Culture Shock

When you study abroad, you will experience new sights, systems, values, and approaches.  It can be overwhelming to suddenly be placed in an unfamiliar environment where everything seems to be done differently.  Not that things are done in a better or worse way, just a different way.  What exactly do these differences add up to?  The answer: Culture.  Culture refers to the values, beliefs, customs, and other forms of behavior shared by members of a social group over a period of time.  Understanding how culture affects people’s attitudes and behavior will help you get along with people abroad and allow you to appreciate their culture.

When you are abroad, all of the challenges of being immersed in a new culture can result in a phase of feeling overwhelmed.  This is termed culture shock, and most of us feel it sooner or later while overseas.  The term culture shock refers to a set of feelings and symptoms that are associated with adjusting to a new culture abroad.  These feelings and symptoms include:

• disorientation
• isolation
• frustration
• depression/sadness
• extreme homesickness
• having negative feelings about the host culture
• sleeping or eating disturbances

You may become irritated by small cultural differences or feel that things are done better at home, causing you to react negatively to the host culture.

So how do you cope with these feelings?  Recognizing that they are normal is a good first step.  Also, remember that these are feelings, not facts, and that at some point you will begin to acclimate to your new environment.  You can develop strategies to deal with these frustrations, such as making friends in the host culture, going to events, and trying new activities.  As tempting as it is to keep relaxing in your dorm room or talking to friends back home, this is not the way to emerge from culture shock!  Instead, take a language class, start a blog, and get involved with sports and social activities.  Saying “YES” to social invitations, even if you don’t feel like going, can make a difference and help you to appreciate the host culture.

Whether you will be abroad for a few weeks or an entire year, it is helpful to know some facts about your host culture.  Knowing something about your host culture will help to increase your sense of familiarity.  You can learn about your host culture by talking to people who are from your host country, reading about the culture online, and talking to students who have studied abroad already. 

Remember your support systems while abroad:  your study abroad advisor at UM, fellow study abroad students, and classmates as well as host country nationals.  Confiding in someone can be a big help – just remember to avoid negative conversations that become complaining parties.

Keep an open mind to the host country culture – remember, it may be different from what you are used to, but it is not better or worse.  As you learn about the culture, you will begin to appreciate these differences.  This appreciation contributes to cultural awareness.  Remember that you are learning and that each day you are increasing your cultural adaptation, especially by participating in host country activities.  Before you realize it, your time abroad will be winding down and you will be thinking about all of the things that you will miss about the host country. 
For a great online cultural training resource for study abroad students, please click here.