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Dealing With Culture Shock

Studying abroad can be one of the most exhilarating experiences of your life, but it can start as a series of bewildering and frustrating incidents that leave you longing for home. It is valuable to take some time to investigate the things that will happen to you as you mingle with people who maintain different values, traits, and characteristics. By thinking and preparing for these encounters, you will certainly enrich your study abroad experience.

What are Cultural Differences?

We are surrounded by elements in our own culture that influence who we are and how we relate to the world. Since we have grown up with this culture, we are comfortable in it and sometimes unaware of the characteristics of our culture until confronted with contradicting ideas. Our values and attitudes about who we are and how things should be have been shaped by our experiences in our native culture.

When you suddenly lose cues and symbols that orient you to situations of what we consider "normal" daily life or when the cultural facial expressions, gestures, and words are no longer familiar, the psychological discomfort that we feel in this foreign situation is commonly known as culture shock.

Reactions to Cultural Differences

Culture shock is a logical reaction to differences we encounter in a foreign culture. Luckily, it is only one phase in the process of getting involved in the culture of a foreign country. The various phases that you may experience include:

  • Being fascinated with all the new things you are experiencing
  • Feeling uncomfortable because you feel as if you don't belong
  • Rejecting and labeling the foreign culture and people as being strange
  • Learning to decipher foreign behavior and customs
  • Accepting and enjoying the foreign culture

Our emotional reactions to these various phases will influence how we relate to local citizens. Naturally, being excited and fascinated with foreign customs will help pave the way for positive interaction. Conversely, acting with hostility and aggression toward "strange and un-American" customs will do little more than perpetuate an unfriendly American image and cause foreigners to want to avoid Americans.

Preparing for Cultural Differences

  • In order to gain some perspective, read as much as possible about where you are going.
    • Good sources include guidebooks, foreign and international newspapers and magazines, novels, plays, poetry, and political and economic analyses.
  • Talk with international students and veteran travelers who have been where you will be traveling.
  • Ask your Office of Global Programs for any advice or recommendations.

A Sense of Purpose

Have a clear idea of what you specifically want to accomplish by studying abroad. Know your priorities for what you feel is important to experience. Keep an open mind and be willing to pursue the unexpected. Take advantage of opportunities presented by your host family and new friends.

It might be helpful to try to figure out where you want to travel by answering the following questions:

  • Who am I? (Awareness of your personal beliefs and attitudes)
  • Where do I come from? (Awareness of U.S. cultural beliefs and customs)
  • Where am I going? (Awareness of foreign culture customs, behaviors, and values)
  • Why am I going? (To practice a foreign language, experience different cultures, see famous sights)
  • What am I willing to consider? (How open will you be to different ways of doing things? Will you "try on" some of the behavior and values of the host country?)

Getting Over Culture Shock

Handle culture shock with an open mind, positive attitude, high level of adaptability, a sense of humor, and a lot of common sense. Give yourself time to adapt to the cultural differences. You may even find that many of the differences are a pleasant change from the way of life in the U.S. Taking an active interest in finding meanings and values behind unfamiliar customs expands your horizons and adds the wealth of another culture to your experience and knowledge.

How Cultural Differences Relate to You

Discovering cultural differences and experiencing "culture shock" are both powerful learning tools. You gain a high degree of self-understanding and develop as a person. By studying abroad, you get an excellent education on what it means to be a U.S. citizen and also how the rest of the world lives and thinks.

Don't try to find a "little United States" wherever you go; minimize your comparisons with home. If you constantly use America as a base for your thoughts, you will miss so many of the beautiful experiences your host country has to offer.

There will be difficult and even frustrating times, but bad moments (even days) are quickly forgotten with time and patience. When you return, you'll realize that even the bad experiences are priceless.

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