Cultural Adaptation

Living abroad can be hard, in part because you have to make so many adjustments to your daily routine as well as to your preconceived notions about life abroad and your personal beliefs. Balancing these adjustments can be tricky, and sometimes students find themselves feeling overwhelmed by so much change at once.

What is culture shock?

Culture shock is defined as feelings of alienation and/or disorientation due to being in an unfamiliar cultural environment. Whether you are staying for two weeks, two months or two years, you may experience this while abroad. Experts often describe culture shock as being a linear process with four stages:

  • Honeymoon phase: You have just arrived in your host country, and you are excited to immerse yourself in the new culture and intrigued by the differences that you encounter.
  • Negotiation phase: Usually after a few weeks, this newness wears off and your sense of adventure gives way to aggravation over issues such as difficulty in communication or anxiety over “looking foreign” and being treated differently (for example). The smallest of obstacles might take on epic proportions.
  • Adjustment phase: At this point, you start to adjust to cultural differences and develop new patterns of daily living that both fit with the new culture and work for you.
  • Mastery phase: Most students will not be abroad long enough to reach this phase; it comes after a year (usually more) of living abroad and means that you are equally comfortable with your home culture and your “new” culture.

You may not go through all of these phases, nor are the timelines given set in stone. Some students may skip the honeymoon phase and become frustrated within days of their arrival; others may experience these feelings towards the end of their program. The intensity of culture shock may depend upon how different your host country is from your U.S. environment, but not always!

Common characteristics of culture shock

While everyone experiences culture shock differently, there are some common characteristics for many people:

  • Feelings of loneliness and isolation that go beyond homesickness
  • Frustration or even anger over difficulty in accomplishing basic tasks such as grocery shopping, navigating public transportation, etc.
  • Feelings of incompetence or feeling “stupid” because language barriers prevent effective communication with locals
  • Sleep disruption (insomnia or sleeping too much)
  • Resentment of cultural differences between home and host country, or believing that your home culture is “superior” to the host culture
  • Stereotyping of or hostility towards locals
  • Depression (mild to severe)

It’s important to note that if you are feeling this way, it is usually normal! When you grow up learning one way of life, it can be very jarring to go abroad as an adult and find yourself in a completely different environment. Even seasoned travelers can experience culture shock under the right circumstances. The good news is that you can do something about it.

Ways to cope with culture shock

  • Be proactive! Research some of the cultural customs of your country before you depart. Knowledgeable students usually have an easier transition once abroad.
  • Remind yourself of why you decided to study abroad. Most students enter this experience expecting it to be very different than anything at home. Studying abroad is a wonderful opportunity for personal growth and development, and at least some personal discomfort should be expected in the process. In fact, if you don’t experience any sort of culture shock, are you really challenging yourself to become a part of the culture?
  • Keep your sense of humor. Being able to laugh at yourself or at your situation can be one of the best remedies!
  • Develop relationships with people from your host country. Think about how you might react to a foreign student who was frustrated with U.S. culture. If they had questions, you would probably happily answer them, right? Give the people of your host country a chance—one thing that is nearly universal is peoples’ enthusiasm to share their culture with others. Don’t be afraid to ask your new friends about local traditions or behaviors that are frustrating or confusing to you. You can also ask on-site staff for information.
  • Try not to retreat to your room or only socialize with other Americans. This can often reinforce negative feelings and make it even harder to acclimate to your new environment.
  • Try to find groups or clubs similar to the ones that you were a part of back home. Just because you’re abroad doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy many, if not all, of the same activities as you normally would!
  • Contacting friends/family/support networks at home can be very helpful, particularly friends who have previously studied abroad. However, we do not recommend daily communication, as this may delay the adjustment process and serves as a daily reminder of what you are “missing” back home.

Student Perspectives

Student bloggers on adjusting to a new culture