When students travel abroad, it is likely that they will find themselves in situations where their patterns of cultural behavior will differ from those of their host country. How students deal with these situations will have a big impact on their experience, so it is important that they prepare themselves and understand what to expect from their experiences. Study abroad is considered an opportunity for cultural exchange and development, but these changes do not occur spontaneously - they take work!
Culture is central to peoples' identities, but it can be hard to define or understand. Though students may be experts in their own cultural experiences, they are likely to experience difficulties trying to communicate effectively and appropriately with people from other cultures during their time abroad.
What is culture?
Culture is often defined as the customs, beliefs, social institutions, and attitudes associated with a particular social group. Some aspects of culture are easily recognized; for example, things such as food, language, clothing, and music. Other aspects of culture such as values, beliefs, attitudes towards family, time, and friendship are less easy to understand, but are just as important.
Before You Go
Learning about your host culture in advance will help students feel more prepared and able to engage with locals more effectively and have a fulfilling experience abroad.
- Self-reflect - Culture is shaped by personal experiences that may include: ethnic and racial identity; religion; age; educational level; body size; heritage and family tradition; physical and cognitive abilities; sexual orientation; gender identity; and geographic and socioeconomic experiences. Students should consider how they have been affected by these factors throughout their lives and how has informed their perspective on the world.
- Research your destination - Students should look for basic information about their host country - what are their cultural norms related to behavior, dress, food, religion, and more?
- Prepare for highs and lows - No one said that cultural adjustment was easy, but if students can anticipate potential issues, things will go much more smoothly while abroad. Try to identify aspects of the host culture that may be challenging and develop a plan to manage them.
Continue thinking about culture while abroad.
- Be flexible - Remember that there are logical reasons why people do things the way they do - just because something is different does not mean it is wrong.
- Expand your comfort zone - Participate in the local culture as much as possible; unplug from technology and pay attention to how locals interact with each other. Seek new experiences, suspend judgment, and engage with the surroundings.
- Continue to self-reflect - Keeping a journal or blog is a great way to process new experiences and develop cultural awareness. It can also help students work through the stages of culture shock, discussed in the next section.
Culture shock is a feeling of disorientation or anxiety experienced when we are confronted with an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes. Everyone experiences some degree of culture shock - students should anticipate this as a normal part of the study abroad experience.
Culture shock typically occurs in five phases. As students spend time abroad they can expect to move through each phase. Some students spend more time in one phase than others, but it is important to know that culture shock is normal, and that you will move through each phase eventually until you have adjusted and feel more comfortable in your host culture.
- Honeymoon: The initial period of excitement from the thrill of being in a new environment
- Withdrawal / Culture Shock: A feeling of frustration with the new culture and ways of doing things, accompanied by stress, irritability, and possibly depression
- Understanding / Adjustment: Becoming more familiar with a new environment and engaging with the local culture
- Acceptance / Acclimation: Beginning to feel like they belong and finding a niche in the host culture
- Re-entry / Reverse Culture Shock: A feeling of disorientation due to changed perspectives; a sense that "home" is not perfect or totally familiar
If you continue to experience symptoms of culture shock for a long period of time and/or these symptoms begin to impact your daily life, please consider seeking help. These reactions are normal; nevertheless, there are occasions when culture shock may stir up other issues which could affect your ability to have a fulfilling international experience. Reach out to your faculty director, on-site coordinator, or other individuals for support.