Culture Shock When Studying Abroad
Studying abroad and culture shock Are you planning to study in the UK? Are you looking forward to an exciting time, with high expectations of life in Britain? If you have been to the UK already, then you will roughly know what to expect. If it is your first time in the country – and perhaps your first time abroad – you may find that settling in is not an automatic process but that it requires a bit of effort. You may be surprised by this, and at some stage you will probably use the term culture shock to explain your reactions. But what exactly is culture shock? What does it feel like?
Can you prevent it? Probably not but you can minimise its effect. Read on and find out how. You may settle in more easily if you know in advance how you are likely to feel after your arrival. Research into culture shock For over thirty years, culture shock has been a bona fide field of research for European and American anthropologists and psychologists. They have studied the reactions and experiences during the first few months in a new country of travellers and diplomats, business people and international students. The anthropologist Dr. Kalvero Oberg was the first to use the term.
Others have since experimented with ‘culture fatigue’ and ‘role shock’ but these have not made it into everyday usage. Culture shock is snappy and somehow we all know what it means to us, although if asked, we may find it as difficult to define as ‘jet lag’ or ‘homesickness’. Some researchers describe five stages; others believe it is a six or even seven stage process. Not everyone experiences the exact stages but most travellers will go through the highs and lows, the positive as well as the negative aspects of living in a new culture. The different stages roughly are as follows:
At first you are excited by the new environment and a few frustrations do not spoil your enthusiasm. When experiencing some difficulties with simple things like, for instance, making telephone calls, or using public transport, you tend to down-play negative emotions. Then follows a period in which cultural differences in behaviour and values become more obvious. What previously seemed exciting, new and challenging is now merely frustrating. You may feel isolated and become withdrawn from life around you. You seek security in the familiar. Food from home, possibly even what you never particularly enjoyed, becomes a focus, maybe an obsession.
In the next stage you may reject what is around you, perhaps becoming opinionated and negative. You may feel that everyone is against you and that nobody understands you. Limpet-like you cling to other students from your home country, hoping to have your negative stereotypes of the British and life in Britain reinforced. However, you are beginning to re-assert yourself. Based on your successes in negotiating a variety of social situations and, maybe, increased language skills, your self-esteem grows. You can accept the negative differences and tolerate them.
Knowing that you cannot change your surroundings you now enjoy certain aspects of British culture and feel relieved and strengthened from having overcome the difficulties. You may even feel a sense of belonging. The symptoms Just as everyone’s experience of culture shock is unique, the symptoms associated with it vary, too. They can range from the physical – headaches, lethargy, sleep problems, loss of appetite and digestive irregularities – to the psychological, irritability and anger over minor frustrations, confusion about morals and values. Suffering from culture shock often leaves people feeling moody, isolated and insecure.
Researchers believe that the beginning of the negative phases happen most often within two to six months of living in a new culture but many travellers experience the full gambit of emotions associated with culture shock in a much narrower time span. Not everyone experiences culture shock But what about all those many people who immediately feel at home at Britain? Who embrace everything wholeheartedly and enthusiastically? Who experience no problems in settling in? Research has shown that the more well-travelled and practised at absorbing, accepting and adapting you are, the more easily you overcome culture shock.
If you are confident from speaking the language and possess a thorough knowledge of your new home, you can feel settled after a relatively short period. If you have adjusted well to your new environment, you perform competently the roles that each social context requires and thus avoid the frustrations resulting from inappropriate behaviour. Some individuals do not seek cultural adjustment, either because they do not agree with the values and behaviour prevalent in the new country, or because they fear to loose too much of their own cultural identity.
Living in a cultural vacuum may not be easy and can lead to feeling, and being treated, like an outsider. Others deny or even reject their own culture and unquestioningly embrace everything new. Whilst living in Britain, this may seem a viable course of action but on returning home can lead to re-integration problems. Those who neither completely reject their own culture nor that of the new country tend to be most successful at overcoming culture shock. They will attempt to mix and merge aspects of both cultures and thus become bicultural. Preparing for culture shock What strategies can you use to minimise, and cope with, culture shock?
Research has shown that our expectations affect how we react to a new country. Therefore, thorough pre-departure preparations are necessary; Read the very useful booklet ‘How to live in Britain’ (from the British Council) Perhaps you know someone who has lived in the UK, or – better still – studied at the university or college you are going to. Talk to them but beware, they may indulge in some nostalgia when looking back on their student days. Ask them what problems and disappointments they have experienced. To contact former students, find out whether the institution you are going to supports an alumni group in your country.
Read all the pre-departure literature sent to you by your university or college. Write to the International Welfare Officer for information if you are unsure about anything. Before leaving home, try and find out some social survival skills: how to address people in different social groups how gender roles affect social relationships what constitutes acceptable behaviour in a range of everyday situations how gestures and body language differ from your country’s Do not rely on TV or cinema films to provide you cultural pointers. British soap operas and films only give you a stereotypical and often idolised view.
How to overcome culture shock After arriving at your new university or college, the following suggestions may assist you in reducing the strain of culture shock: Be aware of the signs, including the physical symptoms. Soon after arriving, explore you immediate environment. Having taken advice on personal safety, walk around and get to know your neighbourhood. Create a mental map of your surroundings. Be courageous and introduce yourself to you neighbours. If you live in university accommodation, these are likely to be other students who feel just the way you do. Locate useful places such as he post office, the doctor’s surgery and the university welfare office so that you know where they are when you need them. Read a local newspaper and find out what the topical issues are. If you are well informed, you can hold conversations with British people without always feeling the outsider. If you are unsure of your English, boost your confidence by remembering that most British people do not speak a foreign language. Make an effort at improving your language skills by watching TV and listening to the radio. You institution may run free courses for international students.
Take a break from studying and take part in social activities. Enquire about things like etiquette and dress code if you are at all unsure. Ask questions about social customs from people with whom you feel comfortable. You will always find someone who will assist you in finding out about life in Britain. This can be a two-way exchange, with you telling people about life in your home country. Keep in touch with your own culture. The university’s International Welfare Officer should know, for instance, where the nearest temples and mosques are and where you can buy the cookery ingredients that you are used to from home.
Avoid mixing only with compatriots or other international students. Contact with British people allows you to adapt more quickly. By asking questions you have a point of contact when trying to make friends. A good way of meeting British people is to take part in a hosting scheme where British families invite international students into their homes for a meal, or a weekend stay. Ask the International Welfare Officer about this. Ask yourself which situations irritate or confuse you the most. Are you sure that you have always understood people’s reactions to you, or could it be that you misinterpreting their behaviour?
Avoid comparing them and us, good and bad. Establishing why people behave the way they do and placing their behaviour in a social or economic context is more helpful. Help to reduce stress on your body by keeping fit physically. If you are feeling very low, talk to someone about it. This could be your fellow students, your landlord, or university staff such as the International Welfare Officer or Student Counsellor. Write down things you like and do not like. Can you change them? If not, perhaps you can find a way of living with them. And finally, remember that other students probably go through the same experiences as you do.
Even British students have to adjust to living away from home. Adapting to a different climate, different social conventions and different cultural values can be a complex and sometimes painful process, but coming out at the other end is rewarding, enriching and definitely worth the effort! Author: Christine Eickelmann, University of Northumbria, U. K What Is It? Culture shock isn’t a clinical term or medical condition. It’s simply a common way to describe the confusing and nervous feelings a person may have after leaving a familiar culture to live in a new and different culture.
When you move to a new place, you’re bound to face a lot of changes. That can be exciting and stimulating, but it can also be overwhelming. You may feel sad, anxious, frustrated, and want to go home. It’s natural to have difficulty adjusting to a new culture. People from other cultures (whom you’ll be hanging out with and going to school with) may have grown up with values and beliefs that differ from yours. Because of these differences, the things they talk about, the ways they express themselves, and the importance of various ideas may be very different from what you are used to.
But the good news is that culture shock is temporary. What Causes Culture Shock? To understand culture shock, it helps to understand what culture is. You may know that genes determine a big part of how you look and act. What you might not know is that your environment — your surroundings — has a big effect on your appearance and behavior as well. Your environment isn’t just the air you breathe and the food you eat, though; a big part of your environment is culture. Culture is made up of the common things that members of a community learn from family, friends, media, literature, and even strangers.
These are the things that influence how theylook, act, and communicate. Often, you don’t even know you’re learning these things because they become second-nature to you — for instance, the way you shake hands with someone when meeting them, when you eat your meals each day, the kind of things you find funny, or how you view religion. When you go to a new place, such as a new country or even a new city, you often enter a culture that is different from the one you left. Sometimes your culture and the new culture are similar. Other times, they can be very different, and even contradictory.
What might be perfectly normal in one culture — for instance, spending hours eating a meal with your family — might be unusual in a culture that values a more fast-paced lifestyle. The differences between cultures can make it very difficult to adjust to the new surroundings. You may encounter unfamiliar clothes, weather, and food as well as different people, schools, and values. You may find yourself struggling to do things in your new surroundings that were easy back home. Dealing with the differences can be very unsettling; those feelings are part adjusting to a new culture My experience with culture shock in the UK
My experience with culture shock in the UK Below is an excerpt from a letter I wrote home in November 2004, several weeks after I arrived in Cheltenham, England, after spending ten years stationed in Hawaii. It describes my experience in coping with culture shock. In adapting to England over the last several weeks, I would say that the culture does not feel foreign, so much as different. It’s like seeing something odd out of the corner of my eye; I shift my perception to take it in more completely, and spend a little more time processing it, but what originally caught my attention does not seem so strange as it did at first glance.
What wears me down is the sheer number of times I have to stop and process the new and somewhat different information, and attempt to relate it to what I already know. The signs are in English, although the English is often not quite the same usage as what I would anticipate. The street signs are strange but generally understandable, after a few moments observation of the traffic and the area. The food often has funny or incomprehensible names but usually tastes good, although not quite like anything I’ve ever had at home, either.
The coins look odd and sound funny when clinking together in my pocket (and the denominations are slightly different as well) but they work as coins ought to when I need to use them. The accents of the people I pass by on the street often render their speech incomprehensible, but if I end up chatting with those same people, eventually something clicks in my brain and the words fall together (albeit usually not until after an embarrassing pause whilst my brain furiously processes the shift in pronunciation and the slightly different grammar and usage).
On top of this is my knowledge that most of these people have no problem understanding me, because they have been watching American films and TV shows their whole lives and have no problems at all understanding an American accent and American English usage. Brits do like Americans, though, so any problems I have understanding them usually injects a bit of humor in an otherwise awkward situation (as long as I am polite about it, of course). This is why I stated in my previous letter that I have not been unhappy here, simply overwhelmed.
I have met so many nice people and when I am willing to express my confusion, they are always willing to help me clear it up. The only times I do not try to clear things up are when I am already at my limit and feel that I can no longer take in new information. Ah, the wisdom of maturity. Only a few years ago, I would have been constantly berating myself for not understanding everything instantly. Something that a constantly changing military lifestyle has taught me, though, is patience with myself and a better understanding of my learning curve and my limits.
I am confident, now, that I will learn what I need to learn eventually, and I am willing to grant myself the time to learn it (usually). For those of you who received my Australia trip e-mails, you may recall that I mentioned that Australia felt less foreign than Hawaii. Modern Hawaiian culture has such a strong Asian and Pacific cultural influence that Hawaii often appears to feel more like a foreign country than a U. S. state. So I must admit that when I say that England does not feel really foreign, I am again comparing it to my experience in Hawaii.
Mainstream American culture often feels closer to English culture than it does to Hawaiian culture. I would like to emphasize, though, that I don’t consider this to be either a good or bad situation; I truly enjoyed my experience in Hawaii, and the strong Asian influence simply made it more interesting. I’m just commenting on the differences between the cultures. Well, enough philosophizing! Onward to the specific bits… Of course, no discussion of the differences between our two cultures would be complete without mentioning the traffic.
I have had a truly difficult time learning that the British drive on the left… and I am only referring to my experiences as a pedestrian! This IS foreign, no doubt about it. I have crossed more busy streets here in the last several weeks than I have in the last several years, and every time, it is a challenge for me to remember which lane contains traffic going in which direction. It is as if I learned American traffic patterns in infancy, when I can’t even remember learning them, and now I cannot unlearn them, or at least adapt them to these new conditions.
My car will be arriving soon. My American friends here tell me that it really isn’t too difficult learning to drive on the left side of the road, that you just follow the cars in front of you and you usually do okay. I do suspect that once I have been driving for a while, that will help me learn the drive-on-the-left traffic patterns much better than just being a pedestrian. I had an awesome time in England. I met many wonderful people, both at work and outside of it, especially in my A Course in Miracles study group.
I eventually adapted quite well and took the opportunity to travel both locally and further afield, to Scotland and the Shetland and Orkney Islands, and on continental Europe (which I mentioned in an earlier post about driving through the Alps). On the one hand, I wish I’d been able to stay longer in England (I was originally supposed to be there for 3 years, but was there only 1 year). On the other hand, a few months after I arrived back in Quincy, I met my future husband. Well … I guess it was a good trade. Good culture shock , Introduction Leaving home and travelling to study in a new country can be a stressful experience.
Even though it may be something you have planned and prepared for, the extent of the change and the effects it has on you may take you by surprise. If you find that you are surprised by the effects of the change, it might be helpful to realise that your experience is quite normal. This applies whatever country you come from, and wherever you are going to study, even though some cultures are more similar than others because of geographic, historic, demographic and other connections. What is culture shock? “Culture shock” describes the impact of moving from a familiar culture to one which is unfamiliar.
It is an experience described by people who have travelled abroad to work, live or study; it can be felt to a certain extent even when abroad on holiday. It can affect anyone, including international students. It includes the shock of a new environment, meeting lots of new people and learning the ways of a different country. It also includes the shock of being separated from the important people in your life, maybe family, friends, colleagues, teachers: people you would normally talk to at times of uncertainty, people who give you support and guidance.
When familiar sights, sounds, smells or tastes are no longer there you can miss them very much. If you are tired and jet-lagged when you arrive small things can be upsetting and out of all proportion to their real significance. The following are some of the elements that contribute to culture shock: Climate Many students find that the British climate affects them a lot. You may be used to a much warmer climate, or you may just find the greyness and dampness, especially during the winter months, difficult to get used to. Food You may find British food strange.
It may taste different, or be cooked differently, or it may seem bland or heavy compared to what you are used to. If you are in selfcatering accommodation and unused to cooking for yourself, you may find yourself relying on “fast” food instead of your usual diet. Try to find a supplier of familiar food, and eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. Language Constantly listening and speaking in a foreign language is tiring. If English is not your first language, you may find that you miss your familiar language which at home would have been part of your everyday environment.
Even if you are a fluent English speaker it is possible that the regional accents you discover when you arrive in the UK will make the language harder to understand. People may also speak quickly and you may feel embarrassed to ask them to repeat what they have said. Dress If you come from a warm climate, you may find it uncomfortable to wear heavy winter clothing. Not all students will find the British style of dress different but, for some, it may seem immodest, unattractive, comical or simply drab. Social roles Social behaviours may confuse, surprise or offend you.
For example you may find people appear cold and distant or always in a hurry. This may be particularly likely in the centre of large cities. Or you may be surprised to see couples holding hands and kissing in public. You may find the relationships between men and women more formal or less formal than you are used to, as well as differences in same sex social contact and relationships. ‘Rules’ of behaviour As well as the obvious things that hit you immediately when you arrive, such as sights, sounds, smells and tastes, every culture has unspoken rules which affect the way people treat each other.
These may be less obvious but sooner or later you will probably encounter them and once again the effect may be disorientating. For example there will be differences in the ways people decide what is important, how tasks are allocated and how time is observed. The British generally have a reputation for punctuality. In business and academic life keeping to time is important. You should always be on time for lectures, classes, and meetings with academic and administrative staff. If you are going to be late for a meeting do try to let whoever you are meeting know.
Social life is a little more complicated. Arranging to meet to see a film at 8pm means arriving at 8pm. But if you are invited to visit someone’s home for dinner at 8pm, you should probably aim to arrive at about ten minutes after eight, but not later than about twenty past. When going to a student party an invitation for 8pm probably means any time from 9. 30 onwards! These subtle differences can be difficult to grasp and can contribute to culture shock. Values Although you may first become aware of cultural differences in your physical environment, e. g. ood, dress, behaviour, you may also come to notice that people from other cultures may have very different views of the world from yours. Cultures are built on deeply-embedded sets of values, norms, assumptions and beliefs. It can be surprising and sometimes distressing to find that people do not share some of your most deeply held ideas, as most of us take our core values and beliefs for granted and assume they are universally held. As far as possible, try to suspend judgment until you understand how parts of a culture fit together into a coherent whole. Try to see what people say or do in the context of their own culture’s norms.
This will help you to understand how other people see your behaviour, as well as how to understand theirs. When you understand both cultures, you will probably find some aspects of each that you like and others that you don’t. A model of culture shock The process of culture shock can be illustrated by a model known as the “W” curve (see diagram on the following page). This model may not relate to your experience or only partially. Sometimes the process is faster or slower. Many people go through different phases of the process of adjustment several times, so parts of the curve in the diagram may repeat themselves.
For instance, at significant times such as important family dates or festivals you may feel distressed or lonely, while at other times you feel quite settled. However, many people have reported that this model has reflected something of their experience and they have found it helpful to realise they are not the only ones to have had these feelings. The process can be broken down into 5 stages: 1. The “honeymoon” stage When you first arrive in a new culture, differences are intriguing and you may feel excited, stimulated and curious. At this stage you are still protected by the close memory of your home culture. . The “distress” stage A little later, differences create an impact and you may feel confused, isolated or inadequate as cultural differences intrude and familiar supports (eg family or friends) are not immediately available. 3. “Re-integration” stage Next you may reject the differences you encounter. You may feel angry or frustrated, or hostile to the new culture. At this stage you may be conscious mainly of how much you dislike it compared to home. Don’t worry, as this is quite a healthy reaction. You are reconnecting with what you value about yourself and your own culture. 4. Autonomy” stage Differences and similarities are accepted. You may feel relaxed, confident, more like an old hand as you become more familiar with situations and feel well able to cope with new situations based on your growing experience. 5. “Independence” stage Differences and similarities are valued and important. You may feel full of potential and able to trust yourself in all kinds of situations. Most situations become enjoyable and you are able to make choices according to your preferences and values. Diagram of W-Curve: Stages of adjustment experienced during orientation.
Adapted from Orientated for Success, edited by M Barker, Australian International Development Assistance Bureau, 1990. Some of the effects of culture shock Some of the symptoms of culture shock can be worrying themselves. For example, you may find your health is affected and you may get headaches or stomach aches or you may start worrying about your health more than previously. You may find it difficult to concentrate and as a result find it harder to focus on your course work. Other people find they become more irritable or tearful and generally their emotions seem more changeable.
All of these effects can in themselves increase your anxiety. How to help yourself Though culture shock is normally a temporary phase, it is important to know there are things you can do to help so that some of these worrying effects can be minimised. Don’t feel “this isn’t going to happen to me”. Culture shock can hit you whatever culture you come from and however experienced or well-travelled you are. ? Simply understanding that this is a normal experience may in itself be helpful. ? Keep in touch with home. There are several ways you may be able to do this: for example telephone, letter, fax, email.
Several telephone companies offer greatly reduced charges for international calls. Check your Student Services, Students’ Union or International Office for information. If you live close enough to travel home at weekends, it is a good idea not to go home too often as this will make settling more difficult. Once or twice a term is probably best. Newspapers and satellite TV will also be an option for some people, again, see what is available for international students in your college or university. ? Have familiar things around you that have personal meaning, such as photographs or ornaments. ? Find a supplier of familiar food if you can.
Your student adviser or a student society may be able to help. Eat a healthy and balanced diet. ? Take regular exercise. As well as being good for your health it can be a way of meeting people. ? Make friends with international students, whether from your own culture or from others, as they will understand what you’re feeling and, if possible, make friends with the local students so you can learn more about each other’s culture. Be prepared to take the first step and find activities which will give you a common interest with UK students e. g. sports, music or volunteering. ? Take advantage of all the help that is offered by your institution.
In particular, the orientation programme offered by most colleges and universities can be a valuable way of meeting people and finding out about things that can help you. ? Use the university or college services, where there will be professional and experienced staff. For example the health service, the counselling service, the International Office or hall wardens will provide a friendly, listening ear. Even if at home you wouldn’t consider such steps, in the UK it is quite normal and they may help when your familiar helpers are missing. If you are finding settling down difficult, your personal tutor probably also needs to know.
She or he may be able to help, particularly with adjusting to a different academic system. ? For some students linking with a faith community will put you in touch with a familiar setting, whether it is a church, mosque, synagogue or temple. Many universities have a chaplaincy in which several faiths may be represented. There may also be religious student societies. Many chaplaincies welcome students of all faiths for pastoral or social activities. ? Investigate the Students’ Union and its societies. There may be an opportunity to learn a new sport or activity or continue an interest from home.
A further advantage is that these societies bring together students from different courses and countries with a shared interest. There are often national societies that will celebrate significant occasions such as Chinese New Year or Thanksgiving. For UK students, student societies can be one of the many ways of making new friends. ? Above all find some one to talk to who will listen uncritically and with understanding, rather than isolating yourself. Finally… It is important to stress that culture shock is entirely normal, usually unavoidable and not a sign that you have made a mistake or that you won’t manage.
In fact there are very positive aspects of culture shock. The experience can be a significant learning experience, making you more aware of aspects of your own culture as well as the new culture you have entered. It will give you valuable skills that will serve you in many ways now and in the future and which will be part of the benefit of an international education. Useful resource What’s up with culture? is a web-based training resource, designed for US students abroad but potentially of interest to any international student wanting to learn more about cultural transition. for information about how to make such an application.