Lost in Translation: Unraveling Cultural Misunderstandings

In the exciting world of hosting exchange students, there's more to the experience than just sharing your home and meals. It's an opportunity to immerse yourself in a different culture, exchange stories, and create lifelong memories. However, beneath the surface of language, dress, and food, lies a complex web of cultural norms that can be a source of both fascination and frustration. Let's explore some common cultural misunderstandings that can crop up when you open your home to an exchange student.


Hearing what you say, not what you mean

Some cultures, like the German and Dutch, tend to be direct and to the point. They say it like it is. This can be a culture shock for students from these countries, as they might struggle to read between the lines when you soften your message to be kind. As a host family, it's crucial to make your message clear and direct.

Imagine a situation where you're trying to politely express your dissatisfaction with something. An American host might say, "I appreciate your effort, but maybe you could try it this way." To a direct communicator, this sounds like an idea, not a request.

confused girl


Rude?--or just direct?

On the flip side, students from direct cultures may come across as harsh or rude due to their blunt word choice. They may lack the subtlety that many Americans use to convey their thoughts. As a host family, it's essential to teach your student acceptable ways to communicate in the U.S., such as "padding" their message with a positive tone.

For example, instead of saying, "I don't like this," they could say, "I think this is good, but there's room for improvement."

frustrated girl


Avoiding Uncomfortable Topics & Saving Face

In contrast, some cultures, like Korea and Thailand, value "saving face" and make every effort to avoid confrontation or making someone feel bad. These students may soften their message so much that it might seem like they're being dishonest. For instance, if they don't want to join an outing, they might say, "I'm not sure if I can make it," when they actually mean "I don't want to go."

Asian girl looking to the side


Not Doing Chores

In some countries, such as Spain and Brazil, having household help is common, even among the middle class. Teens from these cultures are not used to doing housework and may not know how to. Host families need to teach them clearly and offer encouragement, as they consider help and tidiness a sign of respect and gratitude, as well as a normal function of family life.

Remember, what might seem like a simple household chore to you can be a cultural surprise for them. Patience and guidance are key in this situation.

girl washing the dishes


Go to Your Room--Not!

In many countries, it's quite common for teenagers to spend a significant amount of time alone in their rooms, with the door closed. If your exchange student adopts this habit, please don't take it as a sign of disinterest or unwillingness to spend time with your family. It's merely their accustomed routine.

However, it's essential to address this issue since it can be counterproductive. When they retreat to their room, they may be missing out on valuable family bonding time and often end up connecting with friends and family back home.

Consider having an open, heartfelt conversation with your student, expressing how much you value their presence within the family, even during quiet, uneventful moments. It's an important part of the exchange experience.

girl sitting on her bed


You Don't Trust Me!

The concept of parents knowing where their teens are and who they're with is very American. Teens in most other countries are not used to such intense oversight and may interpret it as a lack of trust. It's important to communicate that for you as an American, this is seen as responsible parenting.  It's about safety, not a lack of faith in them.

father with arm around son's shoulders talking


I Have to be Home When?

American curfews can seem early and strict to many exchange students, especially those from European countries. One Finnish student humorously exclaimed, "At home, I just have to be home before the morning paper hits the front porch!"

It's vital to discuss and set clear expectations regarding curfew with your exchange student to avoid misunderstandings.

While you’re at it, this would also be a good time to discuss the concept of punctuality. For most American parents, an 11:00 curfew means walking in the door no later than 11, while your exchange student may consider the time in more fluid terms. Setting clear expectations—and consequences—is key to avoiding frustration.

shrugging boy holding large clock


Telling Instead of Asking

It's pretty common for American host parents to expect both their own kids and exchange students to seek permission before making plans, especially when transportation is part of the equation. But exchange students might not be accustomed to this practice due to their cultural backgrounds, where it's not the norm. It's essential to remember they're not trying to be disrespectful; it's simply a different set of cultural norms.

As a host family, embracing patience is key when helping them adapt to this habit. For example, instead of saying, "I'm going out with friends," they can learn to ask, "Is it okay if I go out with my friends tonight?" It's all about easing them into the rhythm of American family life.

father and daughter talking at the table


Asking for Rides

In the U.S., it's common for teens to ask for rides from friends and their friends' parents. However, this can be a big culture shock for exchange students, especially if they come from a place with robust public transportation systems. Asking for a ride can feel as odd as asking a stranger if you can eat a meal at their home.

Students need guidance on how to ask for rides, and when it's appropriate. It's a matter of understanding the cultural norms around transportation.

shocked girl with hand over mouth


Embrace the Journey

Hosting an exchange student is not just about providing a room and meals; it's about bridging cultures and building lasting connections. Yes, cultural misunderstandings can be frustrating at times, but they also present fantastic opportunities for learning and bonding. Learning is a process, and patience and open communication are your best allies. In the end, you'll find that the exchange of cultures is a two-way street, where both the student and the host family gain invaluable insights and memories. So, get ready to embark on a unique adventure and savor every moment of it.

family holding hands walking across bridge


Tags: Host Families, Host an exchange student, cultural understanding, cultural values

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