Adaptation and Intercultural Sensitivity

November 22, 2013

Adaption and intercultural sensitivity are aspects of being abroad that students, myself included, experience everyday. I’ve been in Amsterdam for three months now; in some aspects, I feel well adjusted and a part of Dutch culture, but I do realize three months is not enough time to feel fully adapted or integrated. I think I will continue to explore all stages of cultural adaptation for the next seven months, and even then, I understand it will be difficult to judge whether or not I will really be integrated into the culture of the Netherlands. Reading Milton Bennet’s concepts of intercultural communication gave me insight into my time abroad that I hadn’t exactly considered. I can pick out examples from my time here that fit into all six steps of adaptation, but I will focus on the stage I am at currently.

Ethnocentricity is something that Bennet claims occurs unconsciously, but I think this is the primary coping mechanism for first entering a foreign situation. Comparing my own culture to that of the Dutch was a way for me to determine where I stood, what type of cultural norms I would need to grow to accept, and also gave me a starting point to work towards ethnorelativity. I think my denial stage was relatively short, as I arrived in a country where people looked like me, for the most part spoke like me, and behaved like me upon first glance. I was quick to place stereotypes on minority groups in the Netherlands such as “immigrants” or “Arabs,” and although these were accurate descriptions, I was placing labels on individuals without any context aside from what I had seen or heard about them.

I know I went through a defense stage and still go through these thoughts while abroad; Bennet’s example of Americans labeling their compatriots as “the ugly Americans” is unfortunately something I did frequently upon arriving. I met plenty of individuals from all over the world that had, and still have, certain opinions of Americans that I was hoping to separate myself from quickly—I did this by putting down Americans and proving that since I was abroad, and experiencing other cultures, I was far above them. A recent dramatic event occurred in Amsterdam at the European Music Awards, where pop star Miley Cyrus smoked a joint onstage. This was looked down upon by all Dutch locals, and I was quick to look down upon her also—not for smoking marijuana, but for thinking it seemed “cool” or appropriate to do only because she was in Amsterdam. However, I found myself doing this same thing at home, so acting upon it in a foreign country didn’t seem that different. As an environmental analysis major, I had already considered myself on a higher level than most Americans who did not share my same concerns for the Earth.

Currently, I would say I’m in the stages of minimization, acceptance, and adaption all at the same time. Since I am in a country that is majority Caucasian, it is easy to assume everyone in the Netherlands is truly like me. Christmas is coming up, and the Dutch are famous for big Sinterklaas parades and the appearance of Zwarte Piet, “black Pete,” which is simply a white man in blackface that represents Sinterklaas’ helpers. This is a worldwide controversy as it appears to many westerners as racist, but it is simply tradition in the Netherlands that Dutch people don’t think is taboo. In a minimizing way, I assume that I will speak with a Dutch person that will give in and say that the country recognizes that this is a racist tradition, and therefore be on the same page as my home country. Deep down, everyone must think this tradition is racist—but this simply isn’t the case. Despite this ideology, I do still find myself accepting Dutch culture and exploring cultural differences in the acceptance stage. After taking a Dutch culture and society course at my university, I can see where Dutch perspectives are coming from based on history, and understand that my own values don’t necessarily apply here.

I find myself, little by little, shifting into a different cultural frame of reference and experiencing the adaptation phase. First, I have realized that Dutch people are always on time and look down upon people who are late. Although I’ve always been a punctual person, I find myself arriving early to class in respect to my professors. When in America, I try to smile at shopkeepers and public officials, and I do that in more high-end stores here, but sometimes giving a slightly cold shoulder is more appropriate. I feel as though I will approach the integration phase next semester. Being too quick to consider myself integrated seems like a very “minimizing” action that would make me appear to be taking my time abroad less seriously. I do live in a different culture, despite the many similarities. I am still learning how the Dutch government works, for instance, and I couldn’t be considered integrated without having this basic knowledge. I know that I will eventually get to the integrated stage, and that will make my transition back to America difficult as I will spent a lot of time and energy comparing my new knowledge of Dutch culture to American culture, and trying to explain this to those around me. This could, however, be a good learning experience for all involved, and maybe I can bring more intercultural understanding to my family and friends from home.

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