Cultural Adjustment

After spending some time in a different culture, some people may develop some sort of cultural shock. We’re holding on tightly to our own culture while trying to adapt to something new and this is normal! You might find it frustrating in a new place, new school, far away from friends, family, support, and it may hit you that you will be there for quite some time. You might even experience a whole range of emotions.

stages of Culture Shock

You can expect to go through an initial period of euphoria and excitement as you are overwhelmed by the thrill of being in a totally new and unusual environment. This initial period is filled with details of getting settled into housing, scheduling classes, meeting new friends, and a tendency to spend a great deal of time with other U.S. students, both during orientation activities and free time.

As this initial sense of “adventure” wears off, you may gradually become aware that your old habits and routine ways of doing things are no longer relevant. A bit of frustration can be expected, and you may find yourself becoming unusually irritable, resentful and even angry. Minor problems suddenly assume the proportions of major crises and you may grow somewhat depressed. Your stress and sense of isolation may affect your eating and sleeping habits. You may write letters, send e-mails, or call home criticizing the new environment and indicating that you are having a terrible time adjusting to the new country. Symptoms include anxiety, sadness and homesickness.
The human psyche is extremely flexible and most students weather this initial period and make personal and academic adjustments as the months pass. They may begin to spend less time with Americans and more time forming friendships with local people. They often forget to communicate home.
Finally, when the adjustment is complete, most students begin to feel enthusiastic, and that they are finally in tune with their surroundings, neither praising nor criticizing the culture, but becoming, to some extent, part of it.
Lastly, this is the stage where you make preparations to leave your host country and return home. You realize it’s time to say goodbye to friends. You’ll feel reluctant to leave, but you’re finally going home! While it seems unlikely you’ll experience any sort of shock, you may actually have quite a bit of catching up to do on what you missed while you were away! Those initial feelings will return and you may go through many frustrating emotions again as you try to incorporate all the different aspects of your international experience with your life at home in the United States, but you will be okay. Most students will experience SOME sort of culture shock. Everyone experiences it at different levels.

Symptoms of Culture Shock

If you continue to experience these symptoms for a long period of time, and/or these symptoms begin to impact your functioning (school, work, family), please consider seeking help. Such reactions are normal responses to abnormal situations and are to be expected under the circumstances. They are usually transitory—lasting a couple of days or weeks—and do not imply mental illness or an inability to cope. Nevertheless, there are occasions when the experience of culture shock can stir up deeper emotional issues:
  • Chronic physical symptoms (e.g., headache, stomach ache)
  • Sadness
  • Difficulty studying or working
  • Frequent crying
  • Nervousness
  • Relationship stress
  • Feeling sick often
  • Irritability/anger/frustration
  • Withdrawal from others
  • Extreme homesickness
  • Intense feelings of loyalty to native culture
  • Over– or under-eating
  • Boredom
  • Excessive sleep
  • Poor academic performance

Here are some helpful tips:

  • Before leaving, get to know your host country a little. Learn as much as you can about basic etiquette, timekeeping, the governmental structure, prevalent religions, and other cultural customs.
  • Don’t worry about losing your home values or yourself. You won’t.
  • Enjoying and partaking in local customs doesn’t make you less of an American. It will open the door to understanding.
  • Make new friends!
  • Keep in mind it’s not better or worse, it’s just different.
  • Be careful not to impose your thoughts and norms on others.
  • Stay open-minded and curious to cultural difference.
  • Make an effort to learn a little of the local language and don’t worry about mistakes. People abroad will appreciate your efforts.
  • Be patient.
  • Be flexible and adaptable.
  • Keep your mind busy and be active!
  • Be sure to have a good sense of humor and willing to laugh at yourself!

And here's what you can do if you are experiencing Culture Shock:

  • Realize what you are going through is normal and temporary.
  • If you're having difficulties, talk with someone about them.
  • Take care of yourself - eat well, exercise, and be sure to get enough sleep!
  • Do something you like if you're feeling down in the dumps! Or join a club, get involved!
  • Travel or explore the city you are in!
  • Don't take anything too seriously or let others get on your nerves.
  • Try to regain stability. Form routines again.
  • And again, be patient and open-minded! A good sense of humor will go a long way!