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Dealing With Culture Shock

We've all heard of culture shock and if we've ever moved out of our familiar home surroundings we have experienced it to some degree. We may not have labeled it as such, but we have experienced it. You may, for example, still remember adjusting to life on campus: the excitement of meeting new friends, experiencing the university academic setting, the frustration of trying to organize your time and meet deadlines and settling into your college career. Adjusting to a foreign setting will present similar experiences, but will offer its own challenges and require special skills for coping.

Learning the phases of cultural adjustment, recognizing normal symptoms of culture shock, acquiring strategies for coping while abroad and acknowledging when you need help are the main aspects of cultural adjustment covered in this web site.

Do not underestimate the impact culture shock will exert on your experience abroad, and do not for one fleeting moment think you will be immune. Those who do not take the time nor make the effort to learn about themselves, culture shock and their host country will face more severe, longer lasting culture shock. Students tend to be rather resilient and open-minded; and therefore, do cope quite smoothly if they are mentally prepared for the experience. So embrace the concept of culture shock, recognize the realities and begin your journey prepared.

We'll begin by answering a few commonly asked questions posed concerning cultural adjustment. I would like to say here that the material below relies heavily on the following work and is highly recommended: Kohls, L. Robert (1984), Survival Kit for Overseas Living: For Americans planning to live and work abroad (2nd edition). Maine: Intercultural Press, Inc.

What is culture shock?
Simply put, culture shock is the way you react and feel when the cultural cues you know so well from home are lacking. In our daily lives each of us knows how to perform a myriad of activities on any particular day in an amazingly efficient manner. We can shower, get dressed, make it to campus, grab a coffee, go to the library, research and photocopy, print out a paper, go to class, pick up a few groceries and get back home without thinking about any of these tasks. We know when to j-walk without comtemplating. We know how to interpret motives when someone runs into us--was it a dangerous encounter, impolite gesture or simply an accident? When someone yells at us, we know how to analyze the situation and react whether it be out of anger, joy or frustration--all in a matter of seconds.

These activities all require cultural knowledge, and when you go to a new country you must learn to recognize normal behavior, interpret cultural signals, navigate the new rules, and react in an adult manner appropriate to that culture. Inexperience in the culture takes its toll on your psyche, and your reaction will be determined by your knowledge of that culture, your ability to observe people and your willingness to accept this new/different (but not better or worse) way of doing things.

The more subtle the differences, the harder your task. For many students who have spent years learning a foreign language and studying cultural information about a country, it is easy to accept that the "rules are different". Those, on the other hand, who go to a country where English is the native language, may be caught off guard to learn that cultural differences abound, and culture shock may be more severe as a result.

What are the stages of cultural adjustment?
There are four distinct stages of adjustment and each will be discussed below.

1. Initial euphoria: Wahoo, you've just made it to your host country! You are so excited to be there and everything is so new and promising. The similarities are everywhere. You think: They're not so different. They have MacDonald's, too. This stage lasts anywhere from a week to a month, but sooner or later you feel let down and recognize, oh yeah, I'm here to stay for the duration.

2. Irritation/hostility: Gradually you begin to focus on the differences you note. Seemingly small things get blown out of proportion and this is the stage most commonly recognized as "culture shock". You think: They're so weird. Who would ever think to put mayonnaise on French Fries? (See below for some of the more common symptoms.)

3. Gradual adjustment: You've made it through the hardest part; the crisis is averted. You slowly begin to feel normal again and become more comfortable in your new culture. You are able to interpret cultural clues and feel less isolated. You are able to laugh once again and realize that life is not all that bad.

4. Adaptation/biculturalism: At some point you begin to feel at home in this new country and recognize that there are many things you will miss when you go home. Some day (given enough time) you may find that you have fully adapted and are able to function equally in both cultures.

Be aware that there are very often two dips related to cultural adjustment. The first dip you experience will be when you have passed through the first stage of cultural adjustment and the second, sometime before you come home as you get into a mind set that you must leave your new friends. You will survive these dips, but be prepared!

Most students who go on exchange are particularly adaptable for the most part and may find that they sail right through culture shock or do not experience severe symptoms. Nonetheless, it is important to expect the worst so that you recognize culture shock for what it is. This will help you begin coping so that you can move beyond stage two. Also know that you will experience similar symptoms (known as "reverse culture shock") when you come back home. In fact, reverse culture shock is often more challenging for both you and your family.

What are the most common symptoms of culture shock?
Symptoms range from minor to severe. Most commonly experienced are tiredness, irritability and depression. Be aware that it is extremely normal to be tired when adjusting to your new surroundings, especially if you are using a foreign language. However, if you find yourself sleeping in a fetal position and feel too tired to pick up a glass of water, then more is going on than simply being tired. You should think to yourself, "ah, so this is a symptom of culture shock. How can I get past this hurdle?"

My favorite symptom (and one that I exhibit most frequently) are fits of weeping. Crying for no apparent reason or a reason that at home you would consider absurd. Feeling sad and not being able to pinpoint why.

Homesickness is perfectly understandable. You have to give yourself time to meet new friends and surround yourself with others who can be supportive. Boredom is normally a sign that all is not well. There should be a variety of activities to keep you entertained and if this is not the case, check your attitude.

More severe symptoms (especially when carried to the extreme) are more problematic: inability to eat, overeating, overdrinking, obsession with cleanliness, lack of cleanliness, hostility toward host nationals and physical ailments.

What are strategies and helpful hints for coping?
Remembering the following facts will help: Culture shock doesn't come from a specific event. It is caused by encountering different ways of doing things, being cut off from cultural cues, having your own cultural values brought into question, feeling that rules are not adequately explained, and being expected to function with maximum skill without adequate knowledge of the rules.

Therefore, strategies for coping include the following:

  • Know as much as possible about your host country (preferably before you go, but once there depend on the host nationals to help).
  • Find logical reasons for cultural differences. Many have evolved over time for very specific purposes that are no longer apparent.
  • Don't disparage your host culture. Spending time with other Americans bashing your host country will only exacerbate the problem and won't help you adjust.
  • Identify a host national whom you trust and discuss your feelings. Spend time with those from the country and talk about your experiences. Give specific incidents, tell how you would do something at home and ask what you must have missed in a particular encounter.
  • Have faith in yourself that you will survive and cope and have a positive experience. This faith in yourself that you have the drive and energy to learn about a new culture will inevitably pay great dividends and make for the remarkable experience it should be.

What personal characteristics will help me?
tolerance for ambiguity
low goal task orientation
open-mindedness
being non-judgmental
empathy
being communicative
flexibility
adaptability
curiosity
sense of humor
motivation
self-reliance
ability to fail

Many students who are academically focussed find that rolling with the punches, being flexible and not being too hard on themselves will take effort on their part.

When do I need to seek professional help for myself?
When you find that you are experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above to an extreme degree, consider that the symptoms may be culture shock. For example, you have cried constantly for several days, you are unable to concentrate or you experience physical ailments. Recognizing the symptoms for what they are, that is, signs of culture shock, is the first step to adjusting. Be sure to seek help when needed. You can talk to friends but you should seek counseling and make a plan of attack to help you move beyond the shock.

Whom do I turn to for help while abroad?
Remember that the International Programs Office at your host institution is there for you. They have experience in coping with culture shock. They know the experts on campus who can help you. Be sure to seek their help before things get too desperate. Be as diplomatic as possible under the circumstances. Don't try to face culture shock alone, when we all know that it is a part of the exchange experience. The faster you cope, the better the experience.

How can I learn more?
Follow the websites below to learn more. Please share this culture shock information with your parents before you leave so that if you call them while you are in the midst of culture shock they will know better how to respond. Make general guidelines that you will follow with them. Promise to keep in touch and make timelines for getting past certain symptoms. Your study abroad experience will change your outlook on life so make it the experience of a lifetime.

Multi-cultural Toolkit
Culture Shock Information


International Programs Center
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro
207 Foust Building, PO Box 26170 Greensboro, NC 27402-6170
VOICE 336.334.5404 FAX 336.334.5406