One of the main reasons we go abroad is to experience a different culture. This can also be one of the most challenging aspects of living abroad. This page provides some resources to help understand the process of culture shock and adjustment.
Communicating Across Cultures
Effective intercultural communicators are open-minded, flexible, and curious. They tolerate differences and ambiguity, they maintain a sense of humor, and they allow themselves to fail. These are capabilities that can be cultivated and that will make cross-cultural experiences more satisfying and rewarding. A number of mental habits may interfere with a person’s ability to communicate well with people from other cultures. Recognizing that one’s own cultural assumptions and experiences may obstruct effective cross-cultural communication is a first step toward finding ways to lessen the likelihood of miscommunication and to increase the likelihood of greater understanding.
What’s Up With Culture: On-line Cultural Training Resource for Study Abroad
Culture Matters: On-line workbook developed for the Peace Corps for helping participants to acquire the skills and knowledge to work and live abroad successfully:
GlobalScholar, online learning for study abroad
Fitting In Without Going Completely native
- Make every effort to immerse yourself in your new culture. Adapt to their way of life; don’t try to change it. (That doesn’t mean you need to compromise your own moral standards, but you might want to think about how something like, say, vegetarianism will appear to people for whom meat is a sign of health, wealth, or welcome.)
- Be attentive to how people behave around you to learn about cultural expectations
- Try not to wear clothing that identifies you as a US college student.
- Don’t be insulted or make a judgment until you have had time to think the situation over and discuss it with someone, preferably someone local.
- Keep a journal, blog, or vlog while you are abroad. Journals provide a wonderful opportunity to record all of your adventures overseas and reflect upon them as you learn to interpret local actions and reactions. If you’ll be blogging, be sure to print it out; technology is not forever.
- Expect the unexpected. (So you get off the plane and your luggage isn’t there! Have a day’s necessities in your carry-on bag, and try to roll with the punches.)
- Flexibility, a sense of humor, patience, and counting to ten before you speak are all keys to a successful international experience.
- Finally, think of yourself as representing Colby and the United States. You may not have asked for that role, but people will see you as a spokesperson for both your home country and your institution, and will respond accordingly. Take it seriously and act responsibly.
PLEASE ask permission before photographing people, and make an attempt at preserving the dignity of those you’re photographing. Also, for your own good, don’t take pictures of government buildings, police or military installations, airports, or other potentially sensitive areas. A good rule is, if there’s a policeman or a soldier in front of the building, it’s not a good one to photograph–at least not without first asking permission. Such photos can be interpreted as acts of espionage and potentially land you in prison. Also, remember that flashes are not allowed in most museums.
Please consider these tips: Picture This: Dos and Don’ts for Photography
Also, be alert to your surroundings before exposing your camera. Cameras are great targets for thieves, as well as dead give aways that you’re a tourist. In countries with sub-standard living and travel conditions, consider taking disposable cameras–they often take excellent pictures, fit in your pocket, are fairly water-resistant, don’t require batteries, can be developed in most major cities, and are certainly cheaper to replace when they’re stolen.
Culture Shock & Cultural Adjustment
It is common to experience culture shock when you are transplanted into a foreign setting. This is a normal reaction to a new environment where you are no longer ‘in control’ as you have been at home as described in the infographic by Work the World. People can experience a range of emotions when adapting to a foreign culture, from excitement and interest to frustration, depression and fear of the unknown. Culture shock is a term used to describe what happens to people when they encounter unfamiliar surroundings and conditions and feel a sense of isolation.
Symptoms of culture shock:
People differ greatly in the degree to which culture shock affects them, but almost everyone is affected by it in one way or another. Symptoms vary, but can include:
- withdrawal (e.g. spending excessive amounts of time reading; avoiding contact with host nationals)
- feeling isolated or helpless
- sleeping a lot or tiring easily
- irritation over delays and other minor frustrations
- suffering from various body pains and aches
- longing to be back home
- unduly criticizing local customs or ways of doing things
- The Honeymoon Stage – You are very positive, curious, and anticipate new exciting experiences. You even idealize the host culture.
- Irritability & Hostility – You may start to feel that what is different is actually inferior. The host culture is confusing or the systems are frustrating. It is a small step from saying that they do things in a different way to saying that they do things in a stupid way. You will often blame your frustrations and emotions on the new culture (and its shortcomings) rather than on the process of your adaptation to the new culture.
- Gradual Adjustment – You feel more relaxed and develop a more balanced, objective view of your experience.
- Adaptation of Biculturalism – There is a new sense of belonging and sensitivity to the host culture.
- Re-entry Shock – You go home and it is not what you expected it to be.
Homesickness and culture shock are a difficult, but natural part of international travel. Culture shock is the “psychological disorientation most people experience when they move for an extended period of time into a culture markedly different from their own” (L. Robert Kohls, Survival Kit for Overseas Living, 1979; p. 62). You may find yourself missing family and friends, hating your new host culture, and wanting nothing more than to return home. Though difficult, these feelings are normal and will pass if you hang in there. Just remember that it will get better.
Riding the roller coaster of culture shock, a student actually follows a natural pattern of hitting peaks and valleys. The high points of excitement and interest are succeeded by lower points of depression, disorientation, or frustration. Each student will experience these ups and downs in different degrees of intensity and for different lengths of time. The process is necessary in order to make the transition from one culture to another; it helps a student or traveler to balance out and adjust (from: http://www.studentsabroad.com/cultureshock.html).
This is a normal part of the integration process, and you should realize that everyone else is going, has been, or will go through the same thing, every time they go to a new culture. Usually, most people experience several of these symptoms before they begin to adjust. If you recognize these symptoms and become concerned, it’s sometimes helpful to talk it out with other members of your program who are probably going through the same thing, or your program director, who probably has some ideas on how to help the adjustment process along.
Gradual adjustment occurs, as one would probably suspect, over a period of time. Some students will more easily adapt to a new culture with a minimal amount of anxiety and discomfort. Others will need more time. Generally speaking, your ability to gradually adjust will depend on how much you really want to understand and adapt to the culture, and make a concerted effort to do so. As gradual adjustment occurs, your perspective begins to change as you learn to adapt to your surroundings. You start to pick up on cultural cues and clues that you may have missed before, and start to feel more comfortable and at ease with your culture. You gain self-confidence and begin to realize that you do indeed have some control over your situation.
This adaptation is by far one of the most wonderful things about studying abroad–words are not enough to describe it, but it is definitely worth the hardships and effort that come with the working-through of culture shock.
How To Prepare Before You Go
- Learn as much as possible about your host culture’s values, customs, and popular culture before departure and throughout your stay.
- Learn to understand the process of cultural adjustment. The What’s Up With Culture ( http://www2.pacific.edu/sis/culture/ ) will help you understand and prepare for the important cultural issues you will encounter.
- Keep working on your language skills, both by speaking and by making a conscious effort to study on your own.
Integration and Reaching Out
For most of us, there’s really nothing more important to an overseas experience than reaching out to others and integrating oneself into one’s host culture. Breaking out of your safe, secure world and meeting the people of your host country, though difficult at first, will undoubtedly be the most enlightening and rewarding part of your stay abroad. As with many aspects of your study-abroad experience, it will be up to you to take the initiative. Introductions will be rare, and almost never to the people with whom you really want to connect, and no one will force you to integrate.
Especially in programs with a lot of Americans, overriding the desire to stay with the group and within the safety of an American community abroad can be both frightening and difficult. But if you branch out and spend time in social settings away from other Americans, the rewards in meeting and establishing relationships with host nationals, as well as improving your language skills, will absolutely outweigh the emotional and physical effort involved. So, find an activity or a sport or SOMETHING that’ll help you meet the locals, and do what you set out to do when you applied to study abroad–get away from America!
Strategies For Dealing With Culture Shock
- Keep an open mind. Notice differences. Try to understand the reasons behind things in your host culture that seems strange or confusing. Try to look at things from the local perspective.
- Maintain a sense of humor.
- Reach out and find someone from your host country who is sympathetic and understanding, and talk with that person about specific situations and about your feelings related to them.
- Keep a journal. Writing about your experiences will help you measure your adjustment to the host culture and your progress in a foreign language. Your journal will be an invaluable record of your experiences for years to come.
- Avoid Americans or other foreigners who habitually criticize the host culture. Foster friendships with people who will help you learn about the host culture, who will listen to your problems, and who will help you develop a positive attitude about your experiences.
- Remember your strengths! Maintain confidence in yourself. Remind yourself of your talents and abilities.
- Keep active and avoid feeling sorry for yourself. Get involved in a hobby (also a great way to meet people in the local community). Some students find that taking a short trip to a neighboring area provides some relief and enables them to return refreshed and with a new perspective on their host culture.
- Above all, have a positive attitude and have faith in yourself, in the essential good will of your hosts, and in the positive outcome of the experience.
Gender, Sexual Orientation, Ethnicity, & Other Factors (Also see the Diversity & Study Abroad resources)
These factors may be an important consideration in your decision of where to study. Attitudes towards and experiences of such things as sexual harassment, LGBTQ acceptance, or racism may be significantly different abroad from what you’re used to at home. It is important to be attuned to how your behavior, dress, and appearance will be interpreted by members of the host culture. Keep in mind that you probably won’t be familiar with the body language, subconscious cues, and behavioral signals and a basic awareness of the cultural differences you may encounter can help you avoid misunderstandings and potentially dangerous or embarrassing situations. It is important to respect these differences, both to avoid harassment and to assist in your assimilation into the culture. You should be aware of and be respectful of local customs and laws. Prepare yourself by educating yourself on the cultural, social and legal aspects through the resources on the OCS website and your own research.
Keep in mind that studying abroad is a time of great personal change and development, in which many personal values and beliefs are questioned and reconsidered. We hope you will embrace this time of self-questioning and self-discovery and be open to its lifelong impact. Keeping an open mind is essential to overcoming cultural stereotypes and creating a uniquely personal experience in which you can relate to your host culture as an individual, as yourself, rather than as a member of a faceless mass.
Note: If you believe that you are experiencing something more than cultural differences, such as harassment, be sure to speak immediately with your program director.
A Special Note to Women Regarding Harassment
Many issues that concern women concern men as well. Because you’ll be living in a different culture, understand that perceptions and assumptions regarding men and women (especially Americans) will often be significantly different from what you’re used to, or what you expected to find. Again, a basic awareness of the cultural differences you may encounter can help you avoid misunderstandings and potentially dangerous or embarrassing situations. It is important to respect these differences, both to avoid harassment and to assist in your assimilation into the culture. You should be aware of and be respectful of local customs regarding dress, relationships between men and women and realize that you may not understand the signals and cultural innuendoes in your host country like you do at home. However, if you feel in any way that a line may have been crossed, speak with your program director (or whomever is in charge of your program).
A Special Note for Bisexuals, Gays, Lesbians, and Transsexuals
Acceptance of queer lifestyles and queer values varies greatly from country to country. More importantly, however, it also varies greatly within a given country or culture. Therefore, sweeping generalizations about the queer experience abroad are often misleading and can lead to stereotyping and presumptuous summary judgments about the host culture that can be counter-productive to the study-abroad experience. Keeping an open mind is essential to overcoming cultural stereotypes and creating a uniquely personal experience in which you can relate to your host culture as an individual, as yourself, rather than as a member of a faceless mass such as “a gay” or “a lesbian,” etc.
That said, there are a few things to keep in mind to make your experience abroad more comfortable and more compatible with a queer identity. Keep in mind that studying abroad is a time of great personal change and development, in which many personal values and beliefs–including one’s sexual identity–are questioned and reconsidered. This time of self-questioning and self-discovery can encompass all facets of the coming-out experience. It’s important, then, to identify resources available to you while abroad which can help you deal with the stresses involved in coming out or living in an environment which may not be welcoming of queer culture. Your program should be able to help you locate such resources, as well as provide information regarding queer meeting places, queer organizations, laws, behavioral norms, queer media, and general attitudes toward queer people. Additional resources can sometimes be sought through queer travel guides (available on the OCS website).
In many cultural settings, it’s extremely important that queer individuals be attuned to how their behavior will be interpreted by members of the host culture. Keep in mind that you probably won’t be familiar with the body language, subconscious cues, and behavioral signals that are considered acceptable, flirtatious, or downright objectionable in your new culture. It’s a good idea, then, to play it safe until you’re sure of how to interpret the gross and, eventually, more subtle cues of host nationals. Once again, consulting queer resources within your host country can be beneficial.
Safety abroad is a highly complex issue for the queer student. In some more conservative countries, homosexual acts may be outlawed, resulting in stiff prison terms. In more liberal countries, however, the queer lifestyle may be much more readily accepted than in the United States. It is essential, then, that you learn all you can about the legal and social aspects and consequences of assuming a queer identity in your host culture before leaving the States.
A Special Note Regarding the Potential for Ethnic Issues Abroad
Students of color expecting to leave a racist American environment for a more accepting environment abroad will quickly discover that the issue is–no pun intended–hardly black-and-white. At the same time, Caucasian students traveling to certain countries may unexpectedly find themselves victims of racial harassment and even, potentially, outright racism.
Therefore, expect issues of race, ethnicity, religion, and class to continue to be present, but potentially be significantly different abroad from what you’re used to at home. These issues are extremely complex, and you’ll be at a disadvantage in understanding them within the context of your host culture, as you won’t know the rules or the dialogue. So, general advice is to be prepared for anything, and resist making judgments. Once again, keeping an open mind is essential to overcoming cultural stereotypes and creating a uniquely personal experience in which you can relate to your host culture as an individual, as yourself, rather than as a member of a faceless mass.
Educating yourself about ethnic issues in your host country before leaving the States is an excellent idea. Also review some of the resources available on the OCS predeparture website.