Cultural Adjustment

During their study abroad program, students may experience physical and emotional discomfort from being in another country or in a place different from their place of origin.  In order to effectively manage that change, the following suggestions are offered:

  • Be flexible; tolerate ambiguity; expect things to be different.
  • Be patient; don't try to understand everything immediately.
  • Give yourself permission to fail; experiment with new customs.
  • Develop a sense of humor; don't take things too seriously.
  • Identify cultural informants who can help you learn.
  • If problems arise, assume your share of the responsibility.

Cultural adjustment occurs in phases and students may experience the various phases with differing levels of intensity. Students can also prepare for cultural adjustment before going abroad by reading books about the culture, travel guide books, local magazines or newspapers and by meeting people from the country you will be visiting.  

Cultural Adjustment Phases

Students may experience the following various phases with differing levels of intensity. These phases may not be experienced in the order listed, but the information provides a general idea of the personal challenges that may await students while studying abroad.

Honeymoon or Tourist Phase
This phase begins when visitors first encounter the new culture. Like a tourist, students may be fascinated by their experiences in a new and different culture. However, their enthusiasm for novelty may soon diminish, especially if favorite comforts are not available. During this phase, students tend to filter new experiences through the lens of their home culture and may rely on stereotypes to comprehend the host culture.

Hostility Phase
After the initial excitement wears off, students may experience a variety of difficulties in adjusting to the host culture. These difficulties may range from trying to understand the language to difficulties with routine living. Coping mechanisms learned in the home culture fail to accomplish desired results in the new culture. A situation that may have invoked curiosity during the honeymoon phase may now produce feelings of puzzlement, surprise, frustration, embarrassment, or anger. Some individuals may become judgmental about the new culture and express derogatory generalities such as, "They don't like me," "I don't like them," "They can't get anything right over here." During this phase, students may need to temporarily retreat into experiences that are familiar or that remind them of the home culture. They may need to call home or connect with others from the home country to discuss their feelings and thoughts. All of these are healthy coping mechanisms and can give individuals renewed energy to confront cultural differences.

Humor or "Grin and Bear It" Phase
Gradually, students develop skills to successfully navigate the new culture. They make new friends, begin to relax in their new surroundings, develop confidence, and their sense of humor returns. Experiences that may have produced feelings of embarrassment or anger during the hostility phase are now laughed away. Humor replaces criticism. There is less need to "fight" the host culture, and there is less need to filter the new experiences through the lens of the home culture. Individuals are acquiring new perspectives and cultural insights; they are developing new perceptual lenses.

Effective Adjustment Phase
Over time, students must confront deeper cultural and personal issues. They must continue to study and interact with the host culture to refine their understanding of it. Ultimately, newcomers begin to accept and respect the new culture as just another way of living. The new culture makes sense. They come to feel a greater sense of belonging. Individuals enjoy the host country customs and may genuinely miss the new customs and people when they return to their home culture. Because of the changes that occur in this phase, students often recycle through similar adjustment phases upon returning home.

Adapted from "What's up with Culture?"  Website