What is Culture Shock?
Leaving home and traveling to study in a new country can be a stressful experience. Even though it may be something you have planned and prepared for, the extent of the change and the effects studying abroad can have on you may take you by surprise.
"Culture shock" describes the impact of moving from a familiar culture to one which is unfamiliar. It is an experience familiar to anyone who has traveled abroad to live, work, or study. It can even affect people who are just overseas on a brief holiday. The effects result from the stresses of a new environment, meeting lots of new people, and learning the language and the ways of a different culture. Culture shock also can come from the ordeal of being separated from your friends, family, colleagues, and other people you would normally talk to in times of uncertainty. When familiar sights, sounds, taste, and smells are suddenly no longer there, you may find yourself missing them very much and feeling miserable in your new surroundings. If. This is a completely normal part of living in a new culture, and should be embraced rather than feared. After all, the fact that you are experiencing culture shock means that you are getting out of your comfort zone, learning, and growing. According to a study aconducted by the University of Minnesota, a reason that some students do NOT experience culture shock is because they surround themselves with friends and food from their home culture rather than exploring their host country. If you don't want to experience life abroad, why leave home? Although each person experiences culture shock to some degree, it is important to remember that it is a very personal experience and affects each individual differently. There are some general phases, however, that can be used to describe the cycle of cross-cultural adjustment.
Stage 1: Initial Euphoria
You arrive in your study abroad location and everything seems exciting and different. The food is exotic, the architecture is unique, and you're interested in all the new sights around you. You tend to be more in-tune to the visible aspects of your new culture, and don't see the hidden differences. This phase is one in which most tourists remain during a short visit to a new country.
Stage 2: Cultural Confrontation
Your initial excitement diminishes as the process of cultural adjustment begins. Everything seems much more difficult than it is at home, and even getting to and from class without losing your way is a major accomplishment. Communication is challenging, even if you are living in an English-speaking country! As you have more interaction with your new culture, you become frustrated with differences, particularly those you don't understand. Things you may find challenging in your host country include concepts of time, personal space, meal schedules and food, gender relations, and the need to walk or use public transportation. Homesickness emerges as you long for the food, friends, and conveniences of home. You have mood swings as you fluctuate from enthusiasm to frustration with your host culture. You may find yourself gravitating towards other foreign students, as they can relate to your challenges. While these friends can provide a great support system, you should also attempt to develop friendships with people from your host country.
Stage 3: Cultural Adjustment
You slowly develop strategies for coping with cultural differences. You learn to observe those around you, and to be open-minded. You identify a cultural informant (a friend, host family member, or program director) who can help you better understand aspects of your new culture. You regain your sense of humor, and take pride in small accomplishments. While other foreign students continue to be friends, you also make efforts to meet members of your host country. While you continue to experience challenges, you feel more comfortable and confident in your host culture.
Stage 4: Cultural Adaptation
You now feel comfortable in your host country, and have established a routine. You have integrated aspects of your host culture into your daily life, and have developed an appreciation for differences. You are able to communicate more easily, and have made friends. While you look forward to seeing friends and family at the end of your program, you know that you will miss living abroad.
Stage 5: Cultural Re-adaptation: Returning Home
Upon your return home, you may find that you pass through all of the above cycles again. At first, you're thrilled to see familiar faces and places. You don't expect to have any problems readjusting; after all, you are home. You find, however, that you miss aspects of your host culture. You see your home culture in a new light. You have changed, and so have your family and friends. You struggle to describe your study abroad experience to those who hope for a one-sentence response. You find yourself gravitating to other study abroad returnees, as they understand what you are going through. Eventually, you reconcile your new self and your old life, and identify ways in which to keep your study abroad experience alive.
Past study abroad participants have identified the following suggestions for students adapting to a new culture:
- Identify a cultural informant. This may be a member of your host family, another student, or program staff member who is willing to listen to your frustrations and help explain cultural differences.
- Get involved at your university or in your community. Many universities have clubs or extracurricular activities. Consider volunteering in your host community to gain a different perspective on life in your host country.
- Keep a journal, which can be a valuable record of your personal responses and the details of your study abroad experience, something to look back on in later years.
- Explore your host city.
- Maintain physical activity.
- Take things one step at a time; don't expect too much from yourself too soon.
- If you miss food from home, offer to cook a meal for your host family or friends.
- Maintain your sense of humor; it will be your most valuable asset!
If you or a friend experience severe symptoms of culture shock such as repeated risky behavior, depression, or personality changes, please let a staff member know immediately.