Guide to Hosting International Visitors

Cultural Information and Protocol

Why Culture Matters

All people like to be treated with respect. But how is respect shown? Is it by looking someone in the eye? Shaking hands when you greet? Standing about an arm’s length away when you speak “face to face”? Saying “no” fairly directly when you cannot fulfill a request? While these behaviors may seem second nature to you, they may feel like 180 degrees from comfort for your guests. And if making your guests comfortable and at ease means making them “feel at home,” you’ll want to consider how to make them feel comfortable in a way that reflects their home—and not just yours.

Why So Much Attention to Differences?

Certainly you and your guest have a great deal in common—or you would not be investing time and resources into this face-to-face visit. Your mutual interests may include philosophical approaches to research, research goals, or a commitment to international exchange. In addition to these joint interests, you need to acknowledge the potential differences in political structure, academic systems, and daily rituals as well because these can greatly impact how you work together before, during, and after the visit. Of course this does not mean “that every encounter between people from two distinct cultures is automatically going to be more confusing and difficult than encounters between people from the same culture, only that the potential for misunderstanding is almost always greater.”1

Although you will not have time for a full study of your guest’s culture, it is helpful to understand some of the general ways cultures can differ so you can be prepared for some of the most common challenges involved in intercultural situations.

Common Ways Cultures Can Differ

Individualism – Collectivism

The U.S. is considered to be the most individualistic country in the world. This is not to say that you yourself are not quite collectivistic. However, the view of the U.S. as a whole, and how it ranks in comparison to others, is extremely individualistic.

What impact might this have on an international visit? Individualism is so pervasive, it will show up in every meeting and interaction. For example, in the U.S. we pride ourselves in asking what people want to do, rather than in anticipating their needs ahead of time. So, you may find yourself asking at the airport, “Would you like to stop at the hotel before going to the University?” Your guests may be left wondering what is best for you and the schedule. They may definitely want to go to the hotel, but don’t want to intrude upon your time so they reply, “I think we might not have time.”

Individualistic cultures also value individual input. In the U.S., we schedule public meetings precisely to obtain this input. In meetings, we not only invite others to give their opinions, we encourage disagreement so that the pros and cons of an issue can be discussed out in the open. In many other cultures, these differences of opinion would be obtained ahead of time and the meeting is held to share information about a decision that is already supported by the group. To argue or discuss openly is a sign of disrespect. If you want to know your international visitor’s opinions, it is best to ask for these in private, so as not to put your guest in the position of doing something felt to be disrespectful. When you ask for an opinion, you can then ask if your guest feels comfortable discussing this at the meeting or how you should handle the information. This allows the guest to have the chance to save face and shows that you are open to his or her way of doing things.

Hierarchy – Equality and Informality

In the U.S., we practice a complicated mix of valuing equality and therefore informality, while still demonstrating subtle signs of respect for hierarchy. For example, it is often acceptable to call professors by their first names, but it is typically not acceptable to call a professor at home without a specific invitation to do so. Or, when someone takes you to lunch, the inviter usually explicitly states before the lunch or when the check arrives who is going to pay. It is not automatic that the inviter pays, neither is it expected that the higher status person or the male pays. This sophisticated dance continues in that it is polite to express refusal if the person is your boss, and even more polite to insist on paying your share when you are equals. In either case, the expression may be only a formality or it may be a genuine refusal. Help your guests navigate this maze by being prepared to explain:

  • expectations for attire at events, particularly what constitutes “casual dress” and Maroon and Gold Fridays.
  • how a meeting will be conducted—can anyone bring forward a topic or is the agenda pre-set by a manager?
  • your departmental norm for timeliness at meetings. The University setting often allows for people to be late for meetings or leave early. Let your guest know that this is not a sign of disrespect.
  • secretaries and support staff are treated with the same respect as a manager or supervisor. A person’s value as a human is not dependent upon workplace status.
  • U.S. students may often feel comfortable eating in a classroom.

Relationship Focused – Merit and Outcome Focus

Clearly, relationships matter in the U.S. We even proclaim that “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” But this comment often veils a dislike or distrust for a system that provides rewards based on relationships. Instead, we seem to prefer accomplishments in which we anonymously compete with our peers (such as blind peer review) and can prove we made it on our own. Of course, we acknowledge that family, colleagues, and our academic institutions contributed to our accomplishments, but clearly, individuals value making it on their own. As a result, the mode of operation is to form alliances that are more temporary and to focus on more immediate returns from relationships, rather than a slow nurturing. Your guests may very well have a relationship focus. They may not need to get anything immediate out of the visit. You may be frustrated by the lack of “accomplishing anything.”

What Internationals Say about the United States

There are so many different reactions to this large and varied country. However, it might be helpful to note some of the more common reactions of international visitors.

  • “Where is everyone going?” From the moment visitors arrive, they note the scurrying around in the airport, the hustle to the car, the...
  • “Americans speak like machine guns.” Rapid-fire exchanges are prized in this culture.
  • “Where is everyone?” With so much emphasis on traveling by car, for a large metropolitan area Minneapolis and St. Paul have comparatively few pedestrians out and about on its city streets. In contrast, most major cities throughout the world rely more on public transportation, biking, and walking. As a result, shopping habits in other countries reflect buying in smaller quantities that can easily be transported. International visitors may feel that the streets look and feel empty by comparison.
  • “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” From the moment one arrives in the Twin Cities, the notion that everything costs is apparent. Even the carts to carry your luggage at the airport cannot be used until money is deposited.
  • “Everyone is so friendly.”
  • “People are so superficial.”
  • “I have been here for three years and will never get used to coffee in a plastic cup.”

Strategies for Effective Communication

Introduction Protocol

  • Even if you are on a first-name basis, it is appropriate to use the visitor’s full name in the presence of colleagues, to avoid causing any embarrassment.
  • The person who knows both individuals should begin the introductions. Introductions are generally based on power and hierarchy, so the person of lesser authority is introduced to the person of greater authority. The name of the person being introduced is mentioned last, and the person to whom the introduction is made is mentioned first. For example: “President Anderson, I would like you to meet Mr. Kim, who is visiting from Korea to exchange ideas on his research on genetics. “Mr. Kim, this is President Anderson.”
  • With delegations, make sure you know who the leader is and address that person.

Name Pronunciation

Pronouncing names correctly can be extremely difficult and sometimes literally impossible if the sound does not exist in English (even languages with similar alphabets often have slight variations and can include unique sounds). These pronunciation difficulties do not mean that you should dismiss getting as close as you can. Here are a few strategies:

  • Practice in advance. But no matter how well practiced, it is possible that your pronunciation of the visitor’s name could still carry slight foreign intonations that might change the meaning of the word or cause it to sound ridiculous to the visitor. It is best to ask a native speaker of the language or your guest if your pronunciation is understandable.
  • Your guest may assume an English name. Ask “what name would you prefer I call you?” Some people prefer to use an Americanized name because they don’t understand their given name when you pronounce it, they are embarrassed for you at your pronunciation, or they just simply like the Americanized name.

Forms of Address and Names

Unlike the U.S., where you may often call people by their first names shortly after the first meeting, in many countries, only intimate friends and family members may call someone by their given name. Other cultures often observe strict protocol in both spoken and written forms of address. (See forms of address.)

  • Asian cultures: It is common to address others by their surname and a title. One would address the Vice Minister Wei Yu of the Ministry of Education in China as Vice Minister Wei in writing and Minister Wei in person. In face-to-face communication, one would only note her “vice” status in the presence of the Minister of Education.
  • China: Chinese names appear with the family name first followed by a given or “first” name. Each person has, in this order, a family, generational, and given name. Generational and given names can be separated by a space or a hyphen, but are frequently written as one word. Be aware that well-traveled visitors may reverse their names while in the U.S. Make sure you know which is the correct order and which one they prefer to use while in the U.S.
  • Latin America (except Brazil): Most people in Latin American have two surnames, consisting of the father’s surname followed by the mother’s surname. Whenever you address someone, use both surnames. You may, however, encounter certain people who prefer to shorten their names by choosing either the father’s or mother’s surname. In this circumstance, you should use only the favored last name.
  • Russia: Usually, Russians have three names. The first name is a given name, while the last name is the father’s family name. The middle name is a version of the father’s first name, known as a patronymic. For a man, it ends with the suffixes “vich” or “ovich” meaning “son of.” For a woman, the patronymic is also the father’s first name but with suffixes “a” or “ova” added, which means “daughter of.” In verbal communication, Russians use the first name and patronymic, and in official communication or documentation all three names are used. When you become well acquainted with a person, you may be invited to refer to him or her by the first name.
  • Iceland: Most Icelanders still follow the ancient tradition of deriving their last name from the first name of their father (last name is made up of the father’s first name plus “son” or “dottir”—e.g., the children of a man named Gunnar would have the last names of “Gunnarsson” and “Gunnarsdóttir”). These patronymics refer to their fathers. For this reason, Icelanders should be referred to by their given names only or by their full names (not Mr. Gunnarsson).2

Managing Conversations

How a conversation flows and how people take turns in a conversation varies across cultures. In the Midwest, the exchange is often like a tennis match—one player has the ball at a time and the goal is to get rid of the ball fairly quickly. In other cultures, it can be more like golf where the approach to the ball takes time and no one interrupts until it is very clear the player is finished not just with hitting the ball (making the main point) but has been given time for the follow-through (additional thoughts). In other cultures, the conversational game is more like rugby in which the rules specifically allow for individual and group handling of the ball (conversation). Given these differences, here are a few tips for managing conversations:

  • Don’t interrupt unless your guest interrupts you. If you do interrupt unintentionally, apologize and immediately allow your guest the chance to speak again.
  • When your guest appears to have finished speaking, wait a few seconds before speaking to make sure the point has been made. If you have more than one guest, watch how they make exchanges in their own language. Are there longer pauses than you are used to?

Sound like a big deal over nothing? Think of how you react when you feel excluded from a conversation. As we all know from our own time away from home, it truly is the little things that make or break the experience.

Language Considerations and Tips On Using Interpreters

If your visitor will require interpretation while at the University, determine whether an interpreter will be traveling with the visitor or if you will be asked to provide one. For interpretation at business meetings, lectures, or other University activities, it is best to find an interpreter whose area of expertise matches the subject at hand. Possible interpreters might include graduate students who are from the country of the visitor or speak the same language and are studying in a related department or field. Faculty will often volunteer to interpret for a specific meeting or social event, but depending on the length of the visit or the location of the visitor’s activities, may not be available for all events. Check with faculty members to determine if their schedules will accommodate the needs of the visitor. It is best to find one person who is available throughout the visitor’s stay.

Competency in two languages is not the only skill required for interpretation. If there are contracts to be negotiated or other official proceedings, you should hire a trained interpreter. Interpreters are professionals. They have a high degree of fluency in the languages with which they are dealing and possess a thorough knowledge of the cultures and ways of life integral to those languages.

When planning meetings or events that will include interpretation, keep in mind that sequential interpretation will double the time needed to cover a subject. If possible, be sure to meet with the interpreter in advance of the visit to discuss any specific terms or areas of discussion and introduce the guest and interpreter to key members of the event.

Remind those who will be presenting or addressing the visitor:

  • Speak slowly and clearly
  • Use simple, straightforward words
  • Be patient
  • Don’t jump to conclusions
  • Wait for the translation

Never assume the listener understands your meaning. Body language, such as the nodding of the head, may mean that the listener has heard you; however, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the listener has understood. Check for understanding by repeating the concept in another way or by asking if there is an understanding before proceeding.

Translating and Interpreting Resources

  • The University of Minnesota does not offer any formal translation or interpreting services. The Program in Translation and Interpreting may be able to provide translation and interpreting services or referrals. They also provide interpreter screenings.
  • The Minnesota Trade Office maintains an International Business Directory with links to companies that provide translation and interpretation services.

Meals and Dietary Considerations

When planning a meal for international visitors, you should consider any dietary or medical restrictions or other cultural considerations. The best approach is to ask the visitor or a representative if there are any dietary restrictions or specific customs that should be observed. Most caterers are used to creating meals for people with a variety of dietary needs. You should discuss your particular situation with your caterer as soon as possible.

You may also want to prepare a list of local restaurant suggestions and descriptions for visitors when they are on their own.

Religious Observances

Below are a few of the most common dietary-related religious observances. Keep in mind that these do not apply to all people of these religions, nor do they cover all possible religious observances. Once again, it is best to ask the visitor or a representative if they have any special dietary needs.

  • Judaism: Observant Jews require special kitchen utensils and cooking practices, which some caterers can take into account. When in doubt, always ask if participants are strictly kosher; no offense is taken by such a question. Many Jews are not strictly observant other than possibly avoiding shellfish, pork, and pork by-products.
  • Islam: Muslims follow the doctrines of the Koran, which forbids alcohol and the eating of some food like pork, poultry, and shellfish.
  • Hinduism: Hindu dietary restrictions vary according to region, local custom, caste, and acceptance of outside practices. Primarily, though, orthodox Hindus don’t eat animal and fish products except milk and honey because of the Hindu doctrines of non-violence, karma, and rebirth. Beef is taboo because the cow is sacred, thus, most Hindus are vegetarian.
  • Buddhism: Although dietary restrictions are not part of Buddhist doctrine, they may be self-imposed. A great number of Buddhists are vegetarian because of Buddhist values.

1Storti, C. (1999). Figuring out foreigners: A practical guide. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.

2Why Always -Son and -Dottir?—Icelandic Names and the Icelandic Alphabet,” a pamphlet by New Horizons (2001)