The University of San Francisco: Center for Global Education

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Cultural Competence

Adapting to a New Culture (from USF's Counseling & Psychological Services Center)

Some definitions of culture shock:

“Culture Shock” describes the impact of moving from a familiar culture to one which is unfamiliar…It can affect anyone, including international students. It includes the shock of a new environment, meeting lots of new people and learning the ways of a different country. It also includes the shock of being separated from the important people in your life… people you would normally talk to at times of uncertainty…When familiar sights, sounds, smells or tastes are no longer there you can miss them very much.” (UKCOSA Guidance Note for Students)

“Culture shock is a state of mind in transition, a state in which an individual’s senses adapt to new stimuli and he becomes aware that his behavior, which for years he had thought of as correct, polite and friendly, can be interpreted or misinterpreted as odd, rude and even hostile. It is a period in which his experience of life does not relate to life around him.” Culture Shock Thailand and How to Survive It

Phases of Culture Shock:

Culture shock is often experienced as many different changes. Typically there are four phases that you may experience while adapting to a new culture:

  1. Honeymoon: Everything is great, nothing is wrong; you’re having a wonderful time.
  2. Shock: There are so many differences in this country that you don’t know how to deal with them. You didn’t think things would be like this.
  3. Negotiation: You learn to deal with the problems set before you and try to integrate them with your own beliefs.
  4. Acceptance: You are able to live well in the environment with the differences you are experiencing.

Symptoms of Culture Shock

  • Feeling irritable or even feeling very angry about little things
  • Withdrawal from people who are different from you
  • Sadness and longing for home
  • Sudden intense feeling of loyalty to own culture
  • Overeating or loss of appetite
  • Needing to sleep a lot
  • Headaches
  • Stomach upset
  • Loss of confidence
  • Depression
  • Loss of ability to work or study effectively
  • Unexplainable crying
  • Marital or relationship stress
  • Exaggerated cleanliness
  • Feeling sick much of the time

You do not need to have every symptom on the list In order to have culture shock; it is possible that only a few may apply to you.

Symptoms can appear at any time, for example, at important family dates or festivals, or after a period of illness you may feel distressed and lonely, while at other times you may feel settled. For some people the ‘honeymoon phase’ may last for some time and they may then be surprised to feel that suddenly they are not coping.

It may be helpful just to recognize that what you are feeling is culture shock so that you can begin to do something to manage your situation differently. Symptoms such as headache and upset stomach, however, should be checked by a doctor before you decide it’s only culture shock.

Solutions for Culture Shock:

Even though some people may not be able to eliminate culture shock, there are ways to ease the stress. Some of these activities are listed below:

  1. Keep Active. By getting out of your room or outside of your apartment, you are able to experience first-hand what people in your host country are doing.
  2. Make Friends. By having friends you can talk to, you are able to ask them questions about what you do not understand.
  3. Read about your host country, its history and culture.
  4. Exercise. By finding an activity that you can enjoy, you will be able to reduce stress and depression.
  5. Community Activities. Talk with your host family or others about community activities, religious services, or volunteer opportunities to help you become a member of the community
  6. Work on your new language. This is an extremely important concept. It is much easier to understand a culture when you can understand the language being used. Ask about any slang terms that you do not understand.
  7. Introduce Yourself to Other Study-Abroad students. Other American students may be experiencing the same problems that you are. By talking to them, you may be able to find out ways they are coping with problems.
  8. BE PATIENT. Many study abroad students experience culture shock in some way while they are gone. Just recognize the problem and give yourself time to get over it. If you need to, keep reminding yourself that this is not permanent