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The EU program Erasmus was launched in 1987 in order to promote student mobility by giving them the opportunity to live abroad and study at a foreign university. Having been an Erasmus student myself, I will explain in this article why intercultural exchanges are both personally and professionally enriching and how they improve understanding of other cultures, which eventually helps developing relationships and cooperation between countries.

My ten-month stay as an Erasmus student at the University of Duisburg-Essen in North Rhine-Westphalia last year was a unique experience for me. Thanks to this stay, I was able to get to know the country better, as well as its cultural specificities, and I understood why living abroad is amazing and enriching.

First of all, beyond the studying experience, Erasmus enables one to discover different cultures and habits, other mentalities and religions and to meet new people who broaden one’s horizon. Indeed, apart from almost all European countries, non-EU countries are also participating in the Erasmus program. Therefore, even though I was living in Germany, I met not only Germans, but also exchange students from other EU countries such as Belgium, Italy, the UK, Poland or Greece and from non-EU countries such as Turkey. Exchanging with foreigners enables students to discover new lifestyles and to try new foods and dishes you would not have tried otherwise. For example, I learned to eat rice and other Asian food with chopsticks thanks to my South-Korean flatmate. What is more, thanks to intercultural exchanges, one can improve one’s foreign language skills and learn new languages. Indeed, I frequently had to communicate in English with other Erasmus students who did not speak German, which made me realize how important English is today as a language of communication.

Exchanging with foreigners also allows us to be more open-minded

However, exchanging with foreign people is important for other reasons, too: ignorance or lack of knowledge about foreign cultures can give rise to prejudice. This is not necessarily bad, but in some cases ignorance can lead to fear, and then to discrimination, racism or conflicts between communities. Exchanging with foreigners also allows us to change our opinion on a situation and to be more open-minded. For example, while almost all newspapers were dealing with Greece’s debt crisis and the possible Grexit during Summer 2015, I spoke to Greek Erasmus students who shared with me their own point of view on their government and on the EU, which was very interesting. Moreover, I personally think that exchanging with foreigners and living abroad also enables one to get to know ourselves and the world better.

Intercultural skills can also be very useful in a professional context and in trade relations. Indeed, culture plays an important role, not only at an international level but also within the EU.

In the current context of economic and financial globalization, culture has become an even more important aspect of trade. Firms establish more and more multinationals that merge with foreign companies. As a consequence, they have to deal with customers, employees and trade partners from different nationalities, cultures, values and behaviors. Therefore, it can be very useful to understand one’s foreign colleagues’, customers’ and trade partners’ cultural background. It can help companies to work and deal with their trade partners and contribute to success in business. Indeed, as culture is a collective social phenomenon, it can affect our decisions and how we perceive the actions of others.

Even firms which operate on a national level sometimes deal with employees from different countries. Thanks to an internship, I noticed, for example, that cultural differences between Germany and France became also evident in professional relations with German colleagues. Indeed, when French people greet their friends, they usually kiss them on their cheeks, whereas Germans tend to hug their acquaintances.

Finally, communication is one of the most important aspects in trade relations. Most of the time, firms have to communicate in English with their foreign trade partners. However, I personally think that it is good to have basic knowledge of the local language in question to do business abroad. Indeed, even if both parties communicate in English, there can still be misunderstandings due to different interpretations of information. Being able to communicate one’s business partner’s mother tongue also makes it easier to win his or her confidence, which is just as true in personal relations. Indeed, I noticed that speaking the mother tongue of foreign students instead of using English helped one to get integrated into a group much faster.

To conclude, being open-minded, informing oneself about foreign cultures and developing intercultural competences is not only personally enriching, but it can also be very useful in a professional context. The EU is composed of 28 countries, which means that each of them has its own point of view, its own culture and identity, and I am convinced that promoting intercultural dialogue helps understanding other countries and eventually reinforce cooperation. Therefore, I highly recommend exchange programs such as the EU program Erasmus, which has helped me reinforce my intention of working in an international and multicultural environment in the future.

Sarah MAX

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