Culture Shock and Adaptation
Culture shock is normal. It’s also not as shocking or as sudden as most people expect.
It is part of the process of learning a new culture that is called “cultural adaptation.” You
may experience some discomfort before you are able to function well in a new setting.
This discomfort is the “culture shock” stage of the adaptation process. The main thing to
remember is that this is a very normal process that nearly everyone goes through.
Just as you will bring with you to the United States clothes and other personal items, you
will also carry invisible “cultural baggage” when you travel. That baggage is not as obvious
as the items in your suitcase, but it will play a major role in your adaptation abroad.
Cultural baggage contains the values that are important to you and the patterns of behavior
that are customary in your culture. The more you know about your personal values and how
they are derived from your culture, the better prepared you will be to see and understand
the cultural differenced you will encounter abroad.
What to expect:
Some surprises always await you when you arrive in a new place. People may walk and
talk more quickly, traffic patterns may be confusing – such differences are easy to see and
Study abroad means making big changes in your daily life. Generations of students have
found that they go through a predictable series of stages as they adjust to living abroad.
At first, most students find their new situation exhilarating – new sights, sounds, and
activities. The initial period seems like an adventure. You will tend to look for and identify
similarities between your home culture and your host culture.
Gradually, as you become more involved in activities and get to know the people around
you, differences, rather than similarities, will become increasingly apparent to you. Those
differences may begin to seem more irritating than interesting. Small incidents and
difficulties may make you anxious and concerned about how best to carry on with
academic and social life. As these differences emerge, they can be troubling and
For many, this gradual process culminates in an emotional state known as “culture shock,”
although it is seldom as dramatic as the term applies. The common symptoms of culture
• Extreme homesickness
• Desire to avoid social settings
• Physical complaints and sleep disturbances
• Depression and feelings of helplessness
• Difficulty with coursework and concentration
• Loss of your sense of humor
• Boredom or fatigue
• Hostility towards the host culture
How to cope with culture shock?
The most effective way to combat culture shock is to step back from a given event that
has bothered you, assess it, and search for an appropriate explanation and response.
Try the following:
• Observe how others are acting in the same situation
• Describe the situation, what it means to you, and your response to it
• Ask a local resident or someone with extensive experience how they would have
handled the situation and what it means in the host culture.
• Test the new behavior and evaluate how well it works
• Decide how you can apply what you have learned the next time you find yourself in a
Through out the period of cultural adaptation, take good care of yourself. Read a book or
rent a video in your home language, take a short trip if possible, exercise and get plenty
of rest, write a letter or telephone home, eat good food and do the things you enjoy with
Although it can be disconcerting and a little scary, the shock gradually eases as you
begin to understand the new culture. It is useful to realize that often the reactions and
perceptions of others toward you – and you toward them – are not personal evaluations,
but are based on a clash of cultural values. The more skilled you become in recognizing
how and when cultural values and behaviors are likely to come in conflict, the easier it
becomes to make adjustments that can help you avoid serious difficulties.
Will I lose my own culture?
Sometimes students worry about losing their culture if they become too well-adapted to
the host culture. Don’t worry - it is virtually impossible to lose the culture in which you
were raised. In fact, learning about the new culture often increases your appreciation
for and understanding of your own culture. So don’t resist the opportunity to become
bicultural, able to function competently in two cultural environments. Just as culture shock
derives from accumulation of cultural clashes, so an accumulation of small successes can
lead to more effective interactions within the new culture. As you increase your abilities to
manage and understand the new social system, practices that recently seemed so strange
will become less puzzling. Eventually you will adapt sufficiently to do your best in your
studies and social life and to relax and fully enjoy the experience.