Office of Global Citizenship

Culture Shock

What is Culture Shock?

In many ways, entering a new culture can be filled with excitement as everything that a student encounters is new and offers a prism through which to understand the culture. After the early euphoria of entering a new culture wanes, however, students may experience “culture shock” where they begin to feel homesick as they struggle to adapt to a general sense of feeling unfamiliar in a new culture, or to aspects of the host culture that they find off-putting or disconcerting. For example, riding on a crowded subway in Beijing can violate one’s culturally informed sense of space, or coming to a chaotic intersection crowded with motorcycles, bicycles, and honking cars may cause one to recoil. Culture shock can lead to depression, homesickness, and lethargy.

There are varying definitions of culture shock, but most authors agree that it follows a series of psychological stages as a person adjusts to a new culture. For example, Mary Ann Santoro Bellini describes the adaptation process in the following stages:

  • “Honeymoon period”: a euphoric period during which a person is excited about being in the new culture.
  • “Rejection”: a period when a person becomes critical and resentful of the new culture potentially caused by language difficulties, inability to establish new friendships, or trouble accepting idiosyncratic practices of the new culture.
  • “Regression and Isolation”: a period in which a person more completely rejects the new culture and yearns for an idealized conception of home. Students may experience “anxiety, sadness, homesickness, and anger.”
  • “Adjustment and Adaptation”: as a person becomes more successful in navigating the new culture, he or she enters a period of greater comfort and affinity with the new environment.

Managing Culture Shock

Photo by Kimpton LangfordNo easy prescription exists for overcoming culture shock, but recognizing the stages of culture shockcan help students develop the self-‌awareness to make sense of the emotional changes that they feel while studying abroad. Developing coping mechanisms can help a student to manage culture sho‌ck and fruitfully engage with their host culture. An excellent account of culture shock and coping strategies can be found here.

Dealing with culture shock often involves developing local friendships that allow students to deepen their understanding of the local culture and share their feelings. When encountering a new culture, it is important to recall that the goal is to understand rather than to judge.

In addition, students should try to maintain a sense of humor about what they may encounter while abroad and try to avoid becoming anxious or irritated by behavior and interactions that differ from their home country. It is also helpful to limit expectations about the study abroad experience, so that the student can enjoy the period without demanding too much of others in the new culture. More generally, making efforts to reach out to members of the new community, explore the new surroundings, exercise, and keeping a journal are some of the ways to try to cope with culture shock. This report provides some helpful information on strategies for overcoming culture shock.

Related to culture shock, students may suffer from what they call “FOMO” (fear of missing out), a sense that they want to be a part of the life and events in their home country. It is common to have such feelings, but focusing on what one “is missing” prevents one from discovering the exciting world around oneself. One of the greatest advantages that study abroad provides is an opportunity for personal growth, made possible by leaving one’s social ties and a set of expectations behind. Study abroad affords a rare chance to reflect on a new part of the world around them as well as self-reflection about one’s values, interests, and aspirations. To take advantage of that opportunity for personal growth, students need to focus on the unique experiences that they are having rather than worrying about life back on their home campus, as this article suggests.