EA Students Abroad Cultural Adjustment

Cultural Adjustment

Adjusting to a new culture and environment is a normal process and can generate a wide variety of reactions and feelings. Most people experience some emotional and physical discomfort when moving to a completely new environment where they are exposed to new customs and behavior, unfamiliar food, and often a foreign language.  Individuals may experience a lack of direction, a feeling of not knowing what to do or how to handle things, how to react or what is appropriate. Some stages in the adjustment process have been identified and are described below. Even though the adjustment process is described as a number of successive stages, not all people go though each stage and not necessarily in the order mentioned. Also, the stages, when experienced, can last different lengths of time for different people, and sometimes people cycle through these stages more than once.

Stages of Cultural Adaptation

Initial Euphoria 

Most people begin their study abroad program with great expectations and a positive mindset.  At this point, anything new is intriguing and exciting. But, for the most part, it is the similarities which stand out. You are impressed with how people everywhere are really very much alike. The focus is on the sense of success in being in the new culture; curiosity and interest in the novelty of the new surroundings; and an appreciation and anticipation of the opportunities to be found in the new culture. Most people feel energetic and enthusiastic during this stage. This period of euphoria may last from a week or two to a month, but for some the letdown is inevitable. 

The “Culture Shock” Stage

Gradually, your focus turns from the similarities to the differences and these differences, which suddenly seem to be everywhere, are troubling and seemingly insignificant difficulties turn into major catastrophes, including:

  • having to use a foreign language
  • not being sure how to interact with people in authority
  • not having a clear idea of how to make friends with people from different cultures
  • not having a clear idea of how to date people from different cultures
  • not being understood when you express yourself in your usual way
  • finding that food and eating customs are different
  • finding that religious practices are different
  • finding large differences in the educational system
  • finding that some people in the new culture are impatient when you don’t understand things right away
  • finding that some people are prejudiced against others from different cultures

The conflicts may be with other people or internal – in terms of one’s own values, habits and preferences when contrasted with the norms and expectations of those from the new culture. Feelings that accompany the culture shock stage may include: 

  • unexplained anxiety
  • boredom 
  • irritability 
  • loneliness, desire for home and old friends 
  • withdrawal 
  • anger at yourself and your surroundings
  • feeling helpless and overwhelmed
  • fear of the unknown and unfamiliar
  • feeling confused about which values you wish to live by
  • excessive concern over cleanliness and health 
  • getting "stuck" on one thing 
  • fear for your safety
  • suicidal or fatalistic thoughts 
  • excessive sleep 
  • compulsive eating and drinking 
  • stereotyping host nationals 
  • hostility towards host nationals

The Recovery Stage

You are on your way to adjusting to your host culture. This step may come so gradually that, at first, you will be unaware it is even happening. You have learned more about the new culture and are able to interpret some of the subtle cultural clues and cues which passed by unnoticed earlier; the culture seems more familiar. You have become more comfortable in the host culture and feel less isolated. Gradually, too, your sense of humor returns and you realize the situation is not hopeless after all. Feelings typical of this stage are a mixture of the first two stages.

The Adaptation and Biculturalism Stage

This stage consists of people developing a realistic understanding of the similarities and differences between their home cultures and the new culture, so that they have clearer ideas about what they like and dislike in each. Many people move in the direction of becoming “bicultural”, i.e. being able to value and appreciate the aspects of both cultures that they wish retain or include in their lives. This stage may be characterized by a sense of confidence, maturity, flexibility and tolerance. In fact, you can expect to experience “reverse culture shock” upon your 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. 

Tips for Successful Cultural Adaptation

Academic Skills

  • become familiar with expectations of the host country`s academic system and culture
  • discuss the educational norms with other students, teaching staff and professors
  • get help in improving your reading and study skills if necessary
  • look over old exams and papers to see what is expected
  • keep in close contact with fellow students and professors and ask them for suggestions, ideas and assistance

Social and Emotional Skills

  • learn about and become familiar with the host culture and its social customs
  • spend time listening and talking to fellow students and other international students and share your feelings and experiences
  • find someone who can help you understand the host culture better, e.g. a “Buddy” or fellow student from the host country, a senior international student who is further along in the adaptation process, your Resident Director
  • watch TV and read newspapers to obtain information about the local culture
  • check with others if you are unsure about appropriate behavior, language use etc.
  • balance your studies and recreation in your everyday life
  • exercise and take care of your physical health
  • cultivate your interests from home and develop new ones in your host culture
  • get involved, consider doing volunteer work, join clubs and engage in other activities, e.g., soccer teams, university choir, theater groups, etc.
  • limit your hours on social media with friends and family at home
  • keep a journal or write a blog
  • take photographs of your surroundings 

If you find that nothing is getting better and none of these suggestions are helping you to adjust to your life abroad, you should speak with your resident director and host health services or host mental health services. 

Adapted from British-German AssociationThe University of Illinois Counseling Center, and Robert L. Kohls’ Survival Kit for Overseas Living.