Culture Shock

It is one thing to tour a country, but it’s another to live and function according to different, often mysterious norms. You have to function in unfamiliar social settings without a clear understanding of how to succeed. So, there will undoubtedly be some stress involved with adapting to a new environment and possibly learning to communicate in a second language. The new cultural elements you encounter may be so different that they seem “shocking” in comparison to cultural norms you are used to at home.

You may have the impression that the other culture is not normal, because it follows a different version of ‘normality’ than the one you’re used to. On the flip side, the locals in your host country might view your ‘normal’ behaviors as ‘abnormal’. Just remember, the American way is not the only way or even the best way—it’s just one way. Cultures are complex, functional wholes, and deviations are not abnormal, better or worse, right or wrong: just different.

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The difference between your expectations and what you actually experience is where you may begin to find problems in adjusting abroad. The closer your expectations will match reality, the less shocking your experience will be. When travelers begin to ask themselves questions like, "What have I gotten myself into?" "What am I doing here?" "What is the matter with these people?" you can be pretty sure that some degree of transition shock is present.  

Culture shock is a learning experience and leads to broader perspectives, more tolerance, and greater appreciation for your new culture and your home culture. It forces you to learn about your personal limits and strengths. By working through it, you will discover that you are capable of tackling unforeseen problems and gain confidence about your ability to handle such situations in the future. 

Culture shock is not an exact step-by-step process; adjustment is not accomplished in a few days, but rather, it’s an on-going process. Every student doesn’t experience culture shock the same way or at the same time. Stress affects everyone differently. Can culture shock be avoided altogether? Probably not, is the short answer. Can it be minimized? Yes, absolutely! The key is to recognize the symptoms of culture shock and to work through them.

Some sources of stress overseas are similar to the ones we encounter at home, but they may become magnified in a new setting. A "bad day" at home can often be more quickly resolved. The sources of stress abroad can be a bit harder to identify and deal with.

Some examples: tired of the food, finding the university incomprehensible and bureaucratic, frustration with the confusing public transportation that doesn’t seem to work well, long walks to classes, your room doesn’t look the way you expected, you thought you mastered the host language but no one seems to understand you or just replies back in English, you’re attempting to make "foreign" friends, but finding this does not result in the kinds of relationships you had hoped to have, host students don’t seem interested in making friends with you, your expectations and preconceptions of what life would be like turn out to be naïve, idealistic or stereotypical, you make every effort to learn the culture but fail to make the kind of progress you expected.

HONEYMOON - Initial euphoria and excitement

  • Superficial, tourist-like feeling and experiences in the new culture
  • You feel you fall in love with the new environment
  • The sights, sounds, and tastes are all a new adventure and intriguing
  • Cultural exhilaration
  • Meeting new friends

HOSTILITY - Irritation and frustration

  • You start focusing on the differences between home and the new. Stereotypes and prejudices start appearing (fear and mistrust of locals)
  • You become easily stressed out by small problems and feel frustrated
  • You begin to miss home, your family and friends
  • You feel like an outsider
  • Anxiety and sometimes depression in varying degrees

Finding HUMOR and perspective

  • You are beginning to become more comfortable and competent with the new culture
  • You like some parts of the new culture even better than that of your home country
  • You are never going to like everything, and you're learning to deal with it
  • You start to better understand local culture and customs and picking up on cultural clues you missed before
  • You begin to relax in new situations and to laugh at minor mistakes and misunderstandings

Feeling at HOME - adaptation

  • You are no longer negatively affected by differences between two cultures
  • You’re living, and enjoying your new environment to your full potential
  • You adopted some of the cultural norms of the host country but still have managed to retain your own cultural identity
  • Things that seemed like a “crisis” may now simply be seen as different ways of doing things

Being aware of this cycle of cultural adjustment will allow you to better understand your reactions during your time abroad.

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  • Homesickness
  • Unexplainable crying, sensitivity, anger, irritability, hostility (towards locals)
  • Feelings of helplessness, dependency
  • Anxiety, worry, depression, sadness
  • Withdrawal, isolation, being unusually introspective
  • Difficulty concentrating, making decisions, completing tasks
  • Unusually poor academic performance
  • Physical ailments or psychosomatic ailments
  • Sleeplessness, lack of energy, constantly feeling tired
  • Compulsive behavior (eating, drinking or shopping)
  • Exaggerated cleanliness, obsession with hygiene

 

The process of adapting to a foreign culture is mostly about change, and the change must occur in you.  But "trying harder" without understanding the "rules" of the culture tends to compound the problem rather than resolve it. Your reactions to situations can cause more problems than the situations themselves.

Recognize the value of culture shock: just as an athlete cannot get in shape without going through the uncomfortable conditioning stage, so you cannot fully appreciate the cultural differences without first going through the uncomfortable stages of psychological adjustment. The process is necessary to make the transition from one culture to another; it helps you balance out and adjust. The learning process can be a bit painful, but the good news is that this indicates that learning is occurring and that you are getting better at understanding the culture and about yourself.

It is important to know how to deal with stress while you are away. Use the coping mechanisms that work best for you. Identify what helps you manage stress. 

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Here are some more suggestions that might help overcome culture shock:

NEW ENVIRONMENT

  • Set up your room thoughtfully, making it feel as home-like and comfortable as you can
  • Get your bearings by exploring your surroundings (food stores, ATMs, laundry facilities, post office and “local hangouts”)
  • Immerse yourself in the new culture - be more than just a tourist
  • Learn about the host culture by observing (how people dress, greet each other, carry themselves) and by asking questions (it’s easier to appreciate cultural differences when you understand them)
  • Adjust your schedule to the rhythm of the host culture (i.e. meal times, study habits, time off)
  • Take care of yourself by getting enough sleep, exercising and eating healthy meals
  • Set up daily routines

NEW PEOPLE

  • Get to know your roommates and/or host family
  • Interact as quickly as possible with a wide range of local people. Do not expect local people to come and find you - make efforts yourself. They can explain customs, and introduce you to things that tourists never experience.
  • Meet other international or VT students. However, also make a conscious decision to take yourself away from U.S. students. It can be easier to make connections with locals when alone.
  • Find an individual or group who share your interests

ATTITUDE

  • Have flexibility, adaptability, a positive attitude, persistence, an open mind, humility, empathy, contentment, a sense of adventure
  • Set small goals, you will feel a sense of accomplishment
  • Expect to feel frustrated/homesick/depressed sometimes - your emotions are normal
  • Recognize  that emotional reactions are not always subject to rational control
  • Acknowledge culture shock as a transitional period of adjustment and that it will pass
  • Keep your sense of humor! Cultural mistakes and blunders are inevitable. It’s okay to occasionally make a fool of yourself and have everyone laugh at you.
  • Be patient with yourself; don’t be too hard on yourself when making cultural mistakes
  • Have faith in yourself and have faith that your study abroad experience will be positive
  • Look for positive aspects in every experience. You’ll be wedging them into conversations for years to come…

BE ACTIVE

  • Stay busy! Be active - mentally, physically and socially. Join a club or sports team, go hiking, attend school events, sport events, visit tourist attractions and museums.
  • Learn the new language; don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Everyone likes to hear even simple words in their native tongue. It shows you respect the people and their culture.
  • Get involved with aspects of the host culture that you can’t easily do at home (participate in or observe a (religious) ceremony or ritual, learn how to prepare a local dish, or learn to play a local game. Do not fear losing your home values or personal values. To partake in the customs of your host country will not make you less of an American.
  • Make it a point to step outside of your comfort zone. It will allow you to grow (try a new restaurant, visit the other side of town, volunteer in the community, learn how to tango)
  • On the flip side, give yourself "quiet time". Take a lazy day from time to time: grab a book and a coffee, sit in a park and watch the world go by. Relax, enjoy and soak it all in.

SUPPORT SYSTEM

  • Create a support system within your new environment (friends, resident director, and faculty)
  • Get tips and support from people who have already gone through this adjustment cycle
  • Express your feelings (to friends or in a journal)
  • Limit the time you keep in touch with family and friends at home
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  • Fighting against the culture
  • Blaming your host country
  • Judging the people of the country by a single person with whom you’ve had trouble
  • Adopting an “us versus them” mentality as a bonding mechanism
  • Complaining about how inferior practices are, focusing on what you see as weaknesses or what a foreign culture is lacking
  • Falling into self-pity, worries, paranoia, negativity
  • Spending time with fellow study abroad students who exhibit a consistently negative attitude toward your host country; they can drag you down
  • Going native - totally adopting the culture as one's own and losing your own identity
  • Overly romanticizing your home culture
  • Letting your culture shock turn into culture fear