culture shock uncovered

When going abroad to learn a foreign language you may experience many new and different things to such as the people, beliefs, food, sounds, customs, laws, smells, social and family structure, government and behaviors - just to name a few. All of these elements form your host country’s unique culture.

While all of these elements of the foreign culture may appear to be cool, bad, weird, stupid, brilliant, good, or strange, the overall experience can sometimes feel overwhelming to even the most seasoned travelers.

These new and different cultural elements experienced while abroad, may be so foreign that it might seem “shocking” in comparison to the cultural norms one is used to at home. This “distressing” feeling is more commonly referred to as “Culture Shock” (2).

According to Wikipedia, "Culture shock is a term used to describe the anxiety and feelings (of surprise, disorientation, confusion, etc.) felt when people have to operate within an entirely different cultural or social environment, such as a foreign country" (2).

Culture shock and its effects can occur in a number of stages. However, culture shock is not an exact step-by-step process; every student doesn't experience culture shock the same way or at the same time. Not everyone experiences culture shock, but for those who do, it can be seen is a step in the process of adjusting to a new culture. Please understand that living abroad is exciting, scary and invigorating all at once.

Adapting while abroad is more intense for some than for others. Keep in mind that after being immersed in your host country’s culture, you will get used to coping and prospering in no time. Just try to go in with an open mind, common sense and respect for the new culture and you will thrive!

Below is a brief summary from Wikipedia of the different phases of culture shock that one may encounter.

1. “Honeymoon phase”: The experiences associated with the new culture are seen as exciting and positive.

2. “Negotiation phase”: After a period of time, those experiencing culture shock may begin to long for things the way they are done in their home country.

3. “Everything is okay phase”: After another length of time, one becomes accustomed to the new environment and turns the focus to basic living concerns as if they were in their home country again (2).

In addition to these stages, homesickness is one of the most common adjustment problems related to culture shock. Psychologists sometimes call homesickness “separation anxiety” because people feel separated from the people and things that are familiar to them.

The Center of Global Education discussed the following “Tips on how to cope with homesickness while abroad” in an article called “Adjustments to Culture Shock”.

* Don’t wait for homesickness to go away by itself. Confront your feelings by talking to someone (a counselor, family member, roommate, or another student, etc.) about your homesickness. Chances are that the other students in your program may be feeling the same way that you are.

* Do your best to keep in touch with your family back home on a regular basis because as much as you miss them, they miss you. On the other hand, don’t distance yourself from the local culture, you will very likely end up feeling homesick from your host family shortly after you are back in “your” reality, so enjoy every moment.

* Bring some of home along with you. Be sure to pack photos of family and friends, bring your favorite CDs and cook family recipes while abroad.

* Make friends with locals and invite them to spend time with you. Creating such a support network can really help to alleviate homesickness while at the same time creating lasting friendships.

* Be patient with yourself as you adjust to the unexpected realities of being abroad. Don’t give up, you will be very happy you carried through in the end!

* Get involved by seeking out opportunities that keep you busy and occupied so that you won’t think about home. Try to work, intern, volunteer, or travel. You could also join a sports team or club, join a gym, or participate in program activities, sports are huge in Latin America and Spain and people there are generally warm and inviting as well (3).

The Center for International Education at the University of California at Irvine reported some useful tips to ease cultural adjustment while abroad in an article called “Cultural Adjustment”.

- Travel in a spirit of humility and with a genuine desire to meet and talk with local people.

- Do not expect to find things as you have them at home . . . for you have left your home to find things different.

- Do not take anything too seriously . . . for an open mind is the beginning of a fine immersion experience.

- Do not let others get on your nerves . . . for you have come a long way to learn as much as you can, to enjoy the experience, and to be a good ambassador for your country.

- Read carefully the information THINK ABROAD supplied you in the pre-departure
packet. . . for we have been doing this for a long time and have good advice to share.

- Do not worry . . . for one who worries takes away from their pleasure.

- Remember your passport and know where it is at all times . . . a person without a passport is a person without a country. If you are afraid of losing your original copy, make various photocopies and always carry one with you.

- Do not judge the people of a country by the one person with whom you have had
trouble. . . for this is unfair to the people as a whole.

- You shall remember that you are a guest in every land . . . for one who treats a host with respect will be treated as an honored guest.

- Cultivate the habit of listening and observing, rather than merely seeing or hearing...for other cultures have so much to offer you.

- Realize that other people may have thought patterns and concepts of time which are very different than yours -- not inferior, just different.

- Be aware of the feelings of local people to prevent what might be considered as offensive behavior. For example, when taking pictures, ask if you can take a picture of someone rather than just taking it.

- Make no promises to local, new friends that you cannot implement or follow through with.

- Spend time reflecting on your daily experiences in order to deepen your understanding of your experiences. Try to keep a journal or a photo log so you can, one day, reflect on your priceless experiences (1).

The bottom Line: Assimilating to a new culture can be difficult, but facing the challenge and working through it is part of what makes immersion education so rewarding.

Think Abroad representatives are available 24/7 via email or phone at or at 1.800.699-9685 to address any questions or concerns while you are abroad.

We at Think Abroad, hope that you take advantage of your incredible life, language and cultural experience! It is something that you will take with you for the rest of your life and will never regret!

REFERENCES used for this article:

1. Cultural Adjustment. University of California, Irvine, Center for International Education.

2. Culture shock. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

3. Study Abroad Handbook. Adjustments and Culture Shock. Center for Global Education.



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