"Culture shock" sounds scary and it is an important concern, but Kenyon provides tips for counteracting it and support for students going through the stages of cultural adjustment that affect most people who live abroad. Learning about U.S. values can be a big help - and so can a good sense of humor!
The information below has been adapted with minor alterations from Survival Kit for Overseas Living by L. Robert Kohls and from Meridian House International, 1984. The CGE would like to thank these sources for providing this valuable information.
Stages of adjustment
It has long been recognized that there are distinct stage of personal adjustment that almost everyone who lives abroad goes through - no matter where they come from or what country they move to). These stages are: initial euphoria, irritability and hostility, gradual adjustment, and adaptation or bi-culturalism.
Most people begin their experience abroad with high expectations and a positive mindset (sometimes those expectations are too high). At this point, anything new is exciting and intriguing, but for the most part it is the similarities that stand out. The recent arrivee is usually impressed with how people everywhere are really very much alike. This period of euphoria may last for a week or a month, but the letdown is inevitable at the end of this first stage.
2. Irritability and hostility
Gradually, your focus turns from the similarities to the differences, which suddenly seem to be everywhere. Insignificant difficulties are inflated to major catastrophes. This is the stage generally identified as "culture shock," and as a result, you may experience any of these symptoms: homesickness, boredom, withdrawal, need for excessive amounts of sleep, compulsive eating or drinking, irritability, exaggerated cleanliness, chauvinistic or ethnocentric tendencies, stereotyping of or hostility toward host nationals, loss of ability to work effectively, unexplainable fits of weeping, or other physical ailments.
3. Gradual adjustment
The crisis is over and you are on your way to recovery. This stage may come so gradually that you may be unaware that it is starting. Once you begin to orient yourself and interpret more subtle cultural cues, the culture will begin to be more familiar. You will become more comfortable and feel less isolated. Gradually your positive outlook will return and you will realize that the situation is not so hopeless.
4. Adaptation or bi-culturalism
Full recovery results in the ability to function in two cultures with confidence. You will find that there are many customs, ways of doing and saying things, and personal attitudes that you will enjoy. You may in fact experience "reverse culture shock" when you return home.
It's important to note that there are often two low points when adjusting to a new culture, which will change depending on how long you intend to stay in the host country. The length of the cultural shock and adjustment process overall also depends on the length of time you spend abroad and as well as your personal resiliency and the strategies that you employ to work your way through the adjustment process. You can expect an up-swing after the first dip, but be prepared for the second downturn, which will probably be more severe.
Counteracting culture shock
There are some things that you can do to reduce or shorten culture shock:
1. Find out as much as you can about your host country. One of the best antidotes to culture shock is knowing as much as possible about where you are.
2. Look for logical reasons behind everything in the host culture that seems strange, difficult, confusing or threatening. Even if your reason is wrong, it will reinforce the positive attitude that there is a logical explanation. Take every aspect of your experience and look at it from the perspective of your hosts. Find patterns and interrelationships. Relax your grip on your own culture - there is no way that you can lose it, any more than you could forget your native language, but letting go a bit may open up unexpected avenues of understanding.
3. Don't give in to the temptation to disparage the host culture. Resist making jokes and comments that illustrate the stupidity of your hosts and avoid people who do make them: they will only reinforce your unhappiness.
4. Identify a host national who is sympathetic and understanding of your adjustment process (for example, a neighbor, classmate, off-campus study student, counselor or someone in the CGE). Talk with that person about specific situations and your feelings. You can also use that person to explain the logical reasons mentioned in strategy number two.
5. Keep a journal of your experiences, both good and bad. It may make you feel better to read about what happened earlier in your adjustment process and you will be able to see how much you have learned and grown.
Below are some of the traits - including attitudes, ways of responding and styles of behaving - that are most helpful in the overseas adjustment process. You can rate yourself on a scale of one (low) to five (high) for each trait and then add up your score; if it's less than 55, you should probably make an effort to build up some of the traits.
Tolerance for ambiguity
Low goal/task orientation
Willingness to communicate
Sense of humor
Warmth in human relationships
Strong sense of self
Tolerance for differences
Ability to fail
Perhaps the most important trait is a sense of humor: there may be many instances where you experience anger, annoyance, embarrassment or discouragement and the ability to laugh things off will be the ultimate weapon against despair.
Please do not hesitate to talk to the staff of the Center for Global Engagement if you need a sympathetic ear.
This section is quoted, with minor alterations, from Survival Kit for Overseas Living by L. Robert Kohls. The entire book is highly recommended and is available to purchase online or to consult at the Center for Global Engagement.
Until you spend significant time in another country, it can be difficult to know what cultural values are passed down through your own community and how they differ from cultural values in other parts of the world. Although the list below does not describe every American's cultural values, you may find it helpful to point out some ways in which U.S. values differ from your own.
|U.S. Cultural Values||Contrasting Cultural Values|
|Personal control over the environment||Fate|
|Time and its control||Human interaction|
|Equality||Hierarchy / rank / status|
|Individualism / privacy||Group welfare|
|Self-help / independence||Birthright / inheritance / interdependence|
|Future orientation||Past orientation|
|Action or work orientation||"Being" orientation|
|Practicality / efficiency||Idealism|
|Materialism / acquisitiveness||Spiritualism / detachment|
Table courtesy of Meridian House International, 1984.