Life in Country-Study Abroad - Carnegie Mellon University

Life in Country

Adjusting to life in the host country can be challenging and stressful. There will be new foods, unfamiliar behaviors, and often a different language. The level of the challenge and the amount of stress experienced will depend largely on each student’s personality and their level of immersion in the host culture.

Individual differences can greatly affect cross-cultural adjustment. Being high-strung in a laid-back culture, a Muslim in a predominately Catholic country, a vegan in a country that serves meat at every meal, a student of color, a woman, a student with a disability, a member of the LGBT community, etc. all affect a student’s cross-cultural adjustment. That is not to say that members of these groups do not adjust well, it is simply to say that these are factors to consider.

The following text provides an explanation of culture shock, a list of symptoms that students may experience, a description of the stages of cross-cultural adjustment and tips on how to respond. This information is based on L. Robert Kohl’s Survival Kit for Overseas Living. The complete edition can be found on Google Books.

What is Culture Shock?

Cross-cultural adjustment, often called “culture shock,” has many contributing factors including:

  • being cut off from familiar cultural cues and known patterns
  • living and/or working over an extended period of time in a situation that is ambiguous
  • having one’s values brought into question
  • being expected to function with maximum skill and speed in a setting where the rules have not been adequately explained

Culture shock is a slow, cumulative feeling of frustration that can cause intense discomfort. It is often accompanied by hyperirritability, bitterness, resentment, homesickness, and depression. In some cases distinct physical symptoms of psychosomatic illness occur.

Not everyone will experience a severe case of culture shock, nor will all the symptoms be observed in any single individual. Many people sail through cross-cultural adjustment with relative ease, only now and again experiencing the more serious reactions. But many others do not.

One might say that cross-cultural adjustment is the occupational hazard of overseas living. One has to be willing to go through it in order to have the pleasures of experiencing other countries and cultures.

The following chart lists the multiple reactions which people normally have to culture shock.

Overall Symptoms

Withdrawal Symptoms

Aggressive Symptoms

Anxiety Physical and/or psychological withdrawal Compulsive eating & drinking
Homesickness Spending excessive amounts of time reading Exaggerated cleanliness
Helplessness Need for excessive amounts of sleep Irritability
Boredom Only seeing other Americans or Westerners Family tensions
Depression Avoiding contact with host nationals Relationship stress
Fatigue Short attention span Excessive chauvinism
Confusion Diminished productivity Stereotyping
Self-doubt Loss of ability to work or study effectively Hostility toward host nationals
Feelings of inadequacy Returning home early Verbal aggressiveness
Unexplained fits of weeping   Physical aggressiveness
Paranoia   Deciding to stay but permanently hating the country and its people

Physical ailments & psychosomatic illnesses

   

What are the Stages of Cross-Cultural Adjustment?

There are several stages of cross-cultural adjustment, and though they are not absolutes, most students can see in themselves the characteristics of these stages.

  1. Initial Euphoria
    Most people begin their study abroad experience with great expectations and a positive mindset. If anything, they come with expectations that are too high and attitudes that are too positive toward the host country. At this point, anything new is intriguing and exciting. But, for the most part, it is the similarities that stand out. The newcomer is really impressed with how people everywhere are really very much alike. This period of euphoria may last from a week to a month, but the letdown is inevitable.
  2. Irritability and Hostility
    Gradually, a student’s focus turns from the similarities to the differences, and these differences, which suddenly seem to be everywhere, are troubling. Students tend to overreact and turn little, seemingly insignificant difficulties into major catastrophes. This is the stage generally identified as culture shock, and students may experience any of the symptoms listed in the chart above.
  3. Gradual Adjustment
    In this stage the crisis is over, and students are on their way to recovery. This step may come so gradually that, at first, students are unaware that it is even happening. Once students can orient themselves and are able to interpret some of the subtle cultural cues that passed by unnoticed earlier, the culture seems more familiar. They become more comfortable in it and feel less isolated from it.
  4. Adaptation and Bi-culturalism
    Full recovery will result in an ability to function in two cultures with confidence. Students who reach this stage will even find a great many customs, ways of doing and saying things, and personal attitudes which they enjoy and miss when they return home.

Students often experience “reverse culture shock” upon their return to the United States. In some cases, particularly where a person has adjusted exceptionally well to the host country, reverse culture shock may cause greater distress than the original culture shock.

Responding to Cross-Cultural Adjustment

  1. Realize that almost everyone who goes overseas for a substantial period of time experiences cross-cultural adjustment in some form. It is completely natural.
  2. Be ready for the lesson cross-cultural adjustment teaches, which is one that cannot be learned as effectively by any other means: One’s own culture does not possess the single right way of providing for human need and enjoyments. Culture is a survival mechanism which tells its members, not only that their ways of doing things are right, but also that they are superior. Culture shock stems from an in-depth encounter with another culture in which the student learns that there are many different ways of doing things, all of which are valid.
  3. Select one or two areas of interest and investigate them more thoroughly than the other topics. In other words, get a hobby!
  4. Begin to consciously look for logical reasons behind everything in the host culture that seems strange, difficult, confusing, or threatening. Take every aspect of the experience and look at it from their perspective. Search for patterns and interrelationships. Students are often surprised at what they discover when they do this.
  5. Make a list of all the positive things about being in the host country. Then tack the list up some place visible. Discuss the positives with other Americans, particularly those who have a different perspective on the host culture.
  6. Avoid those Americans or other foreigners who are in a permanent state of culture shock and who spend their days seeking company to commiserate with.
  7. Don’t succumb to the temptation to disparage the host culture. Resist making jokes and denigrating comments, and avoid others who make them. Negativity breeds negativity.Work at maintaining a healthy sense of humor. Making a cultural fau paux is inevitable. Better to laugh it off than become a grouch.
  8. Make friends with host nationals and try to develop a deeper, more intimate relationship with one or two of them. Discuss adjustment issues with them—without making it sound like a criticism.
  9. During the deepest plunges into culture shock, take a trip — get away to a scenic spot or a nearby country. Returning will feel like coming home.

Reference:

Kohl, R. L. (1996). Survival Kit for Overseas Living: For Americans Planning to Live and Work Abroad. The complete text can be found online at Google Books.