Coping with Cultural Adjustment
A major part of the adjustment process when studying off campus is the inevitable culture shock you will face in your host destination. Culture shock refers to the anxiety and disorientation felt when people live and operate within a different cultural or social environment. Expect to feel a bit uncomfortable at times. And remember that the greatest opportunities for personal growth come from those situations when you challenge yourself to be uncomfortable – this adjustment is normal and a sign that you are doing things right.
Recognize that culture shock consists of different stages, which will be experienced in different ways and to different degrees depending on the person.
Stage 1: Anticipating Departure
Before leaving for your program, you are often both excited about and wary of the upcoming challenges of your trip.
Stage 2: Initial Enthusiasm Highpoint, or "Honeymoon Stage"
Upon arriving in a new culture you may find everything to be new, different, exciting, and fascinating. These initial feelings (sometimes referred to as “the honeymoon stage”), may last anywhere from a couple of weeks to a few months.
Stage 3: Initial Culture Shock
The novelty of the new culture eventually wears off and you confront difficulties stemming from the loss of familiar cultural cues and symbols. The resulting frustrations and annoyances are commonly referred to as “culture shock.”
Stage 4: Initial Adjustment
Things tend to get better as you develop language and culture skills and learn to navigate in the host culture. Many of the uncomfortable reactions to culture shock gradually dissolve. You may begin to see a balance between the positive and negative aspects of the host culture.
Stage 5: Further Culture Shock
Here you confront deeper issues as you may again feel an increase in frustration as you confront larger cultural and personal difficulties. Sometimes deeper personal issues surface at this point. The result may be feelings of detachment, isolation, boredom, and a lack of motivation.
Stage 6: Further Adjustment
After resolving some of the feelings of isolation, you may feel more and more comfortable in your host culture. You may develop strong relationships with non-Americans. You may gain a better understanding of the major differences and deeper aspects of the culture. You may integrate aspects of the culture into your own identity so that host culture becomes part of your personality. During this time you may start to feel less like a visitor and more like you belong in the host culture. A few weeks before returning home, participants often think a lot about what it will be like once they return home. You may experience:
Stage 7: Anticipating the Return Home
Feelings of anxiety may increase as you think about leaving what has become your home, about how much you have changed, and about how those changes will be perceived by friends and family at home.
Then, participants must again adjust when they return home and go back to campus, moving through:
Stage 8: Re-entry Adjustment
Many of the above phases of adjustment may repeat themselves, with varying intensity, as participants readjust to being home.
Please refer to the OCP page on resources for returning students for information on reverse cultural adjustment.
Know that there are steps you can take to reduce the challenges and instead gain personal growth from culture shock.
Recognize culture shock
Culture shock refers to the feelings of surprise, confusion, and anxiety that you may experience when you come into contact with a culture that is different from your own. See above for information on recognizing the signs and stages of culture shock.
Whatever your reasons for picking a program or host culture, it is useful to reflect on how you see yourself, as well as how you might be perceived by others. The most valuable thing you can do for yourself is to learn about and become more aware of your own culture in order to better understand and respect other cultures in the world.
Keep an open mind
It is important to be flexible and patient. You need to risk new ways of thinking and behaving in order to support your general well-being and learning while off campus; otherwise, you will have missed opportunities. Don’t make judgments about people without knowing their values and true motives; understand that people prioritize things in their lives according to their value system. If you approach your experience with an open mind, you will have fewer problems adapting, be more resistant to feelings of depression, and become more independent.
Ignite your curiosity
Lacking genuine interest in someone else’s experience and perspective will only lead you to isolate yourself and give you a narrower view of the world. A sense of curiosity and willingness to learn, on the other hand, will help you expand the lens through which you see everything. In some ways, your transition is similar to childhood, because everything is new; even basic tasks like eating have a new significance. You can spark your curiosity by living in the present moment, dropping assumptions and judgments, asking thoughtful questions, and being an active listener.
Be willing to adapt
We all need to adapt our thinking and behavior as we enter a new culture or travel to an environment that is different from what we are familiar with. Don’t insist on your way of doing things unless you want to maintain the typical stereotype of Americans. If you are not willing to change your behavior, you will often miss out on opportunities to interact with locals and form friendships.
Adapting your own behavior to match the local pattern will also allow you to test your own theories about cultural expectations. Remember, your assumptions about the motivations and values behind people’s actions may be misguided or wrong until you confirm or change these assumptions by interacting with your hosts. Interacting with your hosts is crucial, as it will allow you to see the things you share in common with them, as well as the differences in how you act and experience the world.
Stay true to yourself
While you should not insist on your way of doing things, trying to "go native” will probably not help that much either. It is better to follow the philosophy of “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” without actually “going Roman.” This involves living with the people, as the people, and for the people, without actually becoming the people (Slimbach). Try to observe the cultural norms as much as possible, but only within your personal boundaries. For example, if you are in a city that is predominantly Catholic, don’t fake being Catholic--but don’t dismiss all Catholic events either (Williamson).
Beware of “third cultures”
You will likely experience the formation of a “third culture” while studying off campus. For example, a close group of American students from the same program studying abroad in Spain may go out to Spanish bars and discotecas every night and enjoy these aspects of the culture, but without making much effort to speak Spanish or meet Spaniards. This is a “third culture” that is not completely American anymore, but not really Spanish either. Beware that it is easy to fall into this sort of “bubble” with other students from home--speaking English, staying in constant contact with others via skype and the internet, etc. Over time, however, students tend to show fewer “third culture” characteristics. But also remember that your time off campus is limited, so the sooner you try to break out of your bubble, the better!
Take advantage of opportunities for conversation with those around you (neighbors, shopkeepers, etc.). If you are living with a host family or foreign student, chatting with these individuals will help teach you about their experiences and values. Many people cite their conversations with locals as one of the most valuable parts of their study abroad experience.
Find a mentor
Having a mentor in your host culture can help you understand, reflect on, and more effectively respond to living and learning in a new culture. Ask your host program about local programs that offer this sort of "cultural mentor," or consider seeking one out on your own; your cultural mentor could be anyone from a student at the local university, a local restaurant owner, or a congregant of a local temple, mosque, or church. Finding a mentor, and meeting frequently with him or her, can help dramatically increase your intercultural learning. Your mentor could help you with such topics and skills as language learning, becoming culturally self-aware, suspending quick and negative judgments about people and events, communicating more flexibly, and reflecting on your overall growth and learning.
Be considerate of different behavior
Although people`s actions may at times surprise you or rub you the wrong way, the best way you can respond is by making educated guesses about why people have acted the way they did, asking questions about their actions or expectations, and then learning from the experience. It is crucial to show tolerance, outreach, and understanding for people who may act differently than you expect or are used to.
Gain firsthand experience
Interaction and observation are necessary in order to see and understand the less visible elements of another culture. You should strive to meet people, interact, and begin to see the world from their perspective. In order to truly understand others, this should be an active, two-way process of crossing into another culture and communicating with individuals in your host culture. It should go deeper than just knowing cultural differences, especially the obvious ones like food and clothing. You will need to interact on a practical, day-to-day level. Don't forget the value of authentic, primary experience—remember that much of the world can only be known directly, face-to-face, and from touching and doing with your hands (Slimbach). And finally, know that, once you have taken the time to get to know your host culture, you have the right and responsibility to form opinions based on your own experience—even if it goes against the mainstream at home.
Duke, Steven Taylor. Preparing to Study Abroad: Learning to Cross Cultures. Sterling, VA: Stylus, LLC., 2014.
Slimbach, Richard. Becoming World Wise: A Guide to Global Learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus Pub., LLC, 2010.
Smith, Alex. Study U Abroad: The 5 Keys to Unlock Your Awesomeness and Transform Your World. 2014.
Twombly, Susan B., Mark H. Salisbury, Shannon D. Tumanut, and Paul Klute. Study Abroad in a New Global Century: Renewing the Promise, Refining the Purpose. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Periodicals, 2012.
Vande Berg, Michael, Jeffrey Connor-Linton, and Michael Paige. "The Georgetown Consortium Project: Interventions for Student Learning Abroad." Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad 18 (2009).
Williamson, Wendy. Study Abroad 101. Kalamazoo, MI: Agapy Pub., 2004.