Exploring Cultural Differences

Stages of Cultural Adjustment​

Studies in intercultural education have shown that there are distinct phases of adjustment that virtually everyone who lives abroad experiences (see image below). These stages are:

  1. Initial Euphoria: This stage begins with your arrival in the new country and ends when the initial excitement wears off.
  2. Irritability: During this phase, people usually take a more active role in their new surroundings. This produces frustration because of the difficulties encountered in dealing with even the most basic aspects of everyday life. Your focus may turn to the differences between the host culture and your home culture, and these differences can be troubling. Sometimes these insignificant problems can get blown out of proportion. This stage is referred to as "culture shock."
  3. Gradual Adjustment: When the "culture shock" phase is over, you slip into the adjustment stage. You may not even be aware that this is happening as you will begin to orient yourself and interpret subtle cultural clues. The culture is gradually becoming familiar to you.
  4. Adaptation: The ability to function in two cultures with full confidence is the fourth stage. Your acute sense of "foreignness" no longer exists. Not only will you be more comfortable with the host culture, but you may feel a part of it. You may experience a sense of shared fate concerning events in the host country.
  5. Re-entry phase: When you return home you enter the last stage of cultural adjustment, the re-entry phase. For some people this can be the most difficult phase of all. Re-entry and suggestions for dealing effectively with it are discussed on the study abroad website under Returning From Abroad.

While most people go through each of these stages, individual experiences may differ and one stage may last longer for some, or in some cases be skipped entirely.

Cultural Stereotypes​

As you prepare to leave for your host country, you will probably read or hear stories about the country and its people that are both negative and positive. It is important to remember stereotypes can sometimes be unfair or unwarranted, or founded in one person's negative experience. It is important that you keep an open mind in order to get the most out of your experience.

Just as we have stereotypes of other countries, they too have stereotypes of Americans, not all of which are positive. Below are some examples of stereotypes of Americans (both positive and negative):

  • Optimistic
  • Informal
  • Wealthy
  • Politically naive
  • Hard-working
  • Loud, rude
  • Generous
  • Impatient

Remember that your actions are likely to leave an impression on the people in your host country. Eventually another American is going to follow in your footsteps and your interactions today will impact their interactions tomorrow. You should be careful not to perpetuate the negative stereotypes. Be sure to leave a positive impression behind for the next person to enjoy!

Culture Shock​

Cultural Adjustment, often referred to as "culture shock", describes the disorientation many people experience when they enter a culture different from their own. As a student about to live in another country, it is reasonable to assume that you will experience some degree of discomfort as you adjust and adapt to your new environment. It is a normal part of cultural adjustment.

Cultural adjustment can be expressed in a variety of ways such as intense homesickness, irritability, hypercritical thoughts, sadness, and frustration. The good news is that it can pass quickly if you work to keep an open mind and seek to accept and understand your new surroundings and the people you are meeting. If you experience some degree of discomfort, don't despair. You will most likely find that other study abroad students have similar feelings. Many people experience new and conflicting emotions when they are immersed in a different culture - these feelings improve with time. The following positive attitudes will help you through the adjustment process:

  • open mindedness
  • non-judgmental approach to new customs and ideas
  • curiosity
  • self-reliance
  • tolerance for differences
  • flexibility
  • adaptability
  • tolerance for ambiguity or "gray areas"
  • communicativeness
  • sense of humor

Making the Adjustment​

Just as your experience with cultural adjustment will be individual and personal, you will need to deal with it in an individualized way. An important thing to keep in mind is that confronting rather than avoiding the symptoms and causes of discomfort will help you to adapt much faster and more effectively to the host culture.

Some suggestions:

  • Learn as much as possible about your new culture.
  • Develop cross-cultural communication skills including good listening skills and a non-judgmental attitude.
  • Learn to take care of yourself in positive ways. Pay attention to your physical and emotional health.
  • Form friendships with host nationals.
  • Speak with other students who are having similar experiences.

Although cultural adjustment can be uncomfortable, overcoming it provides a valuable opportunity for personal growth. It is a mind-stretching process that will leave you with a broader perspective, a deeper insight into yourself, and a wider tolerance for others. You will mature in ways that you never would have had you stayed home.