What is culture shock really about and how to cope with it? International education provides a great opportunity to experience cultural diversity and improve cross-cultural understanding, but everything comes at a price. Beside the actual financial expenditure, study abroad programs go hand in hand with an often unexpected or underestimated cost.
International students have to cope with the arising culture shock while studying abr oad. In this section we define culture shock and its possible positive and negative impacts on your life abroad. Right after that we give you dozens of examples for culture shock and we offer a list of solutions to help you to cope with the negative effects.
Maybe you heard this term on an anthropology class back in the day.
Maybe not, so let's get down to business.
Culture shock is a series of unusual feelings that hit you when you move to a country where the culture is very different from the culture you got used to. There is nothing to worry about, it is a common thing among international students.
Culture shock can be shocking for two reasons.
Either something new and extraordinary happens in the host culture or a crucial cultural element of your home culture is missing. Culture shock is not a joke. Once you start your international studies in a foreign country you have to face culture shock and you have to conquer it.
Causes of culture shock
Culture shock is happening for a reason. This is how your body and mind react to the sudden changes in your environment. International students often suffer from culture shock, because:
Even the most avid travelers who lived in all corners of the world do suffer from culture shock when they move to a new country. The key to cope with culture shock is to recognize when it is happening and have a number of options at hand to adapt to your host culture when you are studying abroad.
You are likely to cope with culture shock faster if you:
Useful traits to deal with culture shock International students with the following character traits usually have more success in coping with culture shock. Try to:
'Culture shock' implies that you may have a hard-time abroad, right?
When international students adjust to a new environment, they try new foods and activities, they get acquainted with foreign people, hear people speaking foreign languages left and right and they observe some strange customs and face other cultures. The impact of the culture shock ranges from negligible to overwhelming, varying by person. As a physical and emotional reaction to the sum of unpleasant changes, culture shock may manifest in several forms. International students often:
The above listed commonly occurring symptoms may turn into something worse, if someone did not manage to process the first wave of culture shock. Study abroad students sometimes:
After reading this horror story, you have the right to ask: every international student faces these terrific challenges when studying abroad?
Well, first of all, with a decent preparation you can avoid the severe symptoms of culture shock and learn to handle most cultural differences. Second, there is bright side to your study abroad experience: you gain valuable international experience and you come out stronger.
No pain, no gain they say, now take a look at your cultural reward!
Your efforts to get by abroad are not for nothing. International students often:
As you can see, culture shock comes in different shapes and sizes. Studying abroad is more like a cultural roller coaster, where you will experience serious ups and downs.
That is absolutely normal.
Your feelings and behavior naturally change over the course of your study abroad program, as you try to adjust and get used to the new place and people with culturally different background. Let's take a look at the four stages of culture shock that you will most likely experience throughout your study abroad program.
Four stages of culture shock
It is important to adjust to the new environment, but this so called adjustment phase might take longer than expected. Truth be told, not all international students are unanimously satisfied with their study abroad experience.
Some stages of culture shock may be shorter or longer, more or less intense, you may even skip some steps, but the culture shock model helps you to set realistic expectations and improve your life abroad.
The U-curve of the culture shock stages suggests an easy adjustment phase, followed by a rough fall, then you climb up high again. You remember, this is a cultural roller coaster and if you paid for the ride you have to make an effort to cope with the downfalls and risings as well. There is one key to getting through culture shock: stand up one more time than you fall.
1. Honeymoon stage
In the first stage of culture shock you are actually pretty happy. The initial euphoria of moving to a another country is in your focus. International students love variety and in the beginning they are impressed by the cultural similarities and amazed by the subtle or obvious cultural differences. Almost everything and everyone they encounter with are just great.
It is not difficult to satisfy international student on the first week, they look at the big picture that is interesting simply because it is unknown. Even the road signs, the street names and windows of the shop. Everything that is boring at home, comes alive in your host country.
2. Disillusionment stage
In the second stage of culture shock the novelty wears of bit by bit as you have less time to act as a surprised tourist. In some weeks the small and big cultural differences accumulate. You have troubles with foreign languages, food, people, customs, attitude, even the road sign gets annoying, because it reminds you that you know almost nothing about the host culture.
Many international students feel irritated, annoyed by things that are not functioning as they do in their home country. Eventually they try to solve things their own way anyways, leading to a vicious circle where you are stressed, sad, angry that you are doing your best and still things won't work out.
3. Adjustment Stage
Reaching the third stage of culture shock, you learnt about the new culture, the new environment and about yourself. You changed your point of view and instead comparing everything to your own culture, you start to evaluate the host culture in its own context. You appreciate people and things in the host culture for what they are and you learnt to see the value in most things.
You established stable routine abroad and you reached the stage of emotional balance. You gain more confidence, you win back your sense of humor and this success makes you feel satisfied and happy. You enter a positive spiral: your increased cultural understanding triggers further effort to learn more about the host country and its culture. You want to fit in and you know how to do it.
International students usually reach this balanced state while studying abroad and they can use their newly acquired skills in their future international projects.
4. Integration stage
The fourth stage of culture shock is probably the most desired among international students. But the time you get here, you have made several trusted international and local friends and living abroad is now the new normal. At this level of cross-cultural understanding you naturally deal with intercultural problems, whatmore. You do not see cultural problems, you see cultural challenges, and you have a strategy in place to overcome anything that life throws in your way.
Even though the study abroad program is a very intense experience, international students rarely reach this stage of cultural understanding in their first semester abroad (especially if they do not speak the host language), however an academic year abroad is often enough for that.
+1 Reverse culture shock
You just started to like the every day life in your host country but it is time to go back home. Setting foot on home soil may be even more traumatic than your initial culture shock abroad. Things have changed, your relationships require some maintenance and your close family is acting weird. If you want to feel home in your home country, you consciously have to prepare for reverse culture shock<.
The every day interaction in your home country is based on generally understood and accepted cultural cues. You do all your gestures, you speak in a way and behave according to your social norms without even thinking about it.
Moving abroad means you lose this sort of collective understanding and you can only hope that some people have a mindset similar to yours.
What are the typical forms of culture shock abroad?
There are countless ways to feel shocked while studying abroad. The examples for culture shock below are categorized based on the shocking power of certain cultural differences, starting with the most important elements.
Culture shock examples – macro factors
You are studying abroad for a short period of time, so generally you can't do much about these issues. Ideally you did your research about the host country in advance, so these differences will not strike you as a surprise.
Do not fall for all stereotypes, and be careful with your 'official' and unofficial sources. However if you did a thorough research and you did not like what you saw, you may be better off choosing a host country where the official language, legislation, cultural values, customs and circumstances are more aligned with your basic needs.
From similarities to extremes abroad
When you are studying abroad, some aspects of your life abroad will be similar to your life at home, but you may often experience some extreme conditions.
In the following section we collected the main areas of study abroad culture shock, describing both ands of the scale. 'From' and 'to' represent the extreme (and ironic) ends of the scale.
As soon as you placed your home culture and host culture on the scale, the cultural differences will determine the amount of culture shock you may face on your study abroad program.
Culture shock in the host city
|Culture shock examples||from||to|
|ease of getting around||walking||modern public transportation|
|taste of food||sawdust||culinary orgasm|
|tap water||forbidden to drink it||crystal clear drinking water|
Culture shock on campus
|Culture shock examples||from||to|
|teaching quality||unprepared professors||noble laureates|
|amount of workload||kindergarten level||teajerking|
|type of workload||individual essays and exams||teamwork presentation and quiz|
|grading method||absolute scale||relative scale|
|class interaction||professor's monologue||open debate|
|intercultural faculty||local students mostly||international students prevail|
|strictness of class attendance||voluntary||name list goes around|
|dormitory placement||for the chosen ones||automatically placed in dorms|
|campus food||bring your own food (BYOF)||intercontinental cafeteria|
|orientation week||what is that?||full-week immersion and support|
Culture shock examples from social interaction
|Culture shock examples||from||to|
|stereotypes||all myths were busted||everything came true|
|foreign names||similar or international||impossible to spell and pronounce, let alone remember|
|personal space||in your face and touching||need to raise your voice to be heard (you may throw a ball)|
|gestures||calm smile||very illustrative and dynamic|
|eye contact||impolite to look in the eyes||share competition|
|public dresses||all body covered||all body covered... not|
|greetings||distant bow, formal handshake||kiss, hug, pat on the back|
|dining customs||gobble up junk food alone||3-6 dish long ritual with family|
Culture shock examples from everyday life
|Culture shock examples||from||to|
|toilet flush||just leave the room||pull/push/rotate lever or button|
|toilet paper||right hand or left hand||3-layer ultrasoft skin sensitive|
|dog poop on the streets||walk knee deep in it||you could from the floor|
|alcohol consumption||abstinent (zero)||till you are in another universe|
|currency strength||everything is for free||you learn to economize|
|sexual harassment||street offers from strangers||lawsuit-happy culture|
|brands you use at home||almost like at home||they don't even sell Coke|
Don't let culture shock get in the way of studying abroad. In order to face the minimum possible culture shock, you have to prepare well in advance. That way you can eliminate a substantial part of your problems in your host country.
First rule: don't be hard on yourself. Experiments come with mistakes, get over them.
Prevention is key: take action from day one
Learn about cultures
Ease the symptoms
If you suspect that you suffer from extreme culture shock or some symptoms get more severe and physical, the offered practical solutions may not help you out. Even though you try hard, you feel that you are simply unable to advance to the adjustment stage of culture shock.
Always seek for help, there is nothing to be ashamed of. Culture shock has a different impact on each person, so immediately discuss it with your parents, friends or the local international office.
At the same time it is recommended to ask for counseling services from the international office of your home university (if you have one). The sooner you discuss it with professionals, the faster you can go back to enjoy your study abroad program and make it into a positive life changing experience.