What is Culture Shift?

While you are abroad, you are likely to experience what international educators call a “culture shift.” This is a form of psychological disorientation similar to feelings of frustration. However, when you typically feel frustrated, you can usually trace the causes and begin to confront them. Culture shift is different from frustration because the causes are difficult if not impossible to trace. It is a feeling that grows little by little as you interact with other students, faculty, and people in a new culture. The feelings may be the result of a combination of many elements within the new environment or the lack of elements from the old. Living in another culture is very exciting and rewarding, but it can also be disorienting and challenging to be far away from your family, friends, support systems, and familiar cultural norms. For most people, the study abroad experience consists of a series of emotional highs and lows. However, the more you know what to expect in the host country, the closer your expectations will match reality and the less shocking your experience will be. Over time, patience, flexibility, and adaptability as you become more accustomed to your host country and culture.

Culture shift does not result from a specific event. Instead, it derives from the experience of encountering new ways of doing things that challenge the basic belief that your way of doing things is the “correct” way. Culture shift is most likely to affect someone gradually. It builds up from a series of strange events in your host country that you may find difficult getting used to. For instance, you may encounter an ambiguous situation where you are expected to do something without adequate direction or explanation. You may also have your values questioned at times, which can deepen the anxiety of living in a foreign environment.

When you first arrive in the host country, everything around you will probably be new, different and exciting. You will probably enjoy the sights, sounds, and other cultural novelties that surround you! This initial reaction is frequently called the honeymoon stage. It is characterized by feelings of fascination, exhilaration, and a desire to learn more about the culture.

After several weeks, when you have settled into more of a daily routine, some of the subtle differences in gestures, manners, and tone and rhythm of voices will become more evident. It is possible that these cultural differences will make you feel out of place and miss everything about home. You may even feel disappointed in yourself if it is difficult to communicate at first. However, this is a natural and common reaction to the cultural adjustment process, and it will pass with time if you anticipate and prepare for its existence.

It is normal to experience a range of emotions as you go through culture shift. For instance, you may feel homesickness, hyper-irritability, bitterness or resentment towards your host country, depression, loss of sense of humor, lack of concentration, and in some cases, social anxiety. Students are sometimes unaware of the fact that they are experiencing culture shift when these symptoms occur. However, there are some ways to overcome it. The next section offers some strategies to cope with cultural shift.

Remember: experiencing culture shift where you face unfamiliar and uncomfortable environments presents a unique opportunity to learn. Many of the key skills that students gain from studying abroad—such as adaptability, ease with ambiguity, problem-solving, self-confidence—are acquired this way.