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.
How to Respond to Culture Shift
You will feel more liberated after experiencing culture shift because you will have learned new approaches to doing things in your host country that have been adopted as part of daily life. By getting to know your host country and understanding the logic that lies behind the style of living there, you will be able to foster more effective interaction within the new culture.
To ease the stress of culture shift here are several solutions that can help you overcome it more quickly:
- When you first arrive, observe your surroundings so that you may trace any odd interactions you see to their underlying values. Once you have identified some of your host country’s values, share some of your observations with a native person whom you trust. You will find that it is a great opportunity to develop deeper, more intimate relationships with a few selected host nationals so that you may converse non-judgmentally about issues impacted by cross-cultural beliefs.
- Do not fear losing your home values or personal values. Partaking in the customs of your host country will not make you less of an American. It will only enlighten your mind and spirit and allow you to be more at ease in your new environment. It will open doors to understanding.
- It is important to maintain a good sense of humor. You may feel foolish at times when you have difficulty expressing yourself in another language, but learn to laugh it off. Many people will enjoy conversing with you and commend you for your efforts.
- Keep your mind occupied and be active. Activities such as reading, exercising, and socializing will keep you in healthy spirits. If you are feeling down, engage in some self-care activities before re-engaging with others.
- If you take time to inform others of your home country by sharing scrapbooks, photo albums, or other types of visuals with them, you will build closer relationships that will allow your hosts to get to know a part of you that is not so apparent in your daily living situation.
- Trust that your study abroad experience will be positive. As you acquire more knowledge about your host country and you begin to develop new friendships, you will discover the innumerable rewards of studying abroad.
- Learn the local language, if applicable. Speaking the language of your host country will demonstrate your initiative to learn and, at the very least, will be a courtesy to your hosts. Attempting to use the local language is a good basis on which to build new relationships with local people. Look for various ways to improve your language skills. Practicing is very important. If you are participating in an immersion program, try to speak your host country’s language at all times, even with your American peers. Do not try too hard to avoid grammatical mistakes. This may limit the communication and learning process. Words, phrases, sentence fragments—understood or spoken—will be appreciated. You will also experience a great sense of self-gratification once you begin to learn more and more about the language.
- You should try to recognize that other cultures may use different verbal and non-verbal communication methods. Body language, the use of personal space when conversing, and other non-verbal communication can be very different than what you are used to in the United States. Likewise, some cultures are not nearly as frank, sarcastic, or confrontational when discussing certain topics as Americans. Sometimes, things are implied in conversation but are not actually voiced. It is important to remember that differences in communication styles are just that — different. You should avoid making judgments about a person’s mannerisms until you understand how verbal and non-verbal communication styles work in your host culture.
- Be open-minded. It is important to observe culture in a way that makes it easier to see how behavior fits together, both logically and systematically. The tendency of people to impose their own values and assumptions onto people in a new culture usually inhibits cross-cultural understanding. Moreover, if you attempt to do something based on your own assumption of efficiency, you will be frustrated and feel that people are deliberately making things hard for you. Try to be open-minded rather than resort to becoming defensive and holding on to your preconceived stereotypes.
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.