So different, yet so same

Cultural differences-Culture shock-Intercultural learning during EVS

Marilena is currently doing her 12 months European Voluntary Service program (EVS) in Lithuania. She is working for the Regional Museum of Biržai, a small town in the north of the country. Her activities include translations, tours, educational programs, English lessons and promotion of the museum’s events.

The European Voluntary Service (EVS) is a European youth mobility and voluntary program funded by Erasmus plus (https://europa.eu/youth/EU/voluntary-activities/european-voluntary-service_en).

A vital part of a European Voluntary Service program is the chance (and the challenge) to get to know, experience and live in a culture different than yours. During your stay abroad, whether this is for 3, 6 or 12 months, you are exposed to values, habits, behaviors, traditions, rituals other than these of your native country. Accordingly, the people of the local community for which you volunteer are exposed to your own mentality, your own way of doing things. This ongoing process takes place mostly unconsciously, but it might have various outcomes and sometimes it might even lead to a clash.
Culture is like an iceberg: what is visible is just the tip of it. The surface can consist of things like language, traditions, food, behaviors, everyday habits. Such are the aspects of culture that one can see and experience more easily during an EVS period. During my first month in Lithuania, I was struggling to catch some words of this amazingly difficult language and get used to the different eating habits. After six months in this country, I admit that I’m a fan of Lithuanian cuisine and I feel much less confused when I listen to the language (I’m avoiding to mention my language skills on purpose!). Some other visible cultural aspects that I noticed were the punctuality of the people both in their work place and their personal meetings as well as the fact that they always seem to be in a rush, unlike the stereotypically slower southerners. If I am to mention some traditions, the first thing that comes to my mind is the beautiful dances and songs, that reflect the rural way of living of the Lithuanian people, as well as some festivals, that are clearly connected to pagan beliefs and rituals. As a newcomer, I was struck by all these cultural elements, which evoked all kinds of different emotions and impressions. (on the right side)

During the EVS period the volunteer is both an observer and a member of the hosting country’s culture. Consequently, the process of getting to know the new culture is happening without the volunteer noticing it sometimes. So, as is the case with the whole learning process of EVS, you just need to step back and reflect from times to times. That way you are able to identify what is different, strange or inexplicable for you in this new culture and why is that. For the purpose of this article, I did some reflection regarding the interpersonal communication in Lithuania. Based on my experience so far, I can mention some cultural differences that have drawn my attention:
• Lithuanians tend to be reserved and shy. Their posture and their body language is closed and they are more protective of their personal space,
• in the case of a conversation, they are not so keen to “break the ice”, thus creating sometimes an awkward atmosphere,
• in general, they do not tend to use hand gestures often while talking,
• their facial expressions do not always reveal what are their emotions at that moment,
• they always greet each other in a polite way (in the work place, in a shop, in the street),
• several times they avoid voicing their opinion in case something they say might be considered as negative criticism or as an insult to another person.

My response to the behaviors mentioned above depends on various factors, such as the place, the people involved, the present circumstances and of course my own perspective on things, which is influenced by my native country’s culture.
This ongoing process of getting to know a new culture, as unconscious and subtle as it might be, it also involves a so-called “culture shock”. This phenomenon is described as an experience a person may have when one moves to a cultural environment which is different from one’s own. In most cases, it consists of four distinct phases: honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment, and adaptation. Personally, since I’ve already lived abroad for some time, I didn’t experience a very intense culture shock after arriving in Lithuania. Undoubtedly, there were some things that surprised me, but I tried to treat them with curiosity rather than prejudice.
As a matter of fact, the “culture shock” could be considered as an internal part of the much wider process of intercultural learning. This challenging process takes place during the EVS period and it can lead an individual from denial to integration of differences. It involves not just getting to know a different culture, but also getting to know yourself through the different culture’s lenses. The main stages of intercultural learning are the following:
1. seeing and accepting my own culture
2. realizing that other cultural models are strange without judging them
3. deepening own-culture awareness
4. widening one’s cultural horizon (having more criteria of identifying other cultures)
5. developing an understanding and respect for strange cultures, breaking down stereotypes
6. widening one’s cultural options
7. having constructive & interactive, satisfying relationships in and to a strange cultural environment, being able to deal practically with intercultural conflicts.
This process is so challenging because it concerns very deep-rooted general ideas about what is good and what is bad, about the way you structure your life and you perceive the world, about how one’s identity can have an impact on another one’s identity. If this process is completed successfully, the individual can then gain an intercultural competence, which will enable them to take an active role in confronting social injustice and promote and protect human rights.
Setting theory aside, I would like to share a personal story to conclude with. In the beginning of January I was invited to a colleague’s house. I met her family and her friends and I helped in the preparation of a very traditional and very time-consuming Lithuanian dish, cepelinai. All while cooking, I had the chance to interact with the people, share my story, discuss about how beautiful languages are, drink local beer, laugh with some jokes. When our work in the kitchen was done, we moved to the dining room, where the table was already full, even though the main course was not yet served! From then and on, I had such a great time that I even felt like being home. The food was delicious (and my plate was constantly being refilled), there was always somebody to pour me a glass of beer and the atmosphere was amazingly cozy and laid-back despite the language barrier or the fact that I met most of these people for the first time. When we finally left the house, it was already evening and I was feeling immensely grateful to my colleague, who helped me realize once more how different and yet how same all people are.
(on the right side)

Maria Eleni Nikoloudia European Voluntary Service volunteer