Culture is often compared to an iceberg. On the surface, we can all see obvious differences in cultures, such as languages, buildings, or foods, but beneath the surface lies a less obvious series of deeper differences. At the deeper level, there may be differences in values, norms, expectations, beliefs, and more. When discovering this deeper level, considering how aspects of your own identity may interact with aspects of local culture may help you more easily adjust to your new social environment.
Cultural Affinity & Identities
Being thoughtful about differences as you explore a new culture is not only important for your safety, but also important for your well-being. Depending on how easy it is for you to identify with your host culture – your level of cultural affinity – adjusting to a new culture may feel easier or more difficult, but no matter how closely you relate to your host culture, there are always likely to be some surprising differences.
These differences are often related to our social identities.
An Exercise in Identities:
What characteristics make you who you are? How do you identify yourself? How might those identities produce different interactions in your host country than they do in Canada?
We all have multiple social identities, related to ethnicity, class, gender, occupation, and many more. These identities frequently intersect, influencing not only our perceptions and actions, but also the amount of power and control we feel we have in particular situations. Not only do these identities influence how we relate to those around us, but they can also influence our safety overseas.
For example, in Canada you might not consider yourself wealthy, but others may perceive you as wealthy while you are overseas. Similarly, your physical appearance may result in very different behavioural expectations overseas than in Canada. In other words, how you identify yourself in Canada may not match with how people perceive you in other places.
When you venture abroad to study or work, you will enter a world rich in diverse cultures and experiences. To thrive in this new environment, it’s crucial to develop cultural self-awareness. Think of self-awareness as a compass for understanding and connecting with people from different cultures.
One useful tool for this purpose is the Culture Tree (adapted from Hammond, 2015). A culture tree includes beliefs, values, and worldviews. Acculturative stress or intercultural conflicts can challenge the roots of the culture tree, but they can also provide opportunities for self-reflection and understanding.
The Culture Tree:
Imagine your cultural identity as a tree:
Leaves: These represent surface culture—the visible elements of a culture such as food, music, art, clothing, and language. Engaging with surface culture is relatively straightforward and a great starting point.
Trunk: This is where you’ll find the unspoken rules—the ways people interact, communicate, and behave. It includes nuances like personal space, gender dynamics, and notions of time. Understanding these rules helps build trust and relationships.
Roots: Deeply held beliefs and values lie here. These include perspectives on self and others, problem-solving approaches, spirituality, and worldviews. The roots influence behaviours and can be challenging to uncover, but they provide valuable insights into a culture.
By sharing the cultural identity tree with you, we’re aiming to break down how culture is more than just what meets the eye. It’s a fun way to get you thinking about all the different layers of a culture, from the things you can easily see and experience, like food and music, to those deeper beliefs and values that really shape a culture.
To fully understand a new culture, it can be helpful to embrace its surface aspects, discover unspoken social rules, and explore underlying beliefs, all through the lens of your own cultural perspective:
1. Embrace Surface Culture:
- Explore local cuisine, music, and art.
- Participate in holiday celebrations and rituals.
- Learn common phrases in the local language.
- Attend cultural events and festivals.
2. Discover Unspoken Rules:
- Observe how locals interact and communicate.
- Pay attention to personal space and gestures.
- Adapt your behaviour to match local customs.
- Seek guidance from locals or your host institution.
3. Explore Deeply Held Beliefs:
- Engage in conversations about values and beliefs.
- Ask open-ended questions to understand worldviews.
- Respect differing viewpoints, even if they challenge your own.
- Reflect on how cultural roots shape behaviours and attitudes.
Remember that your cultural lens shapes your perception of the world. Just as people photograph the same tree from different angles, each perspective is valid. Be open to understanding situations from other cultural contexts and perspectives. Try your best to adapt your cultural understanding based on the individuals you encounter.
Hammond, Z. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Corwin / Sage.
Perspective matters. What do you see below?
Perspectives and unique experiences shape our understanding of the world. Culture is dynamic and unique, changing over time. It’s important to be open-minded and adapt our understanding based on individuals’ perspectives, as our perspective may differ from others’.
The way we view something can change depending on our position in relation toward it, and this is influenced by the cultures in which we participate. Philosopher Slavoj Žižek (2006) refers to these changes in perspective as a “parallax shift“. Indeed, when we recognize that we see the world from a perspective based on our own experiences and culture, we can understand how our perspective influences our interpretations of the world.
In short, while travelling, it is important to keep in mind how you understand the world, and how that position may prohibit you from understanding the world in the ways others do.
We all know that travelling to a new country = experiencing a new culture, but the concept of cultural affinity expands the idea of a new culture beyond boundaries and languages.
Cultural affinity refers to the ties in communities with shared values, beliefs, norms, and practices. These communities can be small or large, formal or informal, obvious or obscured.
For example, while cultural affinity often occurs between individuals with similar ethno-cultural backgrounds (e.g. between individuals in a country), this concept can also be used for socio-economic background, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, education, hobbies, or occupations.
Cultural affinity is a useful concept because it helps us think of the ways we relate not only to a larger culture, beyond individuals, but also how we relate to those individuals themselves. In other words, this concept helps us think about how we form groups and how we can become part of the communities around us while overseas.
Our cultural affinity groups are closely related to our identities and daily lives. At the University of Toronto, you might be a member of a Varsity team, a student club, or volunteer with an organization. Perhaps you always do certain activities with certain groups of friends (e.g. playing soccer on the Quad with one group, then studying with another). In all of these situations, you share similarities with group members that draw you together to form a community.
While overseas, not only will you be adapting to a new set of larger cultural affinities, but you will also be adjusting to multiple smaller ones. Your classmates, your coworkers, your fellow researchers, your roommates – these all represent possible new cultural affinity groups, and thus possible communities to become a part of.
The process of joining new communities and experiencing new systems of values, beliefs, norms, and practices can sometimes be frustrating and difficult, which will likely lead to some form of culture shock.
When you first arrive in a new environment, you may enjoy the newness and excitement of exploring a new location and culture. However, at some point you may discover that you are unable to communicate, socialize, or feel as accepted in your new environment as you did in Canada. This realization may lead to frustration, anxiety, or even rejection of the other culture. This experience is often referred to as culture shock.
The exact timing of each stage depends on individual experiences, but research shows that most people experience culture shock and adjustment through a series of adjustment stages, including:
Image retrieved from Fanari, Liu & Foerster, 2021; Adapted from Gullahorn & Gullahorn, 1963.
1. Pre-departure: Excitement mixed with apprehension about the unknown while you prepare to travel.
2. Honeymoon: Initial excitement and exploration of your new environment. At this point, your experience may be similar to that of a tourist, exploring a new location and meeting new people.
3. Culture Shock or Acculturative Stress: Over time you may experience frustration and homesickness as cultural differences or language barriers become apparent. Previously fun and exciting challenges may become increasingly frustrating parts of daily life. At this point, you may begin to feel homesick, anxious, and/or lonely and begin to withdraw from the host culture.
4. Recovery & Adjustment: After a few months, you may find yourself gradually adapting to the new environment. By this point, you have probably developed techniques for navigating your new environment and are beginning to adjust to language and/or cultural differences.
5. Reverse Cultural Adjustment (also known as Reverse Culture Shock): When returning home from your learning abroad experience, you may initially experience another honeymoon feeling as you meet with family and friends again. You may also experience challenging negative experiences (reverse culture shock) as you bring your new experiences into your old environment. To read more about reverse culture adjustment/shock, see Returning Home.
Throughout these cultural adjustment stages, remember to:
- Adjust to Transitions: Expect mental conflict and consider how to cope with change.
- Adapt to Languages: Be patient and work on developing language skills.
- Navigate Identities: Embrace self-discovery and explore how to adapt without losing your identity.
- Learn New Roles: Understand and adapt to social norms and expectations.
For more tips and strategies on coping with culture shock and acculturative stress, refer to the “Adjusting Tips” tab on the left and the Mental Health and Wellness resources.
- Call the Good2Talk Student Helpline at +1-866-925-5454 (24/7).
- Access to support in 146 languages through U of T Telus Health Student Support(formerly U of T My SSP) by calling +1-844-451-9700 (24/7).
- Access to the NAVI support, helping you to access to various university resources.
- Contact Safety Abroad: firstname.lastname@example.org; Office Phone: 416-978-1148 (9am-5pm Toronto time, weekdays)
- In an emergency: Safety Abroad 24/7 via Campus Safety: 416-978-2222 (Collect calls accepted)
While abroad, you may or may not face language barriers, but you will most likely be in a place where communication differs in some way.
One way in which you may have to adjust your communication involves body language – the non-verbal cues that may replace or confirm verbal communication.
Consider the following examples:
Holding your thumb and forefinger together, with three fingers extended, indicates “OK” in Canada. However, in some cultures, this movement indicates an insult: “You are a zero, a nobody”. In other cultures, the insult is even more offensive and you would likely get an extremely negative response.
The thumbs-up sign can be used in a similar way to the OK gesture in North America and England. However, in other locations, such as in Brazil, Russia, or Germany, this gesture could be used as an insult, similar to showing your middle finger in Canada.
How do you usually indicate the person or object you’re speaking about? In many places, including many European countries, pointing with your index finger is either impolite or extremely rude, and in many African countries, pointing with your index finger is only used for pointing at inanimate objects. If you need to point, it’s generally safer to use an open hand with all of your fingers together.
Along with physical gestures and movements, you may also need to adjust other aspects of your body language. Eye contact, for example, can vary widely in meaning. In some cultures, eye contact while speaking is a sign of trustworthiness and honesty, while in other cultures, steady eye contact can be perceived as disrespectful or threatening.
You may also need to pay attention to the pacing of your conversation. Do people generally wait for responses, or keep chatting until the other person interrupts them? You may also want to consider the way you orient yourself to the other person. This includes before, during, and after conversations. For example, when greeting people, should you shake hands? Bow? A combination? In some places, physically touching the other person may or may not be acceptable depending on gender, age, status, or other factors.
These differences can not only change how others perceive you, but also may cause you to interpret their actions in a way that they did not mean. Wherever you are, you should keep in mind not only that you might misunderstand others, but that they might also misunderstand you.
For more information about communication and culture, you can read Erin Meyer’s book, “The Culture Map” (2016), which identifies eight key scales where cultures differ in communication styles. These scales help you to understand cultural differences and build better relationships. Some of these scales include:
Communication Scale – High-context cultures rely on implied meanings, while low-context cultures emphasize direct and clear communication.
Evaluating Scale – Some cultures provide negative feedback directly, while others do so more subtly and diplomatically.
Persuading Scale – Some cultures prefer to present theories before facts, while others start with facts and later introduce theories.
Leading Scale – Cultures vary in how they demonstrate deference and respect to leaders.
Deciding Scale – Some cultures make decisions by consensus, while others rely on individual decision-makers.
Trusting Scale – Trust-building approaches differ, with some cultures focusing on task-based activities and others on relationship-building.
Disagreeing Scale – Some cultures welcome open disagreement, while others avoid confrontation.
Scheduling Scale – Linear-time cultures prioritize punctuality, while flexible-time cultures emphasize adaptability.
Understanding these scales can help you navigate cultural differences in communication more effectively.
Meyer, Erin. (2014). The culture map : breaking through the invisible boundaries of global business. PublicAffairs.
Another important point when travelling is to avoid breaking any taboos that might exist in the local culture, especially at sites of religious and/or local significance.
To take an example, many religious sites have rules or traditions around how to dress. In some sites, you will need to remove shoes, in others you may have to cover your head or display other forms of modest dress. If you are planning to visit such sites, make sure to research ahead of time how to dress and behave, and ask your hosts or locals for their suggestions.
Other taboos can exist around food culture and dining etiquette, physical gestures, and topics of conversation. The International SOS Assistance app has useful information about cultural taboos and traditions for each location, as well as other useful up-to-date information – the app is free to download and use for University of Toronto students.
As a starting point for thinking about cultural taboos, try thinking of what behaviours you consider rude or disrespectful. What would upset your older family members? What might upset your friends? One question that might be a good starting point: Do you finish all the food on your plate? How do you indicate you don’t want to eat any more?
- In some places, gifts should not be opened in the presence of the giver, unless you have been expressly asked to do so. In other places, not opening the gift may be taken as an insult.
- In some places, asking about personal information (e.g. income, age, height, political beliefs) when meeting somebody is completely normal, while in other places this can be extremely offensive.
- Jokes that you could have made in Toronto may be considered extremely sensitive and rude in other places; similarly, words that may be considered fairly harmless in Canada may be considered shocking, even in other English-speaking countries.
- Chatting on public transit can be seen as disrespectful in some places, while in other places, staying silent may be viewed as being unfriendly.
- What does “on time” mean? In some countries, “on time” can mean arriving early, and arriving five minutes late is something for which you should sincerely apologize. In other places, “on time” may be a far more relaxed concept, or it may be generally understood that you should arrive slightly later.
The more research you do, the better, as avoiding misunderstandings and demonstrating respect for local traditions will help your visit go more smoothly.
It’s important to understand that while certain laws may remain the same in other places, there can also be some big differences. You should make sure to familiarize yourself with those differences before travelling. When reviewing the Travel Advisory for your destination, you will see a section on “Laws and culture” that points out important differences from Canada.
In case you are thinking that it won’t be a problem to follow the law, consider:
Plastic bags are illegal in Tanzania. Bringing plastic bags into the country could bring very heavy fines, imprisonment for up to 7 days, or both. (Source)
Chewing gum is illegal in Singapore. Importing or selling chewing gum carries strict penalties, and chewing gum on public transportation is also illegal. (Source)
In South Korea, any photography of military installations or government buildings is illegal, as it is considered a strict security measure to safeguard sensitive information and national security interests. (Source)
In Mexico, rental agreements between two individuals are considered a private matter and are not regulated by the government. (Source)
In short, do not assume that you already know the basic laws of the country to which you are going. Make sure to check to see if there is anything surprising you might get into trouble for. Not knowing that something is illegal is not a sufficient excuse for breaking the law and you could still be charged.
Do not break the law.
If you break the laws of another country, you are subject to the judicial system of that country. The Government of Canada can neither protect you from the consequences of your actions, nor override the decisions of local authorities.
If you’re in a bad situation:
- Contact the nearest consulate (list of Canadian consulates).
- Never admit or sign anything.
It’s also important to note that the University of Toronto’s Code of Student Conduct and The Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment still apply while on university activity overseas. If you break the rules of student conduct, you may face consequences when returning to the University of Toronto.
To help yourself adjust to your new cultural environment, you could apply the following methods:
1.) Connect – Reach out to your friends and family at home, as well as find ways to connect with other expats, exchange/international students, and locals.
If any issues arise, do not hesitate to talk them over, no matter with your hosts, friends, family, Safety Abroad, or through the anonymous, 24/7 advice and support available from U of T Telus Health Student Support (formerly U of T My SSP).
Remember that things that may have seemed trivial in Toronto may have a big impact overseas because of additional stressors – be kind to yourself. There are always people available to listen, no matter what you want to talk about.
2.) Be Active – Keeping mentally and physically healthy will help you better deal with any challenges you face.
Make sure you get enough sleep, eat healthy food and drink plenty of water. You should also keep an eye on your mental health for any potential issues. If any issue arises, reach out for help early to keep yourself healthy and strong. See Health & Wellness for more tips.
3.) Take Notice – Keeping a record of your experiences can help you reflect on the reason you came. Writing in a journal, blogging, or sharing updates on social media can all help keep your daily frustrations in perspective.
Writing in journals or anonymously sharing online can be particularly helpful when you would like to make note of your negative experiences, but not in a public way.
Sharing negative experiences with others, as well as your positive ones, may also help others who are experiencing similar struggles.
Writing things down can also help you process your experiences, as well as provide a great memento of your travels.
4.) Keep Learning – The more you know about your host culture, the easier it will be to recognize differences and reduce any frustration or misunderstandings.
Carefully read the Government of Canada Travel Advisories for your host destination and do some research specific to your circumstances. If you are studying there, are there differences in university culture? Are you doing a work placement or internship? If so, how would office culture differ from what you are used to? Are there any taboos to avoid when eating or drinking?
5.) Give – The more involved you are in your host culture, the more cultural differences will affect you. If you are open to the challenges of adjustment, these differences may be less difficult to understand.
However, you should also not pressure yourself to immediately understand and adjust. We need time to process what we are experiencing. A good balance of openness and self-care will help your experience remain a positive one.
Cultural differences cover a wide variety of topics, as can be seen from the above information. As a result, it can be quite intimidating to find information online. The following resources could help you begin your research:
The Government of Canada has a Country Insights service, offering perspectives from both locals and Canadian expats living in selected countries across the world. Topics may include communication styles, conversation topics, dress styles, gender, religion, popular dishes, history, and stereotypes.
The Assistance app from International SOS offers insight into potential cultural issues, including taboos, business culture, dress, gender differences, tipping, gift giving traditions, legal differences, and working hours.
The Government of Canada also offers an app: Travel Smart, which provides information about the laws and culture of your destination.
You can read more about other students’ experiences and insights in the Student Stories section of the Learning Abroad website.
While knowing your destination is important, it is also important to know yourself! We encourage you to go through the “Culture Tree” under the “Navigating Cultural Differences” section. The more you understand about yourself and your destination, the better prepared you will be for your trip.
Before travelling overseas, you may find it helpful to ask yourself the following questions:
- Who am I? – What are my personal beliefs, values, and attitudes?
- What is my background and lived experiences? – What am I used to? What do I expect in terms of customs and beliefs?
- Where am I going? – What are the beliefs and customs of my destination? How different are they from my own?
- Why am I going? – Is my goal to meet new people? Learn a new language? Visit a famous place? How will I be interacting with people while I get there?
- What can I be open to? – What can I try to be open to? What might be difficult? What I can do to reduce the barriers and challenges? What can I learn?
Different cultures can have very different ideas of gender roles and gendered behavior. Some countries may be more open to fluid gender roles, while others may stick closely to carefully defined, more conservative, traditional ideas of gender. For this reason, it’s important to pay close attention to gendered behavior in the place you are visiting, and to research or ask about any problems that may arise from not behaving in that manner.
Your host destination may also attach different moral values, not only to behaviour, but also to appearance. In some places, nudist beaches or collective bathing may be normalized; in other places these activities may be divided by gender. Some places may view the showing of parts of the body not considered terribly provocative in Canada (e.g. ankles, wrists, knees) as extremely rude or immoral.
It is important to remember that while these gender roles may be particularly difficult for women to adjust to, there are also aspects that may be difficult for men to adjust to as well. For example, in some locations men may have strict dress and/or behaviour norms, such as not wearing shorts, or strict rules around interacting with women.
If you are a traveler who identifies as female, the Government of Canada has a useful publication with recommendations for how to mitigate possible risks, along with some useful tips for travelling.
If you identify as non-binary, you may want to research the acceptance level of your destination culture towards non-binary identities. In some cultures, often where there are very clear definitions of male-female genders, a non-binary identity may not be widely accepted.
No matter where you travel, pay close attention to the clothing choices and behaviours of locals and try to dress and behave in a similar way.
Travelling as a LGBTQ+ individual is overall not unlike any other kind of travel. Just as with other travelers, you should be aware of your personal safety and research your destination before you arrive. However, it is important that LGBTQ+ travelers are also aware of how LGBTQ+ communities are perceived in their host country.
Not all countries in the world recognize or protect LGBTQ+ people, and 72 states criminalize homosexuality. Research your destination to find out how LGBTQ+ people are treated there. Are the laws enforced? If there is recognition or protection, does that mean violence against LGBTQ+ people is unacceptable?
In addition to legal status, you might want to check the cultural norms of your destination. In some cultures affection between the same sex can be seen as a marker of an innocent friendship, while in other cultures even affection such as hand-holding between heterosexual, married couples is against religious or cultural practices.
Transgender travelers may experience additional scrutiny at airports and in the cultural and legal environment. Travelers with the X designation on their travel documents should be aware that some countries and travel companies do not recognize the X gender identifier and you might be asked to identify as Male or Female when travelling. Check with the consulate or embassy of your host country before traveling. You should also be aware that you might not have access to the services or facilities available to your preferred gender while overseas, including a possible lack of health services for transgender persons and potentially discriminatory justice systems.
Some additional safety tips:
- Be wary of newfound friends, especially those that you meet online through dating apps, as criminals sometimes target the LGBTQ+ community for robbery
- If LGBTQ+ people are persecuted in the country you are visiting, you should assume that the police monitor any LGBTQ+ websites. You should also assume that your social media profiles are viewable by immigration and police officers
- Never leave food or drinks unattended or with strangers. If you do, make sure to throw it out and get a new one. This advice applies to all destinations, and to all travelers, as there is always a risk of spiked (drugged) food and drinks
- Be discreet and aware of your surroundings. In more conservative countries, avoid public displays of affection, including kissing and holding hands
- Be aware that in some countries a victim of rape may be considered a criminal. In such locations, you should consult with the closest Canadian consulate or call SOS International or Safety Abroad for advice about reporting what happened.
While living in Toronto, as one of the most multicultural cities in the world, you’ve likely had exposure to people from a wide range of racial and ethnic backgrounds. However, when travelling overseas, you may find that Toronto is fairly exceptional. Many people have not had exposure to all racial and/or ethnic compositions, and whether or not you identify as belonging to a racial or ethnic minority in Canada, your identity overseas may be challenged.
Before travelling, you can do some research to find out the experiences of others with your ethnic, racial, or national identity in your host country. You may also want to pay attention to the country’s history, especially if it has a history of racial tensions (e.g. South Africa), and reach out to others who have travelled there before for their impressions.
While overseas, you may find yourself the only person with such an identity, or you may find yourself with the physical appearance of the majority population. You may also face differential treatment because of views of your racial or ethnic identity. For example, people may have expectations for what Canadians should look like or how Canadians should behave. These expectations may or may not match with how others perceive you while you are overseas.
For students with ethnic or racial ties to your host country, be aware that you may expect to be fully accepted, but may still be treated as a foreigner. On the other hand, fellow exchange students or travellers may consider you the “local expert” because of your ties to the host country, or face the additional pressure of being expected to fully understand local customs and norms.
In all of these situations, your identity or way of thinking may be challenged. If you begin to feel isolated or confused, don’t hesitate to reach out: talk to others who have similar experiences, and if you would like further support, International SOS can offer counseling and advice, and Safety Abroad is always available as well.
Attitudes towards accessibility and accommodations may vary across destinations. The standards and rules that exist in Canada do not apply in other places. In some places travel will be very accessible, but in others it may be very difficult. If you have an accessibility need, start your planning early. This often begins with a conversation with Accessibility Services and U of T Safety Abroad.
You should also consider the resources that are available to you overseas and how your accessibility needs may impact your ability to respond to an emergency.
The Government of Canada offers a useful guide for travellers with disabilities including the following tips:
- Gather information about your trip early – sources for this information could include your travel agency, transportation provider (e.g. airline), your destination’s government, and travel publications and websites.
- If you need services, give your transportation company as much notice as possible.
- If you have a service animal, you should ask ahead of time whether you might need a health certificate and proof of vaccinations for them in order to travel. You may also need to provide a training certificate or ask about floor space for your service animal to remain close by.
- If you are travelling with a mobility aid, check to see how early the transportation company needs to know about the mobility aid, and how you will be able to travel with it (e.g. will it be stowed separately, will you need to use an on-board wheelchair and if it can access the bathrooms, and which seats are the most accessible).
- If you need ground transportation to or from the terminal, you might want to arrange this in advance, especially in smaller communities.
- You will not need to discuss the details of your disability, but there are some exceptions. For example, if you use a wheelchair or need oxygen, this may involve more detailed discussion of your needs. Airlines may want you or your doctor to speak with their medical departments about such arrangements.
- When you check in, ensure that you will receive the services you requested when you bought your ticket. You can also ask staff to guide you through the terminal.
- Transportation companies usually offer advanced boarding to passengers with disabilities. If you wish to pre-board and have a needs that are not immediately obvious, identify yourself to an employee, as they may be unaware of your needs.
- If needed, you can ask employees to keep you informed about announcements, request a personal safety briefing, and ask for limited help with food (e.g. for a description of what is on the tray, for help pouring liquids or mixing foods, for help opening packages and cutting food).
More information is available in the Canadian Transportation Agency’s Take Charge of Your Travel guide.
If you are participating in an organized University activity and have concerns for your safety during the trip, you should speak with your trip organizers about your concerns as early as possible.