Every individual who travels or lives abroad for a short or extended period of time experiences culture shock on some level. Some experience more severe symptoms of culture shock while others barely notice it at all. Either way, just know that experiencing culture shock is completely normal. The most important part when experiencing culture shock is how you handle it. While studying abroad, you will experience so many new things, but how you internalize and react to transitions, changes, and obstacles can impact your overall experience.
Below is summary of the phases of culture shock, what triggers culture shock, symptoms, and how to manage it. You may experience many, very few, or no symptoms of culture shock. One can experience symptoms of culture shock all at once or only in certain situations. The OIP staff at NCC and the international staff at your host institution is here for you should you need support dealing with your culture shock. Always keep an eye on your friends if you see them withdrawing from friends/social situations, academics, and experiences abroad. Should you see that one of your friends is going through a tough time, don't hesitate to contact Kimberly Larsson (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Whitney Pier (email@example.com) or, if you feel comfortable, approach your friend and express your concerns.
Culture shock should not severely impact your experience abroad, it is merely evidence and a consequence of all the transitions you will experience going abroad.
Culture Shock Defined
Culture shock is a term used to describe some of the more pronounced reactions to spending an extended period of time in a culture very different from your own. Culture shock can be characterized by periods of frustration, adjustment, and even depression. The worst homesickness often occurs two to three months after you leave home, frequently arriving just in time for the holidays. Because you will probably write or contact your home family and friends during moments of low morale, and not when you're busy and things are going well, they may understand your situation to be more negative than it actually is.
Phases of Culture Shock
Adjustment to a new culture tends to occur in stages. Initially, there is a honeymoon phase. You are in a new country and everything is exhilarating and exciting. You are probably involved in a flurry of orientation and getting settled, and getting hosted around the town or city. The sights, sounds and tastes are all a new adventure. You will probably notice more similarities than differences between your new city and the U.S. This phase usually lasts from a few days to a few weeks.
Irritability and Hostility
After the first couple of weeks, the initial excitement might pass and you may begin to confront the deeper differenes in your new city and country. You may be tired of the food or struggling with the language. Maybe the university seems incomprehensible and bureaucratic. You may be tired of the long commutes whenever going somewhere. Maybe everything is much more expensive than you originally anticipated. Or perhaps things are less expensive but not of the quality or variety that is customary at home. The initial enthusiasm has drifted away and you have entered the stage of irritability and hostility. Worse, you may feel like you don't really belong where you are.
Be patient. Almost always, the initial struggles will disappear with time and you will experience a stage of gradual adjustment. You will get your sense of humor back. Things that seemed strange or just inconvenient will gradually become familiar. You will be able to function more easily within the culture. When contacting home, you will begin sharing the enjoyable experiences with family and friends.
Adaptation or Biculturalism
Lastly, there is the stage of adaptation or biculturalism. You have managed to retain your own cultural identity but you recognize the right of other cultures to retain theirs. You have a better understanding of yourself and others, and can communicate easily and convey warmth and understanding across the cultural barriers.
Triggers of Culture Shock
• Unfamiliar 'rules' for social interaction: for example, greetings between people, facial expressions, body language, spoken language, general attitudes, dining schedules
• Strange environment and climate: for example, cleanliness of your lodgings; design and adequacy of the toilets; operability of appliances like clothes washers and heating systems; level of noise in your accommodation and city; quality and availability of food and water; and climate, attitude, and weather.
• Different attitudes and expectations: for example, whether appointments start on time or on a more flexible schedule; whether the people you encounter exhibit a cheery, positive attitude or a negative one; whether stores, banks, museums and other places are open at hours that coincide with your needs or not; whether local people appear to be helpful to foreigners or distrustful of them
• Depression; feelings of loneliness or sadness
• Loss or gain of weight; increase or decrease in appetite
• Compulsive drinking
• Insomnia; difficulty sleeping or severe sleepiness
• Withdrawal from social activities; unwillingness to interact with others
• Anger over minor frustrations
• Exaggerated homesickness
• Lack of confidence or feelings of insecurity
• Overly critical of the local customs
• Quickly becoming angry when faced with relatively minor frustrations
• Developing irrational concerns about your health and the cleanliness of your surroundings
• Becoming consistently irritable or critical of your new environment
• Displaying excessive fear of being cheated, robbed, or injured
Coping with Culture Shock
• Eat well
• Explore your surroundings
• Keep in touch with friends
• Write in a journal or blog
• Learn to say 'no' and take time for yourself
• Talk to friends and family
• Reach out to the OIP staff or your host institution international office staff
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