Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools - Culture Matters


Culture Matter's, Peace Corps' cross-cultural training workbook, was developed to train new Peace Corps Volunteers to enter new cultures with understanding and respect. While this Web-based version of Culture Matters is written as if addressed to a new Volunteer, we think teachers and students can easily adapt the language and activities to strengthen cultural understanding in their classrooms.

Welcome to Peace Corps' cross-cultural training, one of the most challenging and rewarding dimensions of the toughest job you'll ever love.

This workbook, Culture Matters, will be a map to guide you in the process. It is a way for you to record your thoughts and feelings as you live and work in your host country. It contains a variety of exercises, as well as stories and quotations from Volunteers who have served before you, people who are experts on the subject, or others who are people you might expect to meet in your new country. Their stories represent the exhilaration, satisfaction, confusion, and frustration that are all part of being a Peace Corps Volunteer. These stories and quotations, we hope, will inspire you, sober you, make you laugh, and make you think. You can compare these sentiments to your own observations and reactions as you move deeper into the culture around you.

We all would like to find a magic pill, the "right" answer, a simple list of do's and don'ts in our new country, and you will get some useful do's and don'ts from your trainers. A list of behaviors or a script, however, can only take you so far. Crossing cultures is a dynamic, complex process, where context is everything. A "do" in one set of circumstances might very well be a "don't" in another. This workbook will help you function outside the script, to understand the values and beliefs behind behavior, and, ultimately, how the local people think.

Making Sense of Your Experience

Photo of a man teaching class in Cameroon.
Cross-cultural training involves not only learning about the place you've come to, but comparing it to what you've known before. What assumptions and values have shaped you? InCulture Matters, therefore, you will be examining the culture, behaviors, and values of people in your host country in relation to those of your own.

You may wonder why you need such a workbook since you are, after all, living in the country and may even be living with a host family. Living in the country does offer you a chance to compare your culture with other cultures. However, cross-cultural exposure is not cross-cultural knowledge. Having an experience, however, does not necessarily mean understanding it. You need to make sense of the contact you're having, which is what cross-cultural training and this workbook specifically are designed to do.

You may understand much of what's been happening to you, but many actions, attitudes, values-entire ways of thinking and behaving-may on occasion surprise, puzzle, or even shock you. On the other hand, you also may be unaware of what you do share in common. People in any culture, for example, need to find an acceptable way to express anger, cope with sadness, manage conflict, show respect, demonstrate love, or deal with sexuality. As we examine the differences between two cultures, we are often looking at different ways of answering the same questions. If you don't notice the similarities, it's because the ways in which we act or think differently are what produce the most challenge and tension for us. What we have in common most likely goes unnoticed.

The Goal Is Understanding

In cross-cultural training and living, the goal is learning about yourself and others. Just as you want to learn another language so that you can communicate with local people and understand the new world around you, so you will want to learn the silent language of cultures--your own and your host country's--that are crossing.

In trying to appreciate the differences between your culture and the local one, you may feel that you're supposed to like and accept all these differences. Cultural sensitivity, however, means knowing about and respecting the norms of the local culture, not necessarily liking them. You may, in fact, be frustrated or even offended by certain acts. In some cases, increased understanding will lead to greater respect, tolerance, and acceptance; in others, just enhanced awareness. The goal in cross-cultural training is to increase your understanding, to give you a powerful set of skills, a framework around whatever you do and experience as a Volunteer so that you will be able to interact successfully with host country people. That is what will make you an effective Peace Corps Volunteer, a PCV.

Issues to Consider

Photo of a woman with a small child on her lap in Libya.

It's impossible to talk about groups of people without generalizing, and without talking about groups, we can't talk about culture. In order to make contrasts and comparisons about Americans and host country people, this book asks you to make a number of generalizations. Treat these generalizations with skepticism and wariness. They can give you potentially accurate and useful information, but the actual accuracy and usefulness will depend on the context and specific circumstances. Americans, for example, may be regarded as individualists, but in some circumstances, Americans will be entirely team oriented.

Another concern with generalizations is that instinctively, we feel uncomfortable making them or being the subject of them. They rob us of what makes us unique. To respond to that need for individuality, this book wherever possible gives you an opportunity to consider and express your personal view.

Keep in mind, too, that culture is just one of numerous influences on behavior. People can differ from each other in many other aspects as well. Could the miscommunication or misunderstanding you're having with a host country national be the result of a difference in personality, age, generation, or gender, and not a cultural difference? Maybe you misinterpreted her or she misinterpreted you because she grew up in a city and you grew up on a farm. As you try to understand the role culture plays in behavior, remember that personal differences often play as great or even a greater role.

Using This Workbook

Culture Matters has been designed mainly for independent study. You should move through the workbook at your own pace. On occasion, your trainers may conduct group sessions that deal with the same concepts covered in these pages, giving you the chance to share some of your feelings and reactions with other trainees and to hear theirs. For a number of the activities in this workbook, you will be asking questions of your host country friends, who will be acting as your cultural informants. Be ready for conflicting replies. That's part of the richness of culture.

Use the workbook in the ways that suit you. Some of you may complete every exercise your first few weeks in country; others of you may work with certain chapters in training, and other chapters after you have become a Volunteer, when the content of those sections suddenly has meaning or relevance for you. You may never do certain activities and do others repeatedly, at different times during your service. Revisit sections over time, browse, analyze, question, ponder, and enjoy.

However you approach this workbook, you will always have it as a record of your personal journey into the host culture. This journey will be your story of learning about another culture, which is one of the greatest legacies of the Peace Corps experience.

Culture Matters Home Page

Culture Matters Home Page

Using Culture Matters

Chapter Summaries



Peace Corps

Receive Updates and News