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How to Deal with Culture Shock while Studying Abroad

The minute you land in your new study abroad country, you're busy taking in the newness around you. You're smiling at the street vendors selling fruit on every corner. You're captivated by the sudden openness of the people around you. Or perhaps you're noticing a discreet segregation of genders, ages, or confused by why your host mother shies away from some of your questions. This, brave study abroad student, is called culture shock.

The minute you land in your new study abroad country, you're busy taking in the newness around you.[Tweet This]

Most people who have traveled more extensively than a brief vacation (and us anthropology students, obviously!) have heard the term. Whether you've just long ago been bitten by the travel bug, or are heading off on your first time abroad, you'll need to understand culture shock and how to cope with it on your study abroad trip.

What is Culture Shock?

When you study abroad, your daily routine, culture, and the attitudes of people around you are no longer familiar. The process of recognizing, understanding, and adapting to these changes is called culture shock.

In our normal environment much of our behavior, like gestures, tone of voice, how we wait in lines (or don't wait), and interact, rely on collectively understood cultural cues. However, we don't actively pay attention to these -- they're our unspoken norm.

In a new country, we become more aware of these cultural subtleties because they are different from our norm.

You may not literally be shocked, but this act of feeling disoriented and processing new ways of life, attitudes, and cultural norms is by definition culture shock. There are four stages of culture shock:

  • Initial Euphoria / The Honeymoon Stage - After first arriving to a new place, you'll likely be caught up in all the wonderful things your new chosen home has to offer. During this stage, you are more likely to recognize cultural similarities and be charmed by the differences.
  • Irritation and Hostility / The Negotiation Stage - Gradually, the euphoria will diminish. You'll get lost. You'll get mad at the apparent "disorganization" of things. You'll become overwhelmed with all the things you have to adjust to and either feel irritated or compelled to make things go "your way".
  • Gradual Understanding / The Adjustment Stage - You're finally able to relax. You’ve come to terms with your new home and have achieved a balance of emotions. Instead of feeling irritated, you're understanding of differences. You'll start to have a more positive outlook, interest in learning more about your host country, and make more effort to fit in.
  • Adaptation or Biculturalism / The Mastery Stage - Reaching a high level of comfort in your new home is the final stage of culture shock. The order of things makes sense, you can talk to strangers with ease, and you understand cultural nuances. Your routine is more natural. Sure, you still miss your friends and family, but your new friends and activities have become part of your daily life.
Culture Shock and Depression

In some cases, culture shock can resemble or trigger study abroad depression. If you fear you are on the verge of or already in this state, don’t try to get through it alone. Talk to your study abroad directors or volunteer coordinators. Don’t isolate yourself.

Tips for Dealing with Culture Shock

Okay, okay, so you understand what culture shock is and how to recognize it. Lets get down to real strategies and tips for dealing with culture shock.

1. Learn as much about your host country as possible

Read through travel forums, guidebooks, news reports, or novels. Talk to people who have been there or -- better yet -- are from there.

Get to know as much as you can about what's considered polite or rude (for example, did you know it's rude to step over someone's bag in Madagascar?) and prepare yourself for some of the differences before you go.

2. Ask study abroad coordinators for advice

Specifically, ask them what other students have had a hard time adapting to and what they've done to cope. Each country has it's own nuances, so you're going to face a different situation in France as you would in Thailand. Ask those who know best!

3. Set learning goals for your study abroad trip

This may be obvious, but make sure you have goals for your study abroad trip, and make sure they include learning about your host culture. Do you love food? Make it a goal to learn how to cook a local dish.

4. Write down what you love when you first arrive, and look back later

During the honeymoon phase, write down all the things you love about your new host country (maybe even in your new study abroad blog?). Later, when you're feeling frustrated or irritated, use this list to remind yourself of all the good things about your host country, instead of the things that annoy you.

5. Find a healthy distraction

Especially in stage two, when you may have negative feelings towards your host culture, find a healthy distraction. Take some time to yourself, watch an episode of your favorite TV show, cook a meal from home, or have a solo dance party in your house.

Study abroad's a challenge, an introduction to a new culture, and an emotional roller coaster at times.[Tweet This]

It's OK to feel overwhelmed and need a break from your host country -- just make sure it's a healthy distraction and you don't spend your whole time locked up in your house!

6. Talk to other students about how you feel

You'll likely know other students who are studying abroad with you. Talk to them about how they feel about your host culture. Ask them about how they feel, strategies they've used to cope with cultural differences.

Also, learn from them. They may have figured out something you're still confused about -- like why everyone keeps saying a particular phrase or how to politely say "no" when your host mom insists you finish everything on your plate.

7. Push yourself to make local friends

Of course, you'll learn even more if you make local friends. They're experts in their own culture and will be able to explain all the crazy little questions you have. And if they're a truly good friend, they'll pull you aside and tell you if you're unwittingly doing something offensive or weird. *Phew*!

8. Try to see things through your host culture's eyes

Put on your anthropology hat, kiddos. After all, your anthro class is likely where you first heard about culture shock, right?

Throughout every stage of culture shock, try to put your own worldview in your pocket and try to understand the world the way your host culture does.

Maybe you don't agree with some philosophies, and maybe it doesn't make sense within your own cultural context, and it doesn't have to. Just try to understand where they're coming from. Ask questions, be non-judgemental, be an anthropologist!

9. Get involved with the local community

Part of your feelings of culture shock may be because you feel like too much of an outsider, so get involved in your local community as much as possible. If you went to church at home, go to church there. If you volunteered at home, find a volunteer project in your host city. Join a sports team, go to major festivals, and make this new home a home!

10. Make an effort to learn the local language

Even if your program is in English, make an effort to learn a few basic phrases (or more!) in the local language. It's not just a way to understand more of the culture (language and culture are linked), but also to make friends, feel more included, and hey -- it's just fun!

So How Exactly Will It Affect Me?

Culture shock affects everyone differently, and can manifest itself in a variety of ways. Largely, this depends on:

  • The countries you’ve previously traveled to ... if any. Have you experienced new cultures before?
  • The country you’re now traveling in. How different is it from your own culture?
  • The purpose and structure of your current trip. Do you have someone to help you understand the new culture? Are you willing to learn and adapt?
  • How well you adjust to new situations. How do you generally react to being outside your comfort zone?

For example, when I first traveled in Tanzania, I had the hardest time adjusting to shopping in chaotic markets and bargaining for goods. I'm used to being left alone to browse when shopping at home, but most shop owners there are anxious to make a sale. They follow shoppers around and continuously present them with suggestions of things to buy. Then, instead of paying a set price, shopper and shopkeeper begin the lengthy process of bargaining for an agreed upon price. I had limited patience with this system, and would often end up feeling irritated.

The process of recognizing, understanding, and adapting to these changes is called culture shock.[Tweet This]

In contrast, when I later visited other countries, like India, with similar markets and culture of bargaining, I felt more confident and able to navigate shopping in markets. I still didn't love it, but my past experiences helped me adapt to these new cultures since I'd traveled in similar places before.

Don't Let Culture Shock Stop You from Studying Abroad

Study abroad isn't all weekend getaways and late night parties. It's a challenge, an introduction to a new culture, and an emotional roller coaster at times. However, it's one worth taking. We promise you though, once you're home you'll forget about all the things that irritated you and treasure the memories and friends you made.

Photo Credits: Anna Langer, Jessie Beck, and Charity Yoro.

Mandi Schmitt

Mandi has studied, volunteered, interned, and lived abroad in all sorts of fascinating places, including Rome, London, India, Costa Rica, and Tanzania. She started writing for Go Overseas as a Columnist before coming on full time as the PR & Special Projects Director. Keep up with her on @Mandi_Overseas and Google+.

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