Study Abroad

Cultural Adjustment

What is Culture?

Author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. explains to us how important it is to learn about different cultures. 

“I didn’t learn until I was in college about all the other cultures, and I should have learned that in the first grade.  A first grader should understand that his or her culture isn’t a rational convention; that there are thousands of other cultures and they all work pretty well; that all cultures function on faith rather than truth; that there are lots of alternatives to our own society.  Cultural relativity is defensible and attractive.  It’s a source of hope.”

Culture is transmitted from generation to generation, and our understanding of it helps us to define a particular group.  But we must avoid making our understanding of a culture a stereotype.  Not all Americans are alike.  Similarly, we can’t expect that all members of a given group will follow a list of traits we expect of their culture.

Further, there is no intrinsically right or wrong culture or way of living.  For practical purposes there are different solutions that have been learned in a given culture to provide for its basic needs.  In order to understand the different values and behaviors of a culture, it is important to approach them objectively rather than automatically condemning or accepting various aspects of the host culture.  

Living in another country for an extended period of time will give you an opportunity to develop an in-depth understanding of another culture, confront different customs and ways of thinking, and adapt to a new daily routine.  An individual’s adjustment to a new culture is a continuous, on-going, natural process.  It never stops, and the adjustment styles and techniques vary from one individual to another from one culture to another.  You may see and be asked to participate in activities that will challenge your beliefs, your values, and your sense of self.  The ability to flourish in those settings will be a skill that will serve you well all your life.

Remember that as Americans we have our own culture.  The people you encounter will be adapting to your American culture as you are adapting to theirs.  Sometimes the adapting process can make you uncomfortable.  The more you know about your own personal values and how they are derived from your culture, the better prepared you will be to see, handle, and understand the cultural differences you will encounter abroad.  Remember, you are a guest in their culture.

Culture Shock

Culture shock is a typical reaction to time spent in a different culture.  It can be frustrating to try to navigate day-to-day activity in an unfamiliar setting.  It can be more difficult because you are far from your family, friends, and support systems.  At the same time, living in another culture is extremely exciting and rewarding.  As a result culture shock is normally described as a cycle of emotions, from exhilaration to disillusionment, from discouragement to fulfillment, from one extreme to another.  

Most students will encounter some culture shock.  You often start in a honeymoon stage characterized by excitement, exhilaration, and curiosity.  After you settle into a routine, some of the differences will make you feel out-of-place and frustrated.  This can result in homesickness, and in some cases depression, lack of energy or concentration, irritability, hesitation to go out, and even physical illness.  It is important to realize this is normal and most often related to culture shock, and not “just you.”  The most important tools to combat culture shock will be patience, flexibility, adaptability, and sense of humor. 

Peaks and Valleys of Culture Shock

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Some Tips for Responding to Culture Shock

  • Get to know your host country and look for the logic that lies behind their style of living. 
  • Once you have identified some of your host country’s values, share some of your observations non-judgmentally with a native person whom you trust. 
  • Do not fear losing your home values or personal values.  You won’t.  When you enjoy and partake in local customs, it will not make you less of an American.  It will only open doors to understanding. 
  • Maintain a good sense of humor and be willing to laugh at yourself. 
  • Keep your mind occupied and be active.  If you are feeling down in the dumps, do something to alleviate it such as taking a scenic trip to a nearby region or country.
  • Find time to chronicle your experience through a blog, photos, journal, etc. 
  • Make an effort to learn at least a little of the local language and then look for opportunities to use it.  Don’t worry about making mistakes.  You probably don’t worry when international students make grammar mistakes here at Elon.  People abroad will appreciate your effort to use their language. 
  • Remain open-minded and curious to find the differences between cultures.  
  • Do not impose your values or norms on others.  

Recommended Reading

For more information about culture's influence on behavior and communication, anthropologist Edward T. Hall has written several highly regarded books: The Silent Language, 1973. The Hidden Dimension, 1990. Beyond Culture, 1977. Dr. L. Robert Kohls’ Survival Kit for Overseas Living, 1996, provides sound guidance in preparing for a rewarding experience abroad.

(adapted from NAFSA Document Library – Sample Study Abroad Handbook)