Royal Cathedral, Madrid
Last summer I was an intern at a university’s Center for International Programs. One rainy day in the office, the director of study abroad programs decided to give me a test to assess how well I understood cross-cultural values, i.e. how well I adapt to a new environment and how I think about culture. While my results didn’t fall into the category of complete understanding (darn!), the assessment helped me further analyze my own thought process when it comes to judging other cultures. My results actually fell in the realm of “polarization,” which means that I often see the very best in other cultures and the very worst in my own. While seeing the best in other cultures is sometimes a very positive attribute, the way to achieve multicultural understanding is also to be aware of potentially negative aspects.
Spending the last eight months in Spain has allowed me to move up the scale on the assessment because I feel I have a much more well-rounded idea of what Spanish culture is really like and where some of the cultural stereotypes about Spain come from.
For example, Spain is often viewed as a country of fun and sun, especially by their European neighbors. While I can attest to that hot Spanish sun (I’m tomato red from an excursion I took last week), most of the stereotypical beach life takes place in the south of Spain, Andalucía. The country as a whole has a very hilly, diverse landscape, from the Guadarrama Mountains to the northern-central meseta (high plains). This means there are also very cold and snowy places in Spain, not just sunny beaches. I often hear this stereotype paired with another: that Spain is the place to come and party. Several of my Spanish friends are very concerned about this stereotype that, to them, inaccurately represents Spanish life. The origin of this stereotype is the Spaniard’s focus on social life, very late night life, and, of course, the other stereotype that the sun is always shining here. These are cultural values that to another society may seem unproductive or unrealistic. There are many positive aspects of the relaxed and social lifestyle here – Spain has one of the highest life expectancies, most people are very close with their families, and an active social life keeps them feeling young and healthy. However, it is also true that Spain is facing a huge economic crisis in which many young Spaniards are moving out of the country in search of work and that the relaxed lifestyle has made it difficult in the last few generations to keep up with global business and technology.
See what I mean? There are positive and negative aspects to every stereotype or element of culture. And some elements that are just, well, different. Recently my parents came to visit me for Spanish Holy Week, a sort of Spring Break for students and workers. My parents, who are very hardworking business owners in the U.S., took one look at all the Spaniards drinking cerveza during their siesta and said incredulously, “How do they get anything done here?!” Very simply put, the idea of “getting things done” may not be the same in every country. “Success” may not be the same, “productivity” may not be the same; every society has their own set of values. In America the typical expectation is that students will move out of their parent’s house and begin working as soon as possible; in Spain students often stay in their parents’ homes until their late twenties. While we may be able to “get more things done,” Spanish families tend to be much closer and value time together, something many American families lack in the twenty-first century.
This is an important thing to keep in mind when traveling or studying anywhere. Try to get as much of the big picture as you can. Keep in mind historical, political, and social factors that may affect the behavior of the people around you. There are always going to be things you like more about another country and things you miss about your own culture, but this is the whole point! Immersing yourself in this unfamiliar territory is what makes you think about your own values, learn and grow. Hey, isn’t that why you studied abroad in the first place?