Culture & Identity
“Culture Shock” is the term used to describe the more pronounced reactions to the psychological disorientation most people experience when they move for an extended period into a culture markedly different from their own.
Culture shock does not result from a specific event or series of events. It comes instead from the experience of encountering ways of doing, organizing, perceiving or valuing things which are different from yours and which threaten your basic, unconscious belief that your culture’s customs, assumptions, values and behaviors are “right.”
It does not strike suddenly or have a single principal cause. It builds up slowly, from a series of small events which are difficult to identify.
Not everyone will experience a severe case of culture shock, nor see all the symptoms. Some symptoms that may occur in more severe cases include:
- Psychosomatic illnesses
- Unexplained fits of weeping
- Compulsive eating
- Loss of the ability to work effectively
- Compulsive drinking
- Need for excessive amounts of sleep
- Hostility towards host nationals
- Exaggerated patriotism
- Stereotyping of host nationals
- Exaggerated cleanliness
In addition to the above possible symptoms, culture shock may manifest in stages:
- Initial Excitement
- Also called the “Honeymoon Phase”
- You are excited about everything and are exploring your new culture with a positive mindset. Usually, this stage lasts around 2-4 weeks.
- Irritation & Hostility
- Also called the “Culture Shock Stage”
- All the small differences in culture become blown out of proportion and become issues that may affect how you view the place in which you are studying abroad.
- You start adjusting to the new culture and accepting differences as your surroundings become more familiar. You feel more at ease and start to feel more like yourself.
- Adaptation or Biculturalism
- You feel confident in yourself and in the culture in which you are immersed. You continue to find new and interesting customs about the culture and you are at a point where you can function normally within the new culture.
Coping/Combatting Culture Shock
The following actions can be useful in combatting and coping with culture shock:
- Learn as much as you can about the culture and customs of the country in which you are living.
- Explore and become familiar with your surroundings.
- Challenge yourself to find different landmarks on foot or by using the public transportation system.
- Set personal learning goals for your time abroad.
- Ask your study abroad coordinator for advice or get in contact with study abroad alumni who participated in the same program.
- Make friends with locals and students on the same program.
- Make a conscious effort to learn the language of the country.
- Practice speaking in local cafes, grocery stores, etc.
- Talk to your support group (friends, family, etc.).
- Keep a journal.
- Write down all of your emotions, experiences, etc., and notice how these may change throughout your time abroad.
- Talk to a counselor or another mental health professional.
- Take care of yourself. A good night’s sleep and keeping hydrated will help you cope with challenges more productively.
There is no clear-cut way of avoiding culture shock. Even experienced travelers report its impact every time they arrive someplace new. Simply recognizing it and accepting it is an important step. With a bit of time, effort and patience you will soon find yourself adjusting. As long as you remember that you might experience some degree of culture shock, you can prepare yourself mentally to accept it and work to lessen the impact.
Visit our website for more information on culture shock.
It is key to understand that adjustment takes time, patience and some understanding of how to deal with the shock of being a foreigner in a new social and cultural setting. But cultural adjustment is almost always something that has to be lived through to be fully understood.
Like international students on U.S. campuses, you may be viewed by locals as part of a group of short-termed guest visitors, treated politely, but often with distancing deference. That deference can be unsettling and cause feelings of not-quite-belonging. Although such feelings may be necessary for growth, they can cause frustration and irritation. However, various activities may be offered to you — tours of places of cultural interest, social activities, sports, clubs and support services — all to make your stay enjoyable.
Social customs differ greatly from one country to another. It is difficult to give guidelines that will be applicable for U.S. students in every culture. Generally speaking, you can be yourself as long as you remain courteous and dignified. Being respectful will create allowances for the things not immediately understood or fully accepted. As a guest in someone else’s country, you should behave nearly in the same manner as you would if you were a guest in someone’s home. You should know that it is seldom inappropriate to inquire politely about local customs and social niceties. Learning these customs will help you adjust to and feel more comfortable in your surroundings.
CIE encourages all students to study abroad, but recognizes that students of varying backgrounds may face unique challenges, as definitions of diversity vary from culture to culture.
Students may encounter a broad range of attitudes regarding diversity issues that may result in stares, comments, or, even worse, blatant prejudice by the host population. Often people in the host country will be curious, and some may ask questions that feel insensitive. Keep in mind that people in other countries have different cultural norms and are often blunter and less “politically correct” compared to the U.S. Students are strongly encouraged to research social norms and cultural practices of the host country before leaving to study abroad.
Visit our website to navigate information and resources on diversity and identity abroad.