Surviving the Cultural Adjustment Cycle

While you cannot avoid culture shock, you can make it more bearable! Now is the time to use some proven techniques to help you through the adjustment process and into the next stage of cultural adaptation and enjoyment:

  • Relax and be flexible
  • Acknowledge that culture shock is normal and will pass
  • Keep a journal or a blog
  • Set realistic goals
  • Resist withdrawing into yourself or surrounding yourself with students from home
  • Avoid being judgmental; look on the positive side of diversity and difference
  • Revive your sense of humor
  • Do not let setbacks bother you
  • Remember that you are the visitor; you are there to learn about a new culture, not to change it

Stages of Cultural Adjustment

STAGE #1: Initial Euphoria

After the stress of deciding where to have an education abroad and completing what feels like a ton of paperwork, you prepare to leave. There is the anticipation of spending time in a new country mixed with the sadness of leaving family and friends. You find yourself stepping off the plane and into a new place. Everything seems different, new, and exciting. The language is different, the food is interesting, the buildings are charming, and everything is wonderful, the “perfect” place. This is the first phase of many new experiences, excitement and adoration. This is a wonderful phase that makes you feel great and is the perfect way to start your time abroad.

STAGE #2: Irritability and Hostility

After about three to six weeks the things you may have found exciting and wonderful begin to appear as more of a problem. The language is a challenge and sometimes translation can be tiring, you long for familiar food and you decide that the charming building doesn’t have all the conveniences you are accustomed to at home. You have developed “culture shock” — the reaction people feel when they move for an extended period into a culture that is different from their own. Culture shock has two features: It results from the experience of encountering ways of doing, organizing, perceiving or valuing things that threaten your basic, unconscious belief that your ways are “right.” It is cumulative, building slowly from a series of small events that are difficult to identify.

STAGE #3: Culture Shock

Culture shock comes from the following circumstances:

  • Being cut off from the cultural cues and patterns that you are familiar with.
  • Living or studying over an extended period of time in a situation that is ambiguous.
  • Having your own values brought into question.
  • Being expected to work at full speed in a situation where the rules have not been adequately explained.

If you decide to write home during this phase you may want to write the email and file it rather than hitting the send key. Re-read the letter in a few days and see if you still feel the same. Often the problem has disappeared and your feelings have changed. This method often avoids upsetting your family unnecessarily. Expressing your feelings in a journal, to a friend on your program, or to your program director often helps put things in perspective.

STAGE #4: Adaptation or Bi-Culturalism

The final stage comes when the differences are narrowed down to a few of the most troubling. You have adjusted to these differences and may not want to go home. You have made friends and may feel that your language skills are really just beginning to develop as you had hoped. You are not sure you want to trade the excitement of living abroad for the routine of home. You know you have changed, but wonder if your friends at home have changed. You look forward to seeing family and friends and catching up on events.

Tips for Surviving Cultural Adjustment

So you are feeling tired all the time, both physically from trying to understand the language, customs and a myriad of unfamiliar daily tasks; and emotionally, because as hard as you try to reach out and connect, you realize that you will never really be one of the locals. Disappointment can set in. Suddenly, the food is inadequate, the facilities aren’t clean enough, people are abrupt, and the bureaucracy is relentless.

These symptoms are signs that you know enough about the culture to recognize the differences. Now is the time to use some proven techniques to help yourself through the culture shock and into the next stage of adaptation and enjoyment.

  • Acknowledge that culture shock is normal and will pass
  • Write about your concerns in a journal and sleep on them before you call home or act on your grievances
  • Keep busy and set some concrete goals; resist withdrawing into yourself or surrounding yourself with U.S. citizens
  • Avoid being judgmental; look on the positive side of diversity and difference
  • Take care of yourself with enough sleep and exercise
  • Revive your sense of humor

Remember that you are the visitor; you are there to learn about a new culture, not to change it. Prior to leaving the U.S. spend some time finding out about the country you will visit. Think about the:

  • political structure and situation
  • geography and history
  • religion
  • social structure
  • the country’s relationship with the U.S.

What’s Up with Culture is a resource guide for study abroad and consists of materials collected and developed over 30 years of offering cross-cultural training courses at the University of the Pacific. The site also includes materials adapted from the Peace Corps Workbook.