Who knew there were different ways to say hello?

Whether you’re just starting to consider study abroad or you’re packing your bags for a gap year, you’ve probably already heard a lot about “culture shock.” A lot of scholarly research has been done on the subject, explaining what’s going on internally while you’re experiencing this phenomenon.  But to put it in less scientific, more 1930s-pop-culture terms, it’s the moment(s) when you look around you and realize you’re not in Kansas anymore.  Those of us who have studied abroad love talking about culture shock, because it’s a process where you can really learn a lot in a small amount of time– not only about your host country, but also about yourself and the values you hold dear.

During my time in France, I experienced culture shock in a big way almost immediately upon my arrival.  When I met my Resident Director Marie at the Charles De Gaulle Airport, she introduced herself and leaned in for two quick kisses, one on each cheek.  This happened again when I met my host mother at the Grenoble train station, and again when first introducing myself to the other members of my host family.  Of course, I quickly learned how to do the kisses (les bisous, in French)—which I found didn’t really involve kissing the other person at all: it was more like touching cheeks and making a smooching sound with the lips.  But initially, I despised the entire ritual.  According to my American values, this was a huge invasion of my personal space, and the fact that it was done at the very start of a new relationship made it even more uncomfortable for me.  It also took up a considerable amount of time, and I distinctly remember when lines of teenagers would hold up the bus as the driver waited for them to kiss all of their friends before sitting down.  In situations like these, I often remarked to myself that a handshake would have sufficed.

As time went on, however, I became more accepting of the practice, and by the end of my study abroad I (begrudgingly) admitted to myself that I actually liked it.  I found that it was a quick way to establish a closer personal relationship with someone upon meeting them: it did away with the whole question of “breaking the touch barrier” that we as Americans have to deal with more creatively.  It also taught me that, as an American, I value two things deeply: personal space and time.  By the end of the semester, I thought back on how I had become annoyed when the bus driver waited for my peers to go through the motions.  What difference did a few extra minutes mean?  To my American self, it meant a lot—I had class and I needed to be on time!  But as my French sense of self developed, I began to see that being one or two minutes late wasn’t a big deal if it meant that others were taking time to reaffirm their friendship—which is pretty important, after all.

It may be true that “there’s no place like home,” but there are still a lot of places worth checking out around the globe.  Fear of culture shock shouldn’t stop you.  Rather, the entire process should be embraced.  How will your interactions abroad teach you about yourself?  What are your biggest fears about cultural differences?  Are there any practices that you currently know about and you’re looking forward to while overseas?

Learning to love the bisou is half the battle—next you’ll have to figure out how many to give!  Here’s a handy map that breaks it up by region 🙂

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