Skills 101: interpersonal (soft) Skills

When anyone says the words "study abroad skills" they're almost talking about either language skills or transferable (aka "soft") skills. This article will focus on the latter.

Career services and employers use the term "soft skills" a fair amount, so it's important that you know how it applies to your study abroad skills. Basically, it's just a catch-all/umbrella term for all of the interpersonal (people) skills and communication (social) skills you use around others. It also includes personality traits, attitudes, and aptitudes. 

In short, asking "What are your soft skills?" is like a nuanced way of asking "How well do you play with others?" Or rather--what are the specific components that drive whether or not you to play well with others?

So, let's talk about your study abroad related soft skills.

Picking up soft, transferable, and interpersonal skills is a huge part of your study abroad experience. Here are some tips to help you understand how soft skills work to help you connect with people across cultures.

The first and most important thing to remember about these skills is that you don’t have to use your passport to develop them! In fact, you can recreate the entire soft skills portion of your experience at home. You just need these 3 "ingredients":

  • live in a cross cultural environment with people who don’t share your nationality, ethnic background, or cultural expectations;
  • push yourself to really understand the rules, customs, and rationales that dictate how people act around you;
  • be willing to follow (adapt to) someone else’s cultural expectations

It's super easy for you to do all 3 of those things while abroad, because you don't have a choice in the matter. You're in another country. You have to follow those rules. Unfortunately, now that you're back home there will be a lot of temptation for you to just stay in a bubble of people who share your cultural norms (or at least norms you're used to). 

Our advice: Resist the temptation. Choose environments that force you to work on your soft skills.

Special Note: If you’re from a marginalized group, you’ve probably had to work on developing and refining your soft skills all of your life. But, remember, you still have more to learn. Check out our bonus resources for students from marginalized communities:

And also remember, no matter who you are... a lot of people hear the word "soft" and assume that these skills are easy to develop or less important than so-called "hard" skills. If that's you, you'd be absolutely wrong. Often the opposite is true.

"Hard skills" are skills you can usually teach systematically like with a course or on the job. "Soft skills" are super dynamic and play off of each other. Always keep that in mind.

Here are the top 6 skills you probably developed while abroad and should continue to work on (now that you’re home).

Manage Diverse Relationships & Transform "conflict"

Anytime you look at a “study abroad skills” list, these are the skills related to empathy and communicating. Here are some examples of what this looks like:

This study abroad skill set is related to having empathy and communicating with others across different cultures and life experiences.
  • active listening
  • overcoming language barriers (or differences in communication styles)
  • establishing rapport
  • building relationships
  • understanding cultural differences and similarities
  • appreciating different perspectives
  • suspending judgement about people and their actions
  • teamwork
  • patience
  • empathy

These are all skills that are necessary if you live or work in diverse spaces. If you want to continue to develop this skill you’re going to need to stay curious about everything and keep an open mind. You’ll also need to develop the ability to listen to other’s as they express their needs. And you’ll have to be willing to compromise and negotiate.

When you’re abroad, you assume that people in your host country have a different perspective. You’ll have to remember that the same is true back home. You just have to get better at nuance.

For more information on how to continue to build this skill, check out our article on conflict transformation.

Solve Problems Creatively

These are the skills related to your ability to think abstractly and your willingness to try new ways to solve (un)familiar problems. These may include:

These study abroad soft skills aren’t necessarily about creating new things (although that counts, too). More often then not, creativity is about thinking abstractly and trying new ways to solve (un)familiar problems.
  • taking risks
  • making efficient use of resources
  • multidisciplinary thinking
  • setting clear goals
  • responding with a positive outlook
  • perseverance and resilience
  • offering creative ideas and solutions

Being able to think creatively about “problems” and challenges is an asset no matter what you do (in work and in life). You have to learn how to stretch your mind to see opportunities in places that are unconventional. You have to be willing to fail or make mistakes at things you’ve never done before. You’ll also need to be honest and test and challenge your assumptions rigorously.

If you want more tips on how to solve problems creatively, check out our article:

Adaptability & Flexibility

This is all about how easy it is for you to “fit in” wherever you go and adjust to new situations as they arise. These may include things like:

Also called adaptability skills, these are the study abroad soft skills set related to how good you are at going into new environments and find ways to “blend in” (read: behave appropriately) or just adjusting to new situations as they arise.
  • adapting to changing circumstances
  • high tolerance for ambiguity
  • making smooth transitions
  • learning quickly
  • coping with rejection

As you develop this skill set, you have learn how to be okay with discomfort. You’re going to make a lot of mistakes. But you can cut down your learning curve if you’re able to read other people and model your behavior appropriately.

It’s easy to lose yourself when you’re being adaptable, so it’s crucial that you have a strong sense of self and set some boundaries. Adapting doesn’t mean copying other people, it means acting appropriate for the situation.

Check out our article on being culturally flexible and adapting. It should help you avoid making some really huge mistakes along the way.

Think Critically

Solving problems in new environments requires you to make connections between (not obviously related) ideas and to be thoughtful. Here are some of the skills involved:

Liberal arts education is known for building critical thinking skills, but study abroad requires you to do something special.  You have to learn how to make connections in a context that is “foreign” to you. And develop the coping strategies to put together information as an outsider.
  • asking thoughtful questions (and practicing curiosity)
  • learning through listening and observation
  • reflecting on what you learned
  • analyzing information
  • evaluating your environment
  • applying knowledge to get a deeper understanding

Unfortunately, critical thinking is one of those skills that is important, but you’re rarely ever forced to develop and refine it in interpersonal & cultural spaces. You have to be deeply motivated to do so.

You can live abroad (for years) without having a thorough understanding of the deeper reasons people express their culture in a certain way. In fact, a lot of people complete their study abroad experience and spend the whole time just skimming the surface.

For example: You love talking about all of the food you ate while abroad. You might even be able to cook some of it… but you may have no idea about things like:

  • why people in your host country eat those dishes and what they symbolize
  • where the food comes from (fresh food agriculture or food processing) and how that affects the health of the people in the country
  • the political and institutional forces that drive whether or not certain people have access to food or whether hunger and starvation is a chronic social problems in certain communities

These are mental connections that study abroad students often don’t make (or even care to make). But this is an important part of what it means to think critically in the context of study abroad and internationalism.

If you want to practice thinking more critically about your study abroad experiences, check out our article on the topic.

Be Open Minded

More than any other skill, open mindedness is something you had to have in surplus before leaving for study abroad if you wanted to get a lot out of your experience. That skill includes:

People who have strong open mindedness skills are often those who seek out opportunities to stretch their perspectives and (respectfully) experiment with new ways of seeing the world and the people in it.
  • appreciating diversity
  • sensitivity to cultural differences
  • willingness to suspend judgement about other people and their ideas
  • ability to view problems from another’s perspective
  • desire to continuously seek out learning opportunities
  • inquisitiveness
  • willingness to try new things

A common (but very false) cliche is that travel *makes* you open minded. But that's not true at all. Have you ever heard of the “ugly American” stereotype? At its core, it's about the expectation around the world that people from the United States are *not* open minded to other cultures. 

However, if you really want to see yourself as a person who is open and curious about other cultures, this is definitely a skill to continue to develop and improve on.

One of the best ways to do that is by putting yourself in situations where you’re forced to stretch your empathy. Actively challenge yourself to think about problems from a different lens and a new perspective.

We have an article on how to be more open minded after study abroad, and a 60+ page activity book for some (fun) practical ideas on how to do the work.

General Adulting Skills

The rest of your study abroad soft skills are really just regular skills that all adults should develop. These include:

These are the study abroad interpersonal skill set that overlaps a lot with self management skills. These are all of the skills you already know, that every full functioning adult needs to develop over the course of their lifetime.
  • time management
  • travel and navigational skills
  • organization and ability to prioritize work
  • taking ownership of projects
  • leadership
  • confidence
  • independence
  • self reliance
  • maturity
  • emotional balance
  • self discipline
  • budgeting
  • responsibility
  • taking initiative

These are skills you can learn in a lot of different places, including: sports, student leadership, hobbies & activities, volunteering, at work, with your family, in interpersonal relationships, etc.

And you should continue to learn and develop those skills as well, whenever you get an opportunity to do so.

What's Next?

Study abroad is a wonderful place to build soft skills, but that’s not the end of your story. Now that you’re home keep working on all of your skills. If you need a little extra support, check out our skills inventory to learn more about your unique set of study abroad skills.