Culture is defined as “the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group…and the attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group.” [Google] When you go abroad, you will find yourself surrounded by new social norms and expectations, a new language, and new ways of viewing the world. Our reaction to these new experiences and ideas is called culture shock. Culture shock is normal, and everyone who goes abroad experiences it, even if they are well-traveled. This section is designed to help you recognize and deal with culture shock.
Adjusting to a new culture is a major part of the intercultural experience of study abroad. Each of us has attitudes, emotions, prejudices, habits and mannerisms that are a product of our culture. When you enter a new culture, all or most of the familiar cues of daily life are removed. No matter how broadminded or full of good will you are, there is mental and emotional adjustment required of those living abroad.
Many people think that knowing and speaking the language insures automatic communication. But, communication includes behavior. Knowledge of the written and spoken language by itself may be insufficient. Your peace of mind depends on hundreds of signs and symbols about which you are largely unaware. These signs or cues that you use to orient yourself to the situation of daily living may include: when and how to greet people, eating food, getting from place to place and talk informally. When you enter a new culture, many of the familiar cues are removed.
An intercultural experience forces you into realizations about others and yourself. One of the greatest shocks may not be the encounter with a different culture, but the recognition of how your own culture has shaped you and what you do.
There is no clear-cut way of dealing with the results of immersion into a new culture. Accepting that adjustment is a challenge is the first step. It is important to remember that adjusting is a temporary condition that passes as you become familiar with the language, mannerisms and local customs. Culture shock is a normal experience and it affects nearly every traveler–even experienced ones,
Following are four stages most commonly identified with adjusting to a new culture:
This is often called the honeymoon. You are excited about the newness of it all. Experiences are new and exciting. Sights, sounds, and smells are different, but still so interesting. You are comfortable as long as you can see similarities between your own culture and your new environment. Normally this phase does not last if you remain in one place, as you begin to cope with the real conditions of life in that country.
Conflict or Crisis
How can there be a crisis stage during this experience I have planned for and dreamed about for so long? When the newness and excitement wear off (from a few hours to a few months), the real challenge begins. As you start to see and feel differences, things may go wrong and you may feel disoriented. Because language is the most common communication tool in any society, it offers the greatest security. If you do not have adequate language skills, you are stripped of your primary means of interaction. You may be unable to display your education and intelligence, symbols that give you status and security back home. As you meet people, but are not able to respond to them on their level, you may feel you are back on the level of a beginner.
You may be excessively concerned about cleanliness, drinking water, and food. You may experience feeling absent minded, have more than normal anger over delays and other minor frustrations.
It is at this time that some may go through an anti-native stage. This is the time of cultural adjustment when there is a tendency to complain about the country and the people. It may be a time of clinging to old beliefs and attitudes, and idealizing the situation at home. It can end up with finding fault with everything foreign. You are in another culture, not to replicate the U.S., but to learn about the culture and use your newly acquired lens to view your own culture. Hopefully, if you recognize this stage, you will be able to move on and allow yourself to see the wonders of the new culture.
The other side of the anti-native stage is going native. It is good to recognize the positive qualities of the new culture and be somewhat adventurous, but there is a possibility of going too far. There is criticism of the home country and blaming for real and imagined injustices.
This time is also characterized as culture fatigue. One just gets tired of not being home. In spite of the ability to cope on a daily basis, everything can become uncomfortable and overwhelming.
Recovery – It’s Starting To Make Sense
You begin to piece together a pattern of behaving and living. You begin to recognize communicative cues: faces, actions and tones. If you are speaking another language, you may begin to communicate more efficiently. As you build your familiarity and knowledge, you find each day easier.
To move to this stage it is important to develop self-awareness–an understanding of your own feelings and cultural patterns–what offends or confuses you and why you feel that way. It is helpful if you suspend judgment about conditions and situations you find unpleasant or confusing until you learn more about the people and the reasons they think and act as they do.
The recovery stage progresses as one begins to understand the host culture.
Now that you are adjusting to the new culture, you can accept it as another way of living. It does not mean you are enthusiastic about everything the host culture does or the way they do it. It does mean that you can accept and understand the differences. You will still have moments of strain and times of misunderstanding, but you begin to feel more comfortable and genuinely enjoy yourself.
Following is a visual graph of the cross-cultural adjustment curve:
It might be helpful to try to decide what you want to accomplish culturally on your off-campus experience by answering the following questions:
- “Who am I” (Awareness of your personal beliefs and attitudes)
- “Where do I come from?” (Awareness of your own cultural beliefs and customs)
- “Where am I going?” (Awareness of foreign culture customs, behaviors, values)
- “Why am I going?” (To practice a foreign language, interest in foreign cultures, to see famous sights, to leave the US, to impress friends, to build a resume…)
- “What am I willing to consider?” (How open will I be to different ways of doing things? Will I work to make friends while abroad?)
Robert Kohls’ Survival Kit for Overseas Living gives a few suggestions to begin to culturally orient yourself upon arrival in a new country:
1. Start with where you live and from there work out in concentric circles
- What places are in the immediate vicinity, what stores, shops, services?
- Who lives nearby, the poor, rich, middle-class?
- Where do people gather?
- What kind of transportation is used?
- Where are government offices – police, schools?
2. Learn the basics
- Names and phrases that appear on signs
- The monetary system
- Street names
3. Look for differences
- Are needs met differently here from the way they are at home?
- Are places/things organized differently? Is there a logic or custom to how
- streets are named and organized?
- How are goods displayed? Markets organized? What does this tell you?
- How do you pay on the bus? How to find and pay for a taxi?
4. Talk to people
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions, most people will be happy to explain
- Go systematically into the different stores and offices and strike up conversations
- Be aware of how your perceptions are filtered by your experience as an American