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Cultural Adjustment and Adaptation Phases

Cultural Adjustment

Buckeye engineering studying in India"Culture shock" is the term used to describe the difficulties experienced as you integrate into a new society and deal with the many emotions that come from adapting to a new culture. It is a natural reaction to leaving your familiar surroundings and finding yourself in an almost unknown environment where many things are unfamiliar - the language, food, daily life, the scenery and the environment. If you experience some degree of culture shock, you are not alone. Many people experience new and conflicting emotions as they live cross-culturally.

Cultural Adaptation Phases

Culture shock can be expressed in a variety of ways: intense homesickness, irritability, hypercritical thoughts, sadness, fear and frustration. Studies in intercultural education have shown that there are distinct phases of personal adjustment that virtually everyone who lives abroad experiences. These stages are:

1. Pre-Departure

General Attitude: Anticipation, eagerness, nervousness
Events: Planning, packing, processing, celebrating, attending orientation
Emotional Response: Excitement, enthusiasm, concern about leaving family and a familiar environment, desire to escape problems
Behavioral Response: Anticipation, loss of interest in current responsibilities
Physical Response: Tiredness, generally normal health
Verbal Response: "I just can’t wait to…"

2. Initial Euphoria

General Attitude: Exhilaration, excitement
Events: Red carpet welcome, new home stay or dorm, new classes and teachers, exploration of sights and shops
Emotional Response: Tourist enthusiasm, sense of adventure
Behavioral Response: Outward curiosity about country, avoiding negative stereotypes, enthusiasm for studies and site, passive observer of culture
Physical Response: Intestinal disturbances, minor insomnia
Verbal Response: “Awesome! This place and these people are a lot like home.”

3. Increasing Participation

General Attitude: Bewilderment, disenchantment, restlessness, impatience
Events: Classes, everyday life, responsibilities in home stay or dorm, unfamiliar food, language, customs
Emotional Response: Frustration, uncertainty, irritability, loss of enthusiasm, skepticism
Behavioral Response: Search for security in familiar activities (e.g., reading books in English), increased alcohol and/or food consumption, withdrawal
Physical Response: Colds, headaches, tiredness
Verbal Response: “Why do they have to do it like that? Why can’t they just…”

4. Culture Shock

General Attitude: Impatience, irritation, aggression, hostility
Events: Uneven work performance, confrontation with difference
Emotional Response: Discouragement, lethargy, depression, suspicion, boredom, homesickness, anger, extreme sensitivity and irritability, loneliness
Behavioral Response: Withdrawal, avoiding contact with host nationals, excessive sleep, tearfulness, loss of concentration, tension/conflict with others
Physical Response: Minor illnesses, headaches, preoccupied with personal cleanliness
Verbal Response: “This place sucks! I hate it here.”

5. Adaptation Phase

General Attitude: Adjustment and/or recovery
Events: Work performance improves, able to interpret cultural clues, sense of humor returns
Emotional Response: Sense of comfort with surroundings, sense of belonging in culture
Behavioral Response: Empathy, ability to see things from perspectives of host nationals
Physical Response: Normal health
Verbal Response: "Home" is home stay or dorm. "We" includes host nationals.

6. Re-Entry Phase

General Attitude: Ambivalence and state of disorientation
Events: Wanting to tell others about experience and finding others generally not very interested
Emotional Response: Mixed-up, disconnected, disoriented, irritable, depressed, desire to return to host country, uncertaint about “home”
Behavioral Response: Criticism of home, friends and the United States, keen interest in foreign affairs and news, apathy
Physical Response: Colds, headaches, exhaustion
Verbal Response: “I never realized…”

– Adapted from the Fulbright Newsletter, 1988

An important thing to keep in mind is that confronting, rather than avoiding, the symptoms and causes of culture shock will help you to adapt much faster to the host culture. Also, do not hesitate to talk to your resident director, in-country contact or your education abroad coordinator at any time about how you are feeling with your cultural adaptation.

Some suggestions for overcoming culture shock:

  • Understand that practically everyone who goes overseas experiences some form of culture shock.
  • Before you leave, learn as much as you can about the culture you are visiting. The number of surprises you experience will decrease the more you know in advance.
  • Form friendships with host nationals, as many will be sympathetic, understanding and open to discussions about the specific situations and feelings you are going through.
  • Avoid the temptation to be negative or to belittle the host culture.
  • Take care of yourself, get exercise and eat well. Know how and when to release tension, and pay attention to your physical and emotional health.
  • Consider writing a journal to help gather your thoughts about what you are experiencing.

Striving to remain tolerant of differences and maintaining a sense of humor can be very helpful tools to overcoming culture shock. It is a mind-stretching process that will leave you with a broader perspective, a deeper insight into yourself and a wider tolerance for others.