How do you respond when you are baffled by something your international student does?  Karen Oliver (IFI Columbus staff) offers this advice: “Always think the best of the other person’s motives,” and “Be ready to ascribe different behaviors to different cultural orientations.”  Karen shared one such experience: International guests often take a mug, plate, or glass (that is clean) from my cupboard and rinse it at the sink before using it.  “The first time it happened, I was offended.  I took it as a negative comment on my housekeeping!”  However, Karen’s thoughts changed with experience; she gives additional insight: “It’s just the way many internationals were raised; it is no comment on their host’s cleanliness.  Air pollution is quite bad in many cities, especially in Asia.  Also, insects crawling over things can be a problem.”

Here are eight baffling cultural differences that you might encounter with international students and ideas for responding graciously:

1.  Leaving the shower curtain open

Not every international student you meet has used a western bathroom and shower before.  For example, many bathrooms in China might have a drain in the middle of the floor, and some showers may not have a shower curtain.  When you host an international student, give your guest a tour of your home, show him/her where your bathroom is and how to use it–where towels and washcloths are, how to operate the hot/cold water in the shower, how to keep the shower curtain inside the bathtub while showering, and how to turn on the exhaust fan before taking a shower.

2.  Sleeping on top of the blankets

Most Americans sleep between two sheets, under blankets.  In many other cultures, people use blankets only.  You may be surprised to learn your student has been sleeping on top of the sheets rather than under them!  To help your student sleep comfortably, turn down  the blankets and top sheet.  Before they go to bed, tell students it’s okay to remove blankets if they get too warm at night, and show them where they can find extra blankets if they get cold.

3.  Eating you out of house and home

Leila Gardner (IFI Columbus staff) heard that one volunteer’s international guest was going through his host’s cupboards and refrigerator, helping himself to food, eating the host’s groceries.  Leila explains that collectivistic cultures and individualistic cultures have different views of ownership.  The host’s invitation “Make yourself at home” might have a much different meaning to the guest than it does to the host!  To avoid misunderstandings, tell your guests any expectations you have considering how food or meals are to be shared during their stay.

4.  Declining food at first offer

Leila also says that many Asians will refuse an offer of food or drink the first time it’s offered. This demonstrates humility and allows their host to demonstrate hospitality by offering again.  If international students decline your first offer of refreshments, they might actually want some! Try offering two or three times.  When it comes to offering beverages, Leila says, “You can give them a bottle of water and say, ‘Here, you must be thirsty!’”  In many countries, the tap water is not safe to drink; it must be boiled first.  If you use filtered water in your home, whether from a pitcher or a filter system mounted on the faucet, show this to your guests so that they will know that the water you offer is safe to drink.  Most internationals will accept boiled water, whether it’s still hot or not.

5.  Communal style eating

International students might be accustomed to eating food right out of a communal dish.  Gene Greene (IFI Columbus staff) says that some international students are baffled as to why do we pass the food around at the table.  “In most cases, they put the food in the middle of the table and all take from that; they don’t take each dish and pass it around, as we do in America.”  Karen suggests that, unless your international student is ill, don’t to worry too much about this cultural difference.  “Just know that they have a different approach to things and… you’ll have to decide is this okay for as long as they’re with you or do you try to get them to change?”  One way to prevent guests from eating out of the serving dish is to have everyone pass the host their plate and the host puts food on each plate,.

6. Washing dishes in cold water

Some students wash dishes with cold water.  They may also walk around the kitchen cleaning up other things while letting the water run at full blast.  Karen says, “To some people who are very particular, really germ conscious, that could be a big problem.  If it is, they might want to give their guests other cleanup jobs to do while the host washes dishes.  Or you could teach guests how to load the dishwasher.”  In one case, Karen overlooked having the dishes washed in cold water but did explain that, to conserve water, she turns it on only when rinsing the scrubbed dishes.

7. Avoiding sustained eye contact

In many cultures, younger persons do not look older persons directly and steadily in the eyes.  Karen explains, “In most cultures–African, Indian, Chinese–it’s okay to make eye contact briefly, but you don’t keep a steady gaze, eye to eye, with those who are older.  That could be taken as challenging the elder’s authority, which is very disrespectful.  However, Americans become uncomfortable if people won’t meet their gaze, wondering if internationals are trying to hide something, they’re scared, or they’re super shy.  No, they’re trying to show you honor.”  Please think the best if your international students do not look you in the eye; they are showing you respect!  One way to decrease the tension in one-on-one conversations is not to sit opposite your student.  Sit on the side of the table to his/her right or left.  That way you aren’t facing the student (a position that could be interpreted as oppositional or examining).

8. Telling the “truth”

Also, out of respect for their host,  international students may not tell their host they don’t like  something.  Their host may say, “If you don’t like that dish, tell me, so that I won’t offer it to you again.”  The student would never tell the host that, because that would dishonor the host!  Students don’t want to risk damaging your friendship by making negative comments.  Karen observes that, “The students that we host before school starts haven’t been here a couple of years.  They’re not going to do what we call “telling the truth” because they’re honoring you; they’re not going to look you in the eye because they’re showing you respect.”  This is why your  international guest might not be “forthright” about some matters.  To them, honoring their host is more important than revealing their own feelings or preferences.

When to  gently address a cultural difference vs. when to overlook it in love

If you are debating whether or not to address a cultural difference with your international student, here are some factors to consider.  Is this a safety?  A home maintenance issue such water leaking through the first-floor ceiling from a bathroom upstairs? Or is this issue simply a cultural difference that you can live with during your guest’s stay?  If it isn’t, Karen suggests praying about the situation and listening to God before taking action.  Then ask something like, “You’re doing something that’s new to me,” (say what it is).  “Would you tell me why people in your country do it this way?”  Listen.  Try to understand.  Then explain what the guest’s actions may cause in an American home and show your guest a different way to do things.  Do this as humbly and patiently as you can.  You may need to repeat your request several times.  Be patient.  Pray for understanding.  Consider that your guests may be overwhelmed with the many differences they are encountering during their first days in the U.S.  And they may be worried about being able to adjust well enough to succeed in school!  Ask the Holy Spirit to bear His fruit through you to your guests: Be gentle, patient, kind.  Karen encourages, “Always pray about it.   Ask God to make your heart right.”

Baffling cultural customs are a “two-way street”

Some of the things you do might be baffling to your international student!  It’s easy to forget this!  For example, international students are baffled by the way Americans store chopsticks: Americans typically place the fine point (the point that goes in the mouth) down in the container, whereas Asians put the fine point up, so it won’t touch the bottom of the container.  This is one of many cultural differences that international students find baffling in the U.S.  When facing a cultural difference with your international guests, remember that what you do might baffle them, so extend to them the same courtesy that you would like to be extended in these situations.

Communication is key

Clear communication is one of the best ways to navigate cultural differences, whether it is communicating in advance about practical matters or communicating in the moment by seeking to learn more about the international student’s culture.  Gene suggests that you ask your international student questions about how things here in America are different from things back home.  “They will see that you want to know more about their culture, and they’re happy to answer you because you want to learn.  We’re always good to explain our culture, but are we good to listen about their culture?”  Asking to learn more is a simple but meaningful act anyone can do to get to know an international student better and bridge cultural differences.


Related Resources:

Book recommendation:

Chester, T. (2011). A Meal with Jesus: Discovering Grace Community, & Mission around the Table. Wheaton, IL: Crossway