Cultural Adjustments

Travel Guide Reading

The opportunity to live and study in another country is unparalleled in its adventures, benefits, and challenges. Studying abroad enables you to learn about other cultures as an active participant.  This opportunity also carries with it certain responsibilities.  For example, it may be necessary to adapt your behavior to the customs and expectations of the host country.  This behavioral adjustment does not require you to deny your own culture, but simply to respect your host culture.  Another responsibility you’ll have while studying abroad is to keep an open mind, and to learn and observe without judging.

Understanding the components of culture and the stages of cultural adjustment may help you better understand the intricacies of cultural transition and gain more significant meaning from the experience while it occurs.

Many students experience some degree of culture shock as they learn to adapt to their host culture.  Culture shock refers to anxiety and feelings of surprise, disorientation, uncertainty, and confusion some people feel when transitioning to a different and unfamiliar cultural or social environment. It grows out of the difficulties in assimilating to the new culture, causing confusion in knowing what is appropriate and what is not. This is often combined with a dislike for or even disgust (moral or aesthetic) with certain aspects of the new or different culture. While no two people deal with culture shock in the same way, there are common reactions shared by many. The following are common symptoms of culture shock.

General: Withdrawal Symptoms: Aggressive Symptoms:
Anxiety Physical and/or psychological withdrawal Compulsive eating
Homesickness Spending excessive amounts of time reading Compulsive drinking
Helplessness Need for excessive amounts of sleep Exaggerated cleanliness
Boredom Only seeing Americans/Westerners Irritability
Depression Avoiding contact with host nationals Stereotyping
Self-Doubt Loss of ability to work/study effectively Hostility/verbal aggressiveness
Psychosomatic Illness Quitting & returning to your home country Deciding to stay but permanently hating the host country/people

Source: Survival Kit for Overseas Living by L. Robert Kohls (p. 92)

The W-Curve below is commonly used to show the process of culture shock and can help students understand what they can expect to go through during their time abroad and when they return home:

Prescriptions for Culture Shock

  • Understand symptoms and recognize signs of culture shock
  • Acknowledge that culture shock is normal
  • Understand it is a passing phase
  • Gather information before you go abroad so you are better prepared for a cultural change
  • Create a support network of host nationals, expatriates, work groups, or within your school setting
  • Create a routine for yourself
  • Traveling within or around your host country can take your mind off of culture shock
  • Don’t be too hard on yourself

Additional Resources

The following links are additional resources for understanding and easing culture shock:

Study Abroad Guide

Gelman Library and the Office for Study Abroad created a Study Abroad Guide listing library resources available for students while abroad.