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Dealing With “Culture Shock” While Studying Abroad

F

or students studying abroad, it can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. There is no doubt you gain independence while navigating uncharted waters, making new friends, learning a foreign language (possibly) and broadening your cultural perspective. 

However, in the beginning, like most things that come with change, studying abroad can be an overwhelming and lonely experience as you try to adapt to another way of life. Facing an adjustment period referred to as a "culture shock" can be unsettling. Everything is unfamiliar — the weather, landscape, language, food, fashion, beliefs, values and customs. Therefore, it’s important to be aware and informed of the resources and tools that you can use to help familiarize yourself with your new surroundings, minimize your adjustment period and, ultimately, reduce culture shock.

Topics Covered:

The Different Stages of Cultural Adjustment

What Are the Most Common Symptoms of Culture Shock?

Coping with Culture Shock

The Different Stages of Cultural Adjustment

Your "shock" level will depend on factors such as the length of time you’ll be away from home, flexibility and your tolerance for the cultural practices of others. It is important to note that culture shock is normal, and it shows that you have an eye for observation and differences among society. When experiencing culture shock, everyone goes through three similar stages. However, some of us are able to go through the process quicker and adapt more readily while others find it very difficult to adjust — some people even leave their host country to return back home.

Stage 1: Initial Euphoria

During this stage, you’ll feel excited about your new life in a different country — you’ll notice all of the similarities (e.g. same fast food chains, similar shopping centres etc.), and you might not think your host country is very different from your home country. This stage can last anywhere from a week to a month or more, but at some point, you’ll start to recognize the cultural differences and might begin to feel homesick or feel let down.

Stage 2: Irritation or Hostility

During this stage, you will focus more and more on the differences between your home country and your new surroundings. Small differences might get blown out of proportion and this is the stage most commonly recognized as a "culture shock." Things will start to feel new to you, and you might feel out of place.

Stage 3: Gradual Adjustment

During this stage, you will slowly begin to feel a sense of ease, slowly adjusting to your surroundings and become more comfortable in your new culture. At this stage, you’ll be able to recognize and interpret cultural clues and feel less isolated.

Stage 4: Adaptation or Biculturalism

Eventually you will begin to feel at home in your new country and will recognize that there will be things you miss about your new way of life when you return home, and possibly someday, you may even fully adapt to your host country and feel that you’re able to function in both cultures equally.

What Are the Most Common Symptoms of Culture Shock?

Culture shock symptoms can range from minor to severe. Most individuals suffering from culture shock commonly experience tiredness, irritability and depression. It should be noted that it is very normal to feel tired when adjusting to your new surroundings, especially if you are speaking a new language. However, if you find yourself so overwhelmed that it’s hard to do simple tasks, such as picking up a glass of water, then more is going on than simply being tired. Crying for no apparent reason, feeling sad and not being able to pinpoint why can be symptoms of a culture shock. This can be attributed to homesickness.

Homesickness is perfectly reasonable and understandable. Make sure to give yourself time and patience to adjust, meet new people, make new friends — try surrounding yourself with others who are in a similar situation as yourself and can provide support. Try to make sure to keep yourself active as boredom can be a sign that all is not well, and it can actually lead to more severe culture shock symptoms down the road. More severe symptoms (especially when carried to the extreme) are more problematic: inability to eat, overeating, over-drinking, obsession with cleanliness, lack of cleanliness, hostility towards others and physical ailments will not bode well for your stay.

Coping with Culture Shock

It helps to remember that culture shock doesn't come from one specific event. It is caused by being immersed in a new way of life than you’re used to and observing different ways of doing things. Not understanding or being aware of cultural cues and being expected to function without adequate knowledge of the rules or norms of your new environment. Below are some strategies for coping with culture shock:

  • Learn as much as you can about your host country before you arrive and, once there, ask locals you befriend as many questions as you need to familiarize yourself with your new surroundings.
  • Try to find or learn logical reasons for cultural differences. Differences have evolved over time, usually for purposes that may not be apparent today.
  • Refrain from mocking aspects of the new culture you’re in. Ridiculing your host country will only maximize the problem and will not help you adjust in the least.
  • Discuss your feelings with someone you trust in a mature and rational way. Spend time with locals, tell them how you do things at home and learn why it’s different in your new country.
  • Understand and believe in your ability to cope in your new surroundings. Focus on positive experiences and give yourself ample time to adjust — be patient with yourself.

What personal characteristics will help you?

  • Tolerance for the unknown
  • Open-mindedness
  • Being non-judgmental
  • Empathy and compassion
  • Being communicative
  • Flexibility
  • Adaptability
  • Curiosity
  • Sense of humor
  • Motivation
  • Self-reliance
  • Have patience in yourself and in your host country

While culture shock is normal, many students who come in with an open mind and do their research before leaving their home country are better able to cope with the symptoms of culture shock. While those who are not open, or do not take the time to mentally prepare themselves for the journey they are about to embark on, have a much harder time succeeding away from home. Tolerance and openness are essential traits while studying abroad. In addition, learning to effectively budget your money and adjust to extreme weather conditions are also things to keep in mind to have a successful trip. 

Remembering all of our tips will hopefully help you reap the rewards of living abroad. If you are thinking of becoming an International student in Canada, we hope these tips can help you adjust to your new home.

Last Updated March 2021

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