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Study abroad culture shock

Date of publishing: 2016.09.21     Published by Attila M.

What is culture shock?

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:

  • they feel a sudden lack of home support and familiar environment
  • the new environment seems to be irrational, unpleasant or even hostile
  • they lack language or people skills to get accustomed to a new culture
  • it looks impossible to explore and understand the host culture
  • they get tired of the accumulation of subtle cultural differences
  • they sense hopelessness in the social situation of the host country
  • there is a historical or ongoing conflict between the host country and the home country
  • they expected a more similar social and cultural environment

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:

  • easily adjusted your emotions and behavior to new environments before (new school, new house or new cities in your home country)
  • have an extroverted personality (you turn strangers into friends in half a second)
  • had experience with other cultures before (exchange students at your school, holidays)
  • speak the local language (or able to read and say some phrases)
  • get emotional and/or financial support from home
  • socio-economic background
  • studied abroad or worked abroad before

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:

  • better tolerate ambiguous situations
  • be open-minded and sociable
  • apply a judgment free thinking
  • adapt and be curious
  • be motivated and humorous
  • accept failure and learn from your mistakes

Negative signs of culture shock

'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:

  • have an unusual amount of confused, disoriented, sad, nervous or lonely moments
  • feel homesick: miss places, food, brands, people from home
  • feel irritated and annoyed over things that usually do not bother them
  • feel inadequate, unconfident, insecure about coping with life abroad
  • idealize their home country and only see the negative in the host culture
  • obsessed with learning everything about the host country and other cultures
  • unable to engage in a normal conversation with locals and fellow students
  • develop bad habits: too much eating, drinking or cleaning
  • afraid of trying new things or visit new places
  • start worrying about their health for no reason
  • start avoiding host nationals or fellow international students
  • build up a wall of stereotypes to hide behind

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:

  • feel sleepy or unable to sleep (insomnia)
  • feel depressed, powerless and helpless
  • sense an identity loss or a sudden change in personality
  • feel that they lost touch with reality
  • hate everything, just because it is different from their home country
  • paralyzed when they have to deal with routine tasks
  • withdraw from social interaction and feel unable to fit in
  • cry a lot or isolate themselves
  • start feeling pain everywhere: frequent headaches, stomachaches or allergies appear

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!

Positive effects of culture shock

Your efforts to get by abroad are not for nothing. International students often:

  • gain valuable intercultural skills
  • know themselves much better after studying abroad
  • form a new and culturally active lifestyle
  • find the meaning of their lives, a higher goal
  • grow stronger and more resilient against uncomfortable, unconquerable situations
  • step out of their comfort zone and step on the way of personal development
  • experience cultural diversity first-hand: thinking, ethnicity, socio-economic status and religion
  • get business ideas or find international business partners
  • immerse in the host culture and find new ways to solve their own problems
  • improve their language skills and learn some funny slang and local wisdom
  • examine their own culture more objectively
  • develop cultural sensitivity towards other cultures
  • make lifelong international friendships
  • become thirsty for knowledge and traveling

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

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<.

Examples for 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

  • human rights: legal protection might differ from your standards
  • environment protection: your host country can be stricter or loose on environmental issues
  • host country language (plus various languages in the international student community)
  • climate: you may have to dress for a tropical holiday or an arctic expedition
  • race: you may become minority or majority based on your skin color
  • gender roles: socially accepted behavior for men and women may vary by nation
  • laws: unusual regulations and punishment may be in place (always get consular info)

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
environment nature concrete jungle
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 style casual formal
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
teaching methods traditional innovative
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

How can you minimize culture shock before studying abroad?

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.

  1. Set realistic expectations about your life abroad
  2. Have academic, personal, career, traveling, cultural and language learning goals
  3. Research your host country: travel forums, ask people who have been there
  4. Know and recognize the early signs of culture shock
  5. Learn about cross-cultural communication
  6. Always look through positive lenses abroad
  7. Get a local helper online

How can you overcome culture shock when you are already studying abroad?

First rule: don't be hard on yourself. Experiments come with mistakes, get over them.

Prevention is key: take action from day one

  • make time for fun
  • have a regular diet and exercise
  • dare to take risks, challenge yourself
  • find a new hobby (healthy distraction)
  • trust your instincts, develop a 'yes, i can' attitude.
  • document your life abroad: photos, videos, journals, blog or vlogs.
  • write down what you love when you first arrive, and look back later
  • share your experience with co-nationals and international students abroad
  • go for relaxing walks. walk wherever you can to absorb the new environment
  • ask questions about social customs, especially if you sense that something is off

Learn about cultures

  • put aside your stereotypes for a moment
  • walk a mile in the other's shoes before judging them
  • make local friends: they will help you to navigate in the local culture
  • assess your host culture in its own context (don't compare it to yours)
  • watch local channels, listen to the radio and read foreign books abroad
  • do not disparage or underestimate the host culture in your disappointment
  • it takes time to adapt to new surroundings, a new culture and a new lifestyle.
  • get involved with the local community: volunteer, sports team, festivals, church

Ease the symptoms

  • humor gets you far in solving misunderstandings
  • minimize or avoid things that annoy or offend you
  • get some home goods shipped to your host country
  • find a safe haven where you can spend time comfortably
  • make a step back, divide the problem and solve one at time
  • find a way to make use of your cultural values in the host culture
  • are you near or far from your original expectations and goals? why?
  • do familiar activities: prepare your favorite dish, stream favorite series
  • seek for comfort from family, but don't slow down the acculturation process

Get professional help to cope with culture shock

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.

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Study abroad culture shock