Cultural Adjustment

When you first get off the plane it can be surprising just to hear a different language being spoken everywhere.  After the original excitement of being abroad has worn off a bit, you may begin to get frustrated with differences, like language, technology, the food, and so on.  You will adjust as you become more accustomed to your new surroundings. Also be aware that you are not the only one feeling like this, there will be other people on your program that you can speak to who are experiencing some of the same emotions.  

What is Culture Shock?

Culture shock can be described as the feelings of disorientation and anxiety that many people experience as they encounter and try to adapt to the customs and expectations of a foreign culture.  Within any culture, natives grow up knowing what is expected of them in social, family, and societal settings—how to greet strangers, how to hold a knife and fork at a meal, what kind of food to serve at a particular holiday, etc.  

It can be difficult to adjust to life in a foreign culture because you suddenly realize that many of these types of customs and expectations, which seem so intuitive at home, can be unexpectedly different abroad!  Students studying in countries that seem culturally similar to the US (e.g., England, Australia) sometimes feel culture shock even more acutely than students studying in countries that seem very different from the US, because they do not usually anticipate the cultural differences that they ultimately discover in their host countries.  Be aware that culture shock can strike at any time (and to varying degrees) during your education abroad experience—you won’t necessarily experience it in the first week!  

Symptoms of Culture Shock

The signs of culture shock may manifest themselves in different ways for each student, but there are some common symptoms to watch for during your time abroad.

  • Extreme homesickness
  • Feelings of helplessness/dependency
  • Disorientation and isolation
  • Depression or sadness
  • Hyper-irritability, may include inappropriate anger or hostility
  • Sleep and eating disturbances (too little or too much)
  • Excessive critical reactions to host culture/stereotyping
  • Changes in drinking and drug use (increases or decreases)

Coping with Culture Shock

Staying active in your local community and not relying on constant communication with friends and family back home are some of the best ways to cope with culture shock.  Other suggestions are included in this list:

  • Get involved and join a student group or society and find your niche; it will be a great way to meet new friends and soon find familiarity in your new home away from home.
  • Reach out and get to know other students on your program and in your host country, even when you really feel that you would rather just be alone and block everything out.
  • Set up specific times to talk with friends or family back home so you are not constantly checking email, sending texts, and calling home
  • Learn to deal with ambiguity, uncertainty, and change—all of which are inevitable components of any international experience!
  • Be open to learning new ways of doing things, trying different foods, etc.
  • Get comfortable with feeling lost sometimes, and learn how to ask for help when you need it.
  • Do not expect everything to be perfect at all times—it will not be!
  • Try to keep a positive attitude.

Reverse Culture Shock

You may experience some sort of reverse culture shock when you return. This is to be expected since you have spent your time abroad trying to assimilate into a new culture. It will be an adjustment to get reacquainted with life in the U.S. since many things may seem foreign to you. Most likely, you will not be the same person you were when you left. Your views and outlook on how you approach various issues may have changed. You may develop a new appreciation for the U.S. as well as a critical eye for things you no longer like. Try to remember what it was like to adapt to your study abroad site and realize that it will take some time to get used to life in the U.S. again. Numerous resources for a smooth re-entry are provided in the Returnees and Alumni section of our website.

Cultural Expectations

It takes time to truly know a culture. There will be things you can visually see that are part of the culture such as dress, behaviors, customs and symbols. However, there are a number of items which are unseen and take some time to know and understand. This includes assumptions, beliefs, world views, attitudes and more.  Be cognizant of the culture around you, both visible and invisible. We challenge you to look beyond the visible cultural items and dig a little deeper. How can you learn more about the invisible cultural items? Perhaps speak with locals including your host family (if applicable). You could also ask questions of the program staff on-site.

Communicating Across Cultures

Depending on where you are studying abroad you may experience a culture very different from your own when trying to communicate with locals. 

High Context Cultures

The Middle East, Africa, and Latin America are considered high context cultures due to tendencies to leaving many things unsaid and letting the culture explain. Words, and word choice become very important in communication because few words can communicate a complex message.  

  • Characteristics: Relational, collectivistic, intuitive, and contemplative
  • Communication style: Indirect, flowery language, humility, read between the lines and non-verbal. 
  • Work Style/Ethic: Team- and relationship- oriented. 
  • Friendships: Fewer, tighter, and more long-term.
  • Time: Time is open and flexible. Process is more important than product. 

Low Context Cultures

North America, most of Western Europe, and Australia/New Zealand are considered low context cultures where communicators tend to be much more explicit and the value of a single word is much less important. 

  • Characteristics: Logical, linear, individualistic, action-oriented.
  • Communication style: Direct, straight-forward, concise, explicit, clear, and simple. Focus on verbal, not on body language. 
  • Work Style/Ethic: Task-oriented, individualistic. 
  • Friendships: Many, looser, and short-term. Tasks are more important than relationships.
  • Time: Time is highly organized. Product is more important than process. 

Tips for Adjustment

  • Break out of your comfort zone and make yourself experience everyday life.  Go to the market, visit the zoo, go to the movies.  Take note of how the locals walk, talk, and interact with one another.
  • Exercise respect for cultural norms.  If you're meeting a friend and they are 20 minutes late (per cultural norms), don't let it bother you.  You can still arrive places promptly if you prefer, but don't expect the same from others if that's not how time works in local society.
  • Ask for help!  If you feel like you're having trouble adjusting, don't be afraid to ask friends or local professors and staff to assist you in making sense of your new environment.