German-American relations and cross-cultural experiences from the perspective of high school students' host families in the USA

Bachelor Thesis, 2016

40 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Concept of Culture
2.1 Three Sphere Model by Trompenaars and Hampden- Turner
2.2 “Collision” of Cultures

3. Interviewing the Host Families
3.1 Family I
3.2 Family II
3.3 Family III

4. Relationship Development
4.1 Expectations & Motivations
4.2 Getting to know each other
4.3 Finding one’s place
4.4 Visualization of Being a family
4.4.1 N’s Visualization
4.4.2 M’s Visualization
4.4.3 D’s Visualization

5. Conclusion

6. Works Cited
6.1 Appendix

Table of Illustrations and Figures

Figure 1: Model of Culture by Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner[1]

Illustration 1: N’s Visualization[2]

Illustration 2: M’s Visualization

Illustration 3: D’s Visualization

1. Introduction

“ Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things can not be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.” (Twain 434)

During a time in which international relations receive ever more attention and are increasingly important, students from around the world are given the opportunity to become exchange students and temporarily engage with foreign cultures. As some people perceive a year abroad simply as an opportunity to improve one's language skills, it is furthermore a possibility for young adults to develop their personality, independent of their surroundings back home as they gain a deeper understanding of themselves and those around them. Yet, relatively little is known about the different roles an exchange student can intake inside a host family. Throughout the time exchange students spend with their host families, they encounter and adapt to a new lifestyle and a new worldview. Each party is deepening their knowledge of foreign cultures and as Mark Twain has said rebutting “prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness” (Twain 434). Not only the exchange students can benefit from this significant experience, also the hosts who welcome in a stranger and engage with him[3] as if they are part of the family for the subsequent months.

Cross-cultural exchanges serve the purpose of contributing to a cultural understanding, broadening the horizon and more. This leads to the understanding that two individuals with respective cultures encounter each other and explain their cultural peculiarities, meaning they will therefore benefit from the experience. This however presents a rather static understanding of culture, as it implies that each exchange is successful and goes without a problem. A successful exchange for hosts and exchange students relies on various factors such as tolerance, interest and adjustment on both sides, as two different cultures meet. The diversity of cultural theories has resulted from these factors, which have to be considered in order to resolve cultural misunderstandings and establish a relationship. In this paper, the focus will be on German-American[4] relations through the lens of student exchanges in a High School setting and focus on the culture exchange and development of a relationship between the exchange students and their host families. The majority of the literature found as regard student exchanges concentrates on the students’ perspective as to sharing their experiences and gain throughout this experience (e.g. Badstübner and Ecke 2009, Teichler and Steube 1991, etc.). Equally, previous interviews with host families focused on the exchange students’ gain and their learning process (e.g. Hammer 2005, Hansel 2008, etc.). To enable a deeper understanding of the way in which an exchange student and his culture are being perceived by the host family, it is necessary to change the perspective in order to reflect the host families’ experiences. To implement this project, it is necessary to respond to the culture term and its elements regarding student exchanges. Interviews with four former host families have been conducted to realize this. Those findings are going to build the foundation of my study. Throughout the interview, the focus was on how the families perceived their students and what roles were assigned to them. As both parties bring different perceptions of their counterparts’ origin to the table, there will be an accumulation of multifaceted expectations as regards each member of this adventure and, of course, misunderstandings.

My initial motivation to write about this topic arose from the pure interest in the field of student exchange having been one of the students myself in 2008 and fortunate enough to have been given the opportunity to venture out from known surroundings to embrace an unfamiliar culture and family in the Northwest of the United States in Lebanon, Oregon.

2. Concept of Culture

First, the concept of “culture” needs to be illustrated thus clarifying how cultural differences come about in order to demonstrate how the host families perceived their exchange student regarding the values commonly held by most Americans. Past and current interpretations of this concept have to be taken into account, as “culture” is a challenging term because it is difficult to understand the concept as its usage has gone through an evolution over the centuries. All concepts about culture co-exist and are still valid today in some way or other but are closely linked to ideological or political agendas current at the time. In the following, four different ways in which the term has been used and described in the past and present will be presented.

First, Matthew Arnold, a British philosopher and cultural critic, claimed in Culture and Anarchy. An Essay in Political and Social Criticism (1869) that “culture” is a rare property and only a small social group “has” what we today might call “high culture”. Meaning, only a small part of a social group holds intellectual or artistic efforts or products opposed to “popular culture”. Thus, this term is being associated with fine arts and knowledge which would relate to an aesthetic perspective on culture rather than one pertaining to social science (Lüsebrink 10).

Second, as sort of a reaction to Arnold’s claim, Sir Ew B. Tylor[5] wrote in Primitive Culture (1873) that culture is a quality common to all people in all social groups having gone through an (evolutionary-like) continuum from “savagery” via “barbarism” to “civilization” (Moore 4). Tylor defined culture as follows: “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (Tylor 1) and “’Culture’ is not limited to ‘high culture’- arts, fashion, haute cuisine, design- but encompasses the broader domain of human experience" (Moore 3). This definition already contrasts Arnold’s claim that all folks “have” culture, which they obtain by being a member of society. Therefore being an advocate of the evolutionism understanding of culture.

Third, in reaction to Arnold, Tylor set out to establish an evolutionist (rather than an aesthetic) basis for culture; Franz Boas[6], in turn, reacted to Tylor and other social evolutionists in the twentieth century (Moore 25). Whereas social evolutionists emphasized the universal character of a single culture with different societies ranging from savage to civilized, Boas stressed the individuality of a variety of cultures of different people or societies. Furthermore, Boas dismissed the value judgment of Arnold’s and Tylor’s views on culture. He chose not to differentiate between high and low culture in the case of Arnold’s theory or valorize cultures as savage or civilized as in the case of Tylor’s view. The implication therefore is, cultures exist in parallel and independently from the other. Yet this cultural relativist understanding of culture still sees culture as a static and bounded entity. People belong to „their“ culture, are born into it. It is this understanding which often resonates with the understanding of cross-cultural exchanges as mentioned in the introduction. All theories introduced above suggest a straightforward evolution of culture contrasting cultural diffusion. This understanding of culture was first focused on material culture (spearheads, pots, etc.) and its spread from one world region to another. However, suggesting cultural diffusion as a more dynamic understanding of culture since “culture travels”, it can be learned and is adapted to the specific context as it attributes a process of adaptation and creativity without a specific goal to culture. Geert Hofstede[7] explains culture in the anthropological sense as a collective phenomenon as it is temporarily shared with people who live or lived within the same social environment, which is where culture is learned. “It is the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another” (Hofstede 19). Hofstede means by this that we have to acknowledge that not everything is equally perceived in different cultures as it derives from one’s social environment and that each individual is unique in his representation of the culture. Hofstede also differentiates on a geographical dimension as he argues that his dimensions of cultural values[8] varied systematically with distance from the equator and suggested that “a country’s geographic position is a fundamental fact that is bound to have a strong effect on the subjective culture of its inhabitants” (Hofstede 59).

Those mentioned theories equate to four different understandings of culture. The difficulties as to understanding this concept are not only conceptual or semantic because, since every view is linked to various political or ideological agendas that, in one way or another, are still present today. Thus ‘culture’ is nothing fixed, it is essentially fluid and constantly in motion. That is the reason why we should consider perceiving culture in spheres of depth where each sphere is standing for a particular indicator of culture.

2.1 Three Sphere Model by Trompenaars and Hampden- Turner

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 1: Model of Culture by Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner[9]

In the following, the layering of culture will be illustrated by referring to Fons Trompenaars’ and Charles Hampden-Turner’s model of culture. (Figure 1)

Fons Trompenaars’ and Charles Hampden-Turner’s model of culture consists of three different spheres indicating depth whereas other sociologists or cultural anthropologists such as Geert Hofstede favor other interpretations or illustrations of culture; however they more than not resemble each other and are therefore closely related to one another.

The first cultural encounter of a foreigner in an alien country and the host’s first impression of his exchange student are rarely a link between norms and values. “Nor is it the sharing of meanings and value orientations” (Trompenaars & H. Turner 29). So what is it that both parties encounter first? The first thing they notice is the explicit culture consisting of an observable reality such as language, food, clothes, houses, art, and how one presents oneself, etc. “They are symbols of a deeper level of culture. Prejudices mostly start on this symbolic and observable level” (Ibid.). Those visible symbols of culture can change rapidly; hence we see certain verbal expressions, fashion, monuments, and architectural design patterns for houses, etc. appear, disappear, and reappear again just as quickly (Hofstede 22). All those symbols may be observable indicators of culture, but they are difficult to interpret. Since, objects and behaviors may also tell us what a group is doing without providing us with the reason behind it. An absolute condition for meaningful interaction in foreign exchange is the existence of mutual expectations starting on an explicit level. Let us look at an example, one that causes difficulties for many American host families when it comes to getting to know their exchange student.

The Miller family[10] never had any particular expectations as to their exchange student other than showing interest in family life and their culture as he came to experience just that. The beginning was great, Moritz their German exchange student seamed to be the perfect fit as he was outgoing, shared the same interest in American Sports, and got along with everyone just fine. Since the family was living in a two-story house, with the parents’ bedroom in the basement and the children’s room upstairs, the parents only started to notice that Moritz closed the door of his room quite frequently upon returning from school a few weeks in. This simple act of closing the door made the family believe that he somehow shunned them. What the Millers did not know was that Moritz, like many other Germans, enjoyed his privacy and closing the door of his room was natural to him as it was the social norm in Germany. Thus, the family only saw the act of him “distancing” himself and not the actual reason for his action as it was an example of cultural difference as to norms and values. To comprehend this explicit behavior, one has to understand the connection between the three different layers of culture; the second sphere is engaging with the norms and values that constitute the outer layer of a culture.

The outer layer is the individual’s first impression of an unknown culture as something we can identify as being part of something. Thus explicit culture reflects deeper layers of culture consisting of "the norms and values of an individual group" (Trompenaars & H. Turner 30). Norms are equated with what a social group within the same culture perceives as being “right” and “wrong”. The Longman Dictionary suggests the following definition of Norm: “an accepted standard or a way of behaving or doing things that most people agree with” (Cambridge UP 966). Values make up the core of a culture and, according to Hofstede, determine the definition of what is “good” and “bad”. The Longman Dictionary suggests: “the beliefs people have about what is right and wrong and what is most important in life, which control their behavior: family/ moral/ traditional values” (Cambridge UP 1608). Thus we can say that values are closely related to the ideals shared by a group.

Norms can also be found on a "formal level as written laws, and on an informal level as social control." (Trompenaars & H. Turner 30). Therefore, we can understand norms as written and unwritten rules of behavior that one might follow in a given social group (Kohl 148; Trompenaars & H. Turner 30). In American restaurants, for instance, the norm of leaving a 15 to 20% tip of the total bill for the waiter is a gesture expressing satisfaction with the service provided. If an American guest, for example, were to refuse to give the hard working waiter a tip the latter might react emotionally (positively angry) demonstrating a violation of the social norm. If this happened in Italy, the waiter would not bother, as tips are added to the bill anyhow. Norms, therefore, vary wherever you are, they can be reduced to a small group, as for example the simple shouts of “O, S, U, Oregon State Fight Fight Fight”, which is most likely only uttered by former or current people attending Oregon State University. But they can be universal as well like, shaking hands after a sports match as a sign of respect or sentencing someone to prison if he does something that violates the norms of that given culture.

Values , on the other hand, are collective concepts about what is good or bad, desirable or undesirable, normal or abnormal, proper or improper; thus they build the foundation of a culture (Hofstede 23; Althen 3; Lüsebrink 13; Trompenaars & H. Turner 32). They are therefore closely related to the ideals shared by a group. As people grow up, they learn certain values and assumptions from their parents other relatives or education institutions and a variety of other sources such as books, newspapers, television programs and the Internet. They ensure the further existence of those values within a social group (Althen 3; Kohl 139; Moore 3).

In general, values serve as criteria specifying a choice of existing alternatives. It is the concept a person or group regard as desirable (Kohl 139; Hofstede 23). For example, people in one culture agree with the value: “Hard work is essential to a prosperous society and nation.” However, they act by the behavioral norm set by their society, such as “do not work harder than those around you, because if you do so we all have to work more and end up worse off”. Thus we can conclude, "It takes shared meanings of norms and values that are stable and salient for a group's cultural tradition to be developed and elaborated." (Trompenaars & H. Turner 30; Hofstede 24).

If the norms reflect the values of a social group, the culture is considered relatively stable (Lüsebrink 103). However, if this is not granted, "there will most likely be a destabilizing tension [...] Disintegration is a logical result." (Ibid.). Destabilization might arise if own value beliefs are confronted with a different culture, which perceives the same values differently and thus sheds a different light on this perception. Therefore, values are common guidelines, while norms are specific guidelines. In sum: "While the norms, consciously or subconsciously, give us a feeling of 'this is how I normally should behave,' values give us a feeling of 'this is how I aspire or desire to behave'" (Trompenaars & H. Turner 30). Norms and values are therefore the invisible mechanism driving explicit culture.

Questions such as “why have different groups of people, consciously or subconsciously, chosen different definitions of good or bad, right or wrong?” (Trompenaars & H. Turner 30) might arise. To answer those questions, we have to understand “the core” of a culture, the assumptions about existence.

The implicit culture makes up the core of one’s culture, as it provides answers to “questions about basic differences in values between cultures" (Trompenaars & H. Turner 31). If we go back to the beginning of humanity, the most cherished value was and probably still is survival (Trompenaars & H. Turner 31; Hofstede 20). This value continues to be present and e.g. apparent in Africans continuing to fight against nature and droughts. However, the peoples of Africa have managed to find the most efficient way of dealing with its environments, given their available resources. Thus we can argue by looking at other historical, and present incidences where

“Groups of people organize themselves in such a way that they increase the effectiveness of their problem-solving processes. Because different groups of people have developed in different geographic regions, they have also formed different sets of logical assumptions.” (Trompenaars & H. Turner 31).

Changes in culture happen due to different geographical circumstances and “people there realize that certain old ways of doing things do not work anymore” (Trompenaars & H. Turner 32); those realizations become automatic turning into basic assumptions over time. Therefore, cultural differences have their roots in environmentally affected challenges, which have been overcome in the past through problem-based skills and passed on to other generations (Hofstede 18). Thus we can conclude that basic assumptions are built on existing values, until they become self-evident and immerge in our subconscious.

As previously mentioned in Fons Trompenaars’ and Charles Hampden-Turner’s model of culture, three different layers of culture are apparent. The outer layer, explicit culture, is what people primarily think of as regard a certain culture just through the visual encounters namely clothes, language, presentation of oneself, behavior, etc. The explicit culture, therefore, presents us with the products of culture, such as the skyscrapers of Frankfurt. The middle layer is the sphere where norms and values are presented within a social group. They determine what is considered right or wrong in the form of norms or good and bad in values. This means that the values the skyscrapers present are invisible (values such as status and material success). Consequently, the outer layers are the results symbolizing deeper, more fundamental values, and assumptions about life and society. The inner layer, implicit culture, consists of basic assumptions, series of rules and methods dealing with given problems a certain culture faces, which have solidified after generations of passing them on (Thomas 20; Hofstede 18). Thus those problem-solving tools have become so self-evident that, just like breathing, we no longer have to think about it until we try to get rid of a hiccup, for example (Trompenaars & H. Turner 9; Thomas 44). Those three layers of culture are inseparable as they complement one another. These levels can be understood through the image of an iceberg, while the most immediately visible level is at the top, the mass remains submerged or implicit.

2.2 “Collision” of Cultures

Foreign exchange students do not just carry souvenirs and their suitcases with them; they also bring the beliefs, attitudes, and rules of how to behave from their home culture. Each student’s combination of these personal and cultural characteristics comprises what Trompenaars calls the “seven dimensions of culture[11] ”, which are unique sets of basic assumptions that differ from culture to culture. As each party in a student exchange may be unaware of the other’s different set of rules for appropriate and respectful behavior, each has a different way of looking at the same situation (Trompenaars & H. Turner 33; Kohl 30; Hofstede 25). Thus cultural misunderstandings are inevitable as each member of a social group acquires the perception and assumption of its given culture; he may become ethnocentric. It is helpful to break the term down into its component parts: Ethno derives from the ancient Greek word referring to a people, nation, or cultural grouping, while centrism derives from Latin meaning center. Therefore, the term Ethnocentrism refers to the tendency of viewing one’s own cultural practices as superior and therefore considering others inferior (Kohl 30; Cushner & Brislin 274; Althen xxix; Lüsebrink 103). An ethnocentric person, therefore “make[s] judgments about other groups based on the perspective of their own, and believe[s] those judgments to be reasonable and appropriate." (Cushner & Brislin 274). With the growing up process, everyone learns ethnocentrism. However, much of it is indirect and most likely unintended, whereas some of it is intentional. If we think of a country’s history, for example, national history is often taught so as to glorify the achievements and accomplishments of one’s nation. Ethnocentrism serves the purpose of encouraging the solidarity of a social group. For Americans to believe that “America is [the] greatest country on Earth”[12], a feeling of belonging is encouraged supporting the idea that, for example, loyalty to comrades is an important value. Therefore, suggesting that America is not great anymore makes the task of “Mak[ing] America Great Again”[13] appealing for the American population to preserve this value, which has been successful for a Presidential candidate in the past but this is a different topic.

Ethnocentrism is universal and can be found in all groups and societies around the world. Even though ethnocentrism can be universal it can also have negative effects, since ethnocentric people may have problems empathizing with other groups or individuals as they might not be able to see another person’s point of view (Cushner & Brislin 275).

Ethnocentrism serves multiple functions besides encouraging solidarity as mentioned above.

It also serves the “Value- expressive function of [Ethnocentrism which] is to project or demonstrate the individual's self- image. For example, if people believe themselves to be standing up for the one true God through their religious attitudes, then other groups must be incorrect in some way “(Cushner & Brislin 275).

That’s where student exchanges and other forms of cultural exchange programs play a crucial role, as those limited understandings of what culture encompasses can only be overcome through intensified communication between the two interacting groups (Bellamy & Weinberg 61).

Furthermore, continuing interactions and communications can invalidate stereotypes, which a group has towards another group. Here again, it is helpful to break the term down into its component parts: stereos is a Greek word meaning “solid”, and typos denotes the ‘mark of a blow, an impression, or a model’” (Schulz & Haerle 29). The American Journalist Walter Lippman first used the term in 1922 claiming that stereotypes help to impose order onto a complex world (Schulz & Haerle 29; Cushner & Brislin 325). They are being used as shortcuts while processing of information by categorizing them into “manageable chunks the barrage of stimuli constantly coming at us” (King & Huff 38). Stereotypes evolve when we try to understand/ categorize the behaviors of foreigners and in the process apply our own cultural rules and values by, ending up with a distorted understanding (Schulz & Haerle 30; Cushner & Brislin 328). Therefore, "stereotypes [are] necessary overgeneralizations and oversimplifications that are rigid, resistant to change, undependable in their actual content, and produced without logical reasoning" (Schulz & Haerle 29). Yet in reality, stereotypes render us blind to the uniqueness of each person and its culture as they foster serious misunderstandings. Thus host families and exchange students:

"should be encouraged to become more aware of the categories they hold as well as to investigate potential new categories that other cultures may have to offer. In this way, they may be able to both expand and adjust their own categories, as well as learn a great deal about [each other’s] cultures." (Cushner & Brislin 329)

Those judgments about other groups may be based on presumptions about a certain feature of the respective country, for example:

Gary Lineker, a former striker for the British national soccer team, once said, “Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win”(Kentrotis 11). Following this assumption about the Germans always winning in soccer, it is no surprise to hear that the soccer coach of a small High School with a rather weak soccer team was excited about the German exchange student whom he saw wearing a Bayern Munich jersey. After an unsuccessful attempt of recruiting the German student, he called him over to talk to him assuming that he did not like him as a coach or did not want to play with the other students. However, he subsequently found out that the student had never played soccer in Germany and was wearing the jersey only as a representative memory of his hometown and that he had only ever played Basketball in Germany and thus the coach stopped asking him acknowledging the real reason for the refusal.


[1] see Trompenaars, Hampden-Turner, 2012, p. 29

[2] Illustration 1, 2, and 3 are created from the respective families to visualize their family structures.

[3] Throughout the paper the male pronoun is used for general references. But the used examples will always apply to both sexes, except for references to specific individuals.

[4] The author is aware of the fact that the Americas include North, Central, and South America; the word American is used in this paper to refer specifically to the people living in the United States. This usage was chosen because of its vernacular popularity, not because of a lack of appreciation for the many cultures and nationalities that are equally American.

[5] Tylor was the first professor of anthropology at Oxford University and the author of the first anthropology textbook Anthropology (1881).

[6] Franz Boas is extremely influential as to the development of American anthropology.

[7] Hofstede conducted one of the most comprehensive studies on how values in the workplace are influenced by culture. His results are presented in his groundbreaking publication “Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions, and Organizations Across Nations” in 2001.

[8] He differentiates on six dimensions the Power Distance Index (PDI), Individualism versus Collectivism (IDV), Masculinity versus Femininity (MAS), Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI), Long Term Orientation versus Short Term Normative Orientation (LTO), and Indulgence versus Restraint (IND).

[9] Recreated model of culture by Fons Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner (Trompenaars, Hampden-Turner 29)

[10] The Miller family is purely fictional and serves only the purpose of illustrating explicit culture in a student exchange.

[11] According to Trompenaars, every culture has created a unique set of basic assumptions. Thus each culture sets itself off from others by those sets of specific solutions it chooses to deal with as to a certain problem. Those sets of basic assumptions are being divided into seven dimensions (which are similar to Hofstede’s dimensions).

[12] Michelle Obama said these words on July, 25th as a comment to Donald J. Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” telling Americans that America does not have to be great again as it still is the “greatest country on Earth”

[13] Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” from 2016 was first used by Ronald Reagan’s run for office in 1980 after the US had been suffering from an economical crisis, much like in 2009; it has contributed to the presidential campaign then and now.

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German-American relations and cross-cultural experiences from the perspective of high school students' host families in the USA
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
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Names were abbreviated for publication to preserve the privacy of all participants. Audio material of the original interviews is not provided. The author is aware of the fact that the Americas include North, Central, and South America; the word American is used in this paper to refer specifically to the people living in the United States. This usage was chosen because of its vernacular popularity, not because of a lack of appreciation for the many cultures and nationalities that are equally American.
Culture, Cross- Cultural Experiences, Host Family’s, Hofstede, Trompenaars
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B.A. Jonas Heidger (Author), 2016, German-American relations and cross-cultural experiences from the perspective of high school students' host families in the USA, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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