Adjusting is a major component of study abroad. Students have to adjust to the host culture, and then re-adjust to life in the U.S. For some students, the transition seems almost seamless; for others it can be an emotional and trying process. This page contains information about adjusting to life abroad, culture shock, self-care strategies, and saying goodbye at the end of your trip. We hope that the information below will provide students with information and tips to make the adjustment easier. We encourage students to stick with it and ask for help when they need it.
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.
This portion of the website provides a description of the stages of cross-cultural adjustment, an explanation of culture shock and a list of symptoms that students may experience, and tips on how to respond. 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.
What are the Stages of Cross-Cultural Adjustment?
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.
Irritability and HostilityGradually, 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.
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.
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.
What is Culture Shock?
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.
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
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.
|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|
|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
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
Realize that almost everyone who goes overseas for a substantial period of time experiences cross-cultural adjustment in some form. It is completely natural.
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.
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.
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.
Don't Get Stuck
Don’t succumb to the temptation to disparage the host culture. Resist making jokes and denigrating comments, and avoid others who make them. 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. 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.
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.
Find a Hobby
Select one or two areas of interest and investigate them more thoroughly than the other topics. In other words, get a hobby!
Take a Trip
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.
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.
Saying goodbye to friends abroad can be a bittersweet and emotional time. Students generally are excited to return home and share their experience, but after spending a semester or a year in the host culture, it may have started to feel like home.
Most students leave saying, “I’ll be back,” and many do return to their host country. However, life is unexpected—plans change, people change, and the host country will change as well. Don’t put off any adventures for the next trip and don’t put off saying goodbye; there might not be another opportunity to eat at a favorite restaurant, tell a new friend how much they will be missed, or see that museum.
Keep a journal, take lots of pictures, and do all the tourist things in the host city before leaving. Be prepared for the fact that life in the U.S. will not seem the same as before. Study abroad changes students, and re-entry adjustment can be just as challenging as the initial adjustment to the foreign culture. Below are some questions to think about in preparation for returning home:
- What am I most looking forward to about being home? What am I least looking forward to?
- How have I changed?
- How will my friends and family say I have changed?
- What do I want to share with them about my experience?
- How am I going to deal with it if they seem bored after 5 minutes?
- What about my study abroad experience do I never want to forget?
- What have I learned from studying abroad: personally, academically, professionally?
- How will my study abroad experience fit into my studies? My future career plans?