Culture Shock

Whether you are studying in a different city in the United States, traveling to Europe, or to the other side of the world, you are going to be confronted with a different culture. There will probably be differences in language, values, appearances, status, and a number of other factors.

Culture Shock

Culture shock is a result of the contradiction between accustomed patterns of behaviors and attempting to maintain them in a new cultural environment. It can be accompanied by feelings of homesickness, helplessness, isolation, sadness, hostility, irritability, sleeping and eating disturbances, and loss of focus. It is important to recognize these symptoms and to understand that they are completely normal.

Stages of Culture Shock:

Preliminary stage: farewell activities and preparation for departure.

Honeymoon stage: a short period of initial euphoria after arrival where everything is exciting, quaint, novel and new.

Culture stress: fatigue associate with practicing new behaviors in a new culture.

Culture shock: disorientation or irritability resulting from unrealistic expectations, confronting values different from our own, and the loss of the familiar network of friends and family.  Be sure to notice this, prepare for it, and use this time for self-assessment and cultural learning.

Gradual adaptation: without noticing, you will become more familiar with the subtleties of the culture and feel more comfortable in it.

Adaptation and biculturalism: the development of an ability to function in the host culture, a decreased sense of foreignness, assimilation of the changes, and acceptance things that you cannot change.

Re-entry: less expected, the shock of returning home when you realize that you, and home, have changed.

Tips for dealing with Culture Shock

  • Prepare for culture shock and understand the signs and symptoms. Realize that some discomfort is a normal part of the cross-cultural experience.
  • Do research on your host culture and speak with international students or other students who have studied in the same culture.  This will help you develop realistic expectations for your experience and identify potential sources of stress.
  • Make connections, with other students on your program but especially with new people.  Avoid socializing exclusively with other members of your home culture, but do not culturally isolate yourself. Make an effort to meet new people.
  • Keep healthy through diet and regular exercise.
  • What helps you de-stress at home will likely help in a new setting. Use what you know - talking to people, prayer/meditation, journaling, exercise, artwork, etc. - to help you cope with almost inevitable stress from the adjustment process. If you don't have stress management strategies, give this serious thought before you travel. The best defense is a good offense.
  • Recognize symptoms of stress so that you can manage it before it gets out of control. When you feel sad or depressed, ask for help from on-site staff and friends.  Develop a support network.
  • Use this time of irritability for cultural learning and self-assessment. Try to understand the logical, historical reasons behind host culture patterns.
  • Give yourself quiet time and private space to reflect.

The University of the Pacific created a website specifically dedicated to train students to go abroad.

Check out What’s Up With Culture? to better prepare yourself for your time abroad.