Undergraduate Study Abroad

Cultural Adjustment

All students experience some degree of culture shock when they arrive in their host country.

This is true regardless of the student's previous experience, maturity, disposition, or knowledge of the country in which they will be living. A period of mild disappointment, homesickness, or depression is a normal part of the study abroad experience -- and one that passes quickly for most students.

Culture Shock

Most people will experience some difficulties adjusting to their new country and culture. This is totally normal, and should be expected. Cultural adjustment, or “culture shock” as it is commonly called, comes from being cut off from things you are familiar with. Culture shock doesn’t result from just one event, and it doesn’t strike suddenly, or with any cause. It builds slowly from a series of small events. It also comes from living and working in an ambiguous situation. Living abroad will make you question your values, which you may have taken as absolutes before. You won’t be able to identify culture shock while you’re struggling through it. But with patience, you’ll be able to overcome it and grow in the process.

Cultural Adjustment & Stress

Studying abroad is an excellent opportunity for academic and personal growth. Living in a foreign environment can be exhilarating and, at the same time, stressful. Adjusting to a new culture and/or communicating in a foreign language require flexibility and the ability to make mistakes and learn from them.

While studying abroad, mild physical or psychological disorders which may be under control at home can become serious under the additional stresses of adjusting to a new culture. If you continue to have concerns or want to discuss your feelings with someone, you can always speak with your Program Director, an SA Advisor, or Brown’s Psychological Services.

Stages of Cultural Adjustment

While people react differently to the changes, studies have shown that there are distinct phases that almost everyone will experience. These stages are:

  1. Initial Euphoria
    Everyone arrives excited about their new country and the adventures that lie ahead. This is often called the “honeymoon period.” This period may last anywhere from one week to a few months, but it does fade away and a let down is inevitable.
  2. Irritability and Hostility
    After you’ve been in a country for a while you’ll be taking a more active role in your community. Little differences and problems will seem like huge catastrophes. This is the most difficult part of being abroad. Some people will want to withdraw; others will act aggressively when faced with a situation.
  3. Gradual Adjustment
    The crisis period will eventually fade too. You’ll be feeling more at home in your surroundings. You’ll begin to interpret some of the cultural cues you hadn’t noticed before. With this sense of familiarity your sense of humor will also return.
  4. Adaptation
    You now feel at home in your new country and can function in both cultures. You have learned new behaviors and manners, and have shed some of your old ones. You’ve done such a good job of adjusting to your new country that now you can anticipate experiencing “reverse culture shock” once you return to the U.S.

While everyone goes through culture shock to some degree, it’s important to acknowledge that culture shock affects everyone differently and on different timelines. Be patient and kind to yourself as you work through culture shock and try not to compare your experience to those of your peers. Lastly, culture shock is not linear. You may go through two phases, then return to an earlier phase - culture shock is more of an ongoing cycle with back and forths as opposed to a linear process with a destination.

Help for Culture Shock

Since culture shock is inevitable there is not much you can do to avoid it. But there are things you can do to minimize the impact:

  • Remember that culture shock happens to everyone who lives abroad. You’re not the only one who has gone through this.
  • Write a journal to keep a record of your first impressions.
  • Try to look for logical reasons behind everything in your new culture that seems strange or confusing. Try to look at things from the host culture's perspective. For every behavior you don’t understand, try to figure out what its underlying value is.
  • Write up a list of all the positive aspects of your new culture and try concentrating on the positive, and not the negative.
  • Avoid making negative comments about the local people. These ideas only reinforce your feelings of superiority, and will prevent you from ever adapting to your host country.
  • Avoid Americans or other foreigners who are having a rough time adjusting to the country. Do not join in on rag sessions on your host culture. Instead, find an American who has been there for a while, has successfully gone through culture shock, and has a positive attitude. This person will help you get perspective on the host culture.
  • Make close friends with host nationals. Having close intimate friends will help you learn about your new culture, and give you someone to listen to your problems.
  • Keep active, don’t sit at home and feel sorry for yourself. Try taking a weekend trip to get away, you may return refreshed and with a new perspective.
  • Have faith in yourself that you will get over culture shock. You will feel better over time.


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