One of the most rewarding aspects of study abroad is the experience of being immersed in another culture. Students often return from abroad with an understanding of new foods, art, sports, models of business, science or government; this expanded knowledge helps former participants to be more effective and innovative in their working lives and more satisfied on a personal level. Culture is the set of basic life assumptions shared by a group of people. It includes how the people see themselves, how they see the rest of the world, and how the group arranges itself economically and politically.

Students come to understand that their host country has its own way of handling…

Meeting people and fitting in

A frequent criticism of Americans is that we are superficial – overly friendly when first meeting people, but then not very good at building or maintaining lasting friendships. Until students understand local ways, it is wise to be slightly more formal and restrained than usual in dealing with people.

Culture Shock

"Culture Shock" is the term used to describe the more pronounced reactions to the psychological disorientation most people experience when they move for an extended period of time into a culture markedly different from their own. In a sense, culture shock is the occupational hazard of overseas living through which one has to be willing to go through in order to have the pleasures of experiencing other countries and cultures in depth.

Casual Dating

Two people going out alone for dinner or drinks with no further expectations is an American idea. This does not happen in many other parts of the world. People who feel "casual" about each other in other countries usually go out in large groups.

Women, especially, must make an effort to learn the rules about what is and is NOT safe to do as early as possible. Ask female former participants and the on-site coordinators for tips. Behaviors that are not significant in America – such as smiling at a stranger, making polite conversation at a bus stop, allowing someone to buy you a drink – can result in totally unexpected reactions from men overseas.

Intimate Interactions

Students cannot assume that the same rules apply abroad as here. If there is any chance that a student will date a local person while abroad, they should talk to people who understand both cultures' viewpoints in this area in order to have good experiences & stay safe.

Work Against the Stereotypes

Many people, if not most, have one or more very strong (and usually negative) ideas, not always based on experience or knowledge, about people who belong to another culture. One of the goals of study abroad is to help students to challenge and overcome these ideas. In the era of global business, media and frequent international travel, stereotypes are more counterproductive and unnecessary than ever.

Before traveling, read about the culture of the country. While abroad, maintain an open mind about what you see. If something seems strange, try to understand it by discussing it with the program leader or someone else who understands both the American culture and that of the host country.

Just as Americans have stereotypes about people elsewhere, they have stereotypes about us. For example, that we are loud, immature, wasteful, ignorant of other countries, judgmental and promiscuous. Act in a way that will convince hosts that these stereotypes cannot be applied to all Americans.

Watch local people and model public behavior on theirs, especially in the areas of how loudly one speaks and how one uses alcohol. Learn at least a little of the local language. Be able to begin vital inquiries with "Excuse me, do you speak English?" Also be able to say "Thank you".

Beliefs About Safety.

Different cultures have their own ideas about what is a "normal" rate of crime. People elsewhere think of the US as being dangerous because the rate of violent crime is much higher than that in other Western, industrialized countries.

While families may caution their child or sibling to "watch out for the pickpockets in Rome", Italian parents are telling their children to "watch out for the murderers in Chicago."

Space And Contact.

All cultures have different notions about physical contact or space, for instance how far away to stand or sit when conversing, or how to discipline children, or how to greet people (a handshake? a bow? a kiss on the cheek?)

Big Ben

Culture shock comes from

  • Being cut off from the cultural cues and patterns that are familiar—especially the subtle, indirect ways you normally have of expressing feelings. All the nuances of meaning that you understand instinctively and use to make your life comprehensible are suddenly taken from you.
  • Living and/or working over an extended period of time in a situation that is ambiguous.
  • Having your own values (heretofore considered as absolutes) brought into question.
  • Being continually put into positions in which you are expected to function with maximum skill and speed but where the rules have not been adequately explained. Elizabeth at the border
Elizabeth at the border

For some people the bout with culture shock is brief and hardly noticeable. These are usually people whose personalities provide them with a kind of natural immunity. For most of us, however, culture shock is something we will have to deal with over a period of at least several months, possibly a year or more.

Culture shock is often mixed with frustration, and although they are related and similar in emotional content, they do differ. Frustration is always traceable to a specific action or cause and goes away when the situation is remedied or the cause is removed. Frustration may be uncomfortable, but it is generally short-lived as compared to culture shock.

Symptoms of Culture Shock

It does not result from a specific event or series of events.It comes instead from the experience of encountering ways of doing, organizing, perceiving or valuing things which are different from yours and which threaten your basic, unconscious belief that your culture's customs, assumptions, values and behaviors are "right." It does not strike suddenly or have a single principal causeIt builds up slowly, from a series of small events which are difficult to identify.

Not everyone will experience a severe case of culture shock, nor see all the symptoms. Some that may occur in more severe cases include:

  • Homesickness
  • Withdrawal
  • Psychosomatic illnesses
  • Boredom
  • Unexplainable fits of weeping
  • Compulsive eating
  • Loss of the ability to work effectively
  • Compulsive drinking
  • Need for excessive amounts of sleep Irritability
  • Hostility towards host nationals
  • Chauvinistic excess
  • Stereotyping of host nationals
  • Homesickness
  • Exaggerated cleanliness
Eric Barnard in Italy during Spring Break

The Stages of Culture Shock

Initial euphoria

Most people begin their new adventure with great expectations and a positive mind-set. If anything, they come with expectations which are too high and attitudes that are too positive toward the host country and toward their own prospective experiences in it. At this point, anything new is intriguing and exciting. But, for the most part, it is the similarities which stand out. This period of euphoria may last from a week or two to a month, but the letdown is inevitable.

Irritation and Hostility

Gradually, focus turns from the similarities to the differences. And these differences, which suddenly seem to be everywhere, are troubling. Little, insignificant seeming problems are blown way out of proportion. This is the stage generally identified as "culture shock," and you may experience any of the symptoms.

Gradual Adjustment

The crisis is over and you are on your way to recovery. This step may come so gradually that, at first, you will be unaware it is happening. Once you begin to orient yourself and are able to interpret some of the subtle cultural clues and cues which passed by unnoticed earlier, the culture seems more familiar. You become more comfortable in it and feel less isolated from it. Gradually, too, your sense of humor returns and you realize the situation is not hopeless after all.

Minimizing the Impact of Culture Shock

One of the best antidotes to culture shock—though it may not make sense at the time—is knowing as much as possible about where you are.

By looking consciously for logical reasons behind what seems difficult, confusing, or threatening, you will reinforce that there are explanations behind what you observe in the host culture.

Don't succumb to the temptation to criticize the host culture. Resist making jokes and comments that are intended to illustrate the stupidity of the locals, and don't hang around the Americans who do make them.

Identify a host national (a neighbor, a friendly acquaintance) who is understanding, and talk with that person about specific situations and about your feelings related to them. Talking with Americans can be helpful, but only to a limited extent. Your problem lies in your relationship to the host culture.

Above all, have faith—in yourself, in the essential good will of your hosts, and in the positive outcome of the experience. Know that the above responses can occur, that culture shock is in some degree inevitable, and that reactions are emotional and not subject to rational management.

Source: Survival Kit for Overseas Living.; L. Robert Kohls.
Having culture shock does not imply any shortcomings – it's just an occupational hazard of living in an international and intercultural life. Just as an athlete cannot get in shape without going through the uncomfortable conditioning stage, so a student cannot fully appreciate new cultures without first going through the uncomfortable stages of psychological adjustment.We can't prevent anyone from experiencing culture shock, but can reassure that culture shock has been overcome by thousands of Purdue students. Actually, many people experience culture shock in their own country, for example, by visiting a new region for the first time. Students have already adapted to a new culture by leaving home for college. With a little advance preparation, some flexibility and persistence, students can adjust successfully to the new surroundings in the host country.

Adaptation or Biculturalism

Full recovery will result in an ability to function in two cultures with confidence. You will even find a great many customs, ways of doing and saying things, and personal attitudes which you enjoy—indeed, to which you have in some degree acculturated—and which you will definitely miss when you pack up and return home.

In fact, you can expect to experience "reverse culture shock" upon your return to the U.S. In some cases, particularly where a person has adjusted exceptionally well to the host country, reverse culture shock may cause greater distress than the original culture shock.

Honduras Summer Program
Hugging a big tree

While Abroad

Stay physically and psychologically well. Eat well, sleep enough and don't drink too much.

Deal with any dissatisfactions promptly & directly. If there are concerns about housing, the academic program, or anything else having to do with the program site, address these quickly so they don't stew and get worse.

Be patient. Remember that cultural adjustment is a process and that everyone goes through it at a different pace.

Returning to the U.S.

Many people find it challenging to return to campus from study abroad or other travel experiences. It is often while trying to settle back into their former routines that returned study abroad participants realize how much they have grown and changed. Some report that their overseas experience changes their perceptions, their ways of doing things or even what it means to "be themselves". Students returning from a study abroad program can experience reverse culture shock.