeping (literal and figurative: it is six hours) panorama of the changes in Italian society in the 1970s and 1980s.
Bread and Tulips (Dir. Silvio Soldini, 2000)
Forgotten by her tour bus and family, Rosalba finds herself quite by accident going to Venice where she lives a magical experience of self-discovery.
His Secret Life (Ferzan Ozpetek, 2001)
After the sudden death of her husband, a woman discovers his “secret life.” She eventually befriends his lover through whom she acquires a new family and a new awareness of the world around her.
We All Loved Each Other So Much (Dir. Ettore Scola, 1974)
A view of Italy’s political and social changes from the end of the Second World War to the 1970s through the trials and tribulations of the three friends.