Education Abroad

Adjustment and Adaptation

Cultural Adjustment

"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
    1. General attitude: anticipation, eagerness, nervousness
    2. Events: planning, packing, processing, celebrating, attending orientation
    3. Emotional response: excitement, enthusiasm, concern about leaving family and a familiar environment, desire to escape problems
    4. Behavioral response: Anticipation, loss of interest in current responsibility
    5. Physical response: tiredness, generally normal health
    6. Verbal response: "I just can't wait to..."
  2. Initial Euphoria
    1. General attitude: exhilaration, excitement
    2. Events: red carpet welcome, new home stay or dorm, new classes and teachers, exploration of sights and shops
    3. Emotional response: tourist enthusiasm, sense of adventure
    4. Behavioral response: outward curiosity about country, avoiding negative stereotypes, enthusiasm for studies and site, passive observer of culture
    5. Physical response: intestinal disturbances, minor insomnia
    6. Verbal response: "Awesome! This place and these people are like home."
  3. Increasing Participation
    1. General attitude: bewilderment, disenchantment, restlessness, impatience
    2. Events: classes, everyday life, responsibilities in home stay or dorm, unfamiliar food, language, customs
    3. Emotional response: frustration, uncertainty, irritability, loss of enthusiasm, skepticism
    4. Behavioral response: search for security in familiar activities (reading books in English), increased alcohol and/or food consumption, withdrawal
    5. Physical response: colds, headaches, tiredness
    6. Verbal response: "Why do they have to do it like that? Why can't they just..."
  4. Culture shock
    1. General attitude: impatience, irritation, aggression, hostility
    2. Events: Uneven work performance, confrontation with difference
    3. Emotional response: discouragement, lethargy, depression, suspicious, boredom, homesickness, anger, extreme sensitivity and irritability, loneliness
    4. Behavioral response: withdrawal, avoiding contact with host nationals, excessive sleep, tearfulness, loss of concentration, tension/conflict with others
    5. Physical response: Minor illnesses, headaches, preoccupied with personal cleanliness
    6. Verbal response: "This place sucks! I hate it here."
  5. Adaptation Phase
    1. General attitude: adjustment and/or recovery
    2. Events: work performance improves, able to interpret cultural clues, sense of humor returns
    3. Emotional response: sense of comfort with surroundings, sense of belonging in culture