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Adjusting to another Culture

As an international student, you will find that there are many differences between how things are done in the United States and in your own country. Personal interaction between people, verbal and nonverbal communication, etc., are some of the ways you may notice some differences. Give yourself time to adjust to living in the United States. You may also experience a phenomenon known commonly as “culture shock.”

Culture shock is not quite as shocking or as sudden as most people expect. It is part of the process of learning a new culture. You may experience some discomfort before you are able to function well in a new setting. This discomfort is the “culture shock” stage of the adaptation process.

Just as you will bring with you to the United States clothes and other personal items, you will also carry invisible “cultural baggage” when you travel. That baggage is not as obvious as the items in your suitcases, but it will play a major role in your adaptation abroad. Cultural baggage contains the values that are important to you and the patterns of behavior that are customary in your culture. The more you know about your personal values, the better prepared you will be to see and understand the cultural differences you will encounter abroad.

Adjusting to a New Culture - Some Tips

  1. Know What to Expect
    Anticipating future events – such as your initial departure. Plan ways to maintain relationships with people at home while you are away. Be sure to allow ample time to say goodbye to all the people who are important to you, and plan how to keep in touch. This assures people that you will continue to care about them.
  2. Stay in Touch with Home
    Planning to stay in touch does not require a promise to email, text, or call on a strict schedule, but it does help to establish a realistic plan for communication. You will be extremely busy getting settled and learning about your new environment, so it is essential that long periods between communications do not alarm your family and friends at home.
  3. Expect Differences
    Some surprises always await you when you arrive in a new place. People may walk and talk more quickly, traffic patterns may be confusing, and buildings may look different than expected. Such differences are easy to see and quickly learned. The manner in which classes are taught, registration for courses, and other procedures may seem strange or very confusing. The international student office is often the best place to go for help with such matters.

Stages of Adjustment

Studying abroad means making big changes in your daily life. Generations of students have found that they go through a predictable series of stages as they adjust to living abroad.


At first, although the new situation is a bit confusing, most students also find it to be exhilarating, a time of new experiences, sights, sounds, and activities. With so much to learn and absorb in the new culture, the initial period of settling in often seems like an adventure. During this time, you will tend to look for and identify similarities between your home culture and your host culture. You will find that people really are friendly and helpful. The procedures are different, but there are patterns, things that you can learn and depend on. You may classify other aspects of the culture that seem unusual or even unattractive as curious, interesting, or “quaint.” There will be many opportunities to meet people off campus; such opportunities can be rewarding, but they also present an expanded array of cultural puzzles.

Emerging Differences

Gradually, as you become more involved in activities and get to know the people around you, differences—rather than similarities—will become increasingly apparent to you. Those differences may begin to seem more irritating than interesting or quaint. Small incidents and difficulties may make you anxious and concerned about how you should best carry on with academic and social life. As these differences emerge, they can be troubling and sometimes shocking. Culture shock does not happen all at once. It is a feeling that grows little by little, as you interact with other students, faculty, and people in the community.

Culture Shock

For many this gradual process culminates in an emotional state known as “culture shock,” although it is seldom as dramatic as the term implies. The common symptoms of culture shock are:

  • extreme homesickness
  • desire to avoid social settings which seem threatening or unpleasant
  • physical complaints and sleep disturbances
  • depression and feelings of helplessness
  • difficulty with course work and concentration
  • loss of your sense of humor
  • boredom or fatigue
  • hostility toward the host culture

Students are sometimes unaware of the fact that they are experiencing culture shock when these symptoms occur. There are ways to deal with this period of culture shock, so it helps to recognize that culture shock may lie behind physical symptoms and irritability.

Coping with Culture Shock

The most effective way to combat culture shock is to step back from a given event that has bothered you, assess it, and search for an appropriate explanation and response. Try the following:

Culture is relative

Culture is relative, which explains why individuals from different cultures may perceive U.S. norms differently. For some, the U.S. communication style may seem too direct, while others may find it not direct enough. As an international student, you will be exposed to many new customs, habits and ideas. Try to avoid labeling them as "good" or "bad.”

Be open-minded and curious

Adjusting to a new culture does not mean that you have to change your own values, but it is important to respect those of other people. When you find yourself in an unfamiliar situation, try to think of it as a new adventure. Allow yourself to be curious about the way things are perceived and done in this new environment.

Use your observation skills

Since you will encounter unfamiliar rules and norms, observing how others are acting in situations can help you understand what behavior is expected of you. Pay attention to both the verbal and nonverbal communication of others in order to get a more complete picture of what is happening.

Ask questions

Ask for help when you need it. Asking for assistance or an explanation is not a sign of weakness. Understanding others and making yourself understood in a new language (or context) requires lots of rephrasing, repeating and clarification. It may be helpful to ask questions like "as I understand it you are saying... Is that correct?"

It's ok to experience anxiety

Learning to function in a new environment is not easy. It is natural to feel anxious or frustrated sometimes. The key is to remind yourself that these feelings are normal and are likely to be situational and temporary.

Give yourself (and others) permission to make mistakes

You will inevitably make mistakes as you explore a new culture. If you can find the humor in these situations and laugh at them, others will likely respond to you with friendliness and support. Keep in mind that others will probably make mistakes, too. When someone makes an inaccurate assumption or a generalized statement about your culture, it may be due to a lack of information. If you are comfortable with doing so, this can be an opportunity to share information with others about yourself and your culture.

Take care of your physical health

Be mindful about keeping a healthy diet and getting enough exercise and rest. Try to find an activity that you enjoy and make it part of your routine. Being physically active can help reduce your stress level.

Find a cultural ally

A U.S. friend (or another international student who has been in the U.S. for several years) can be a great consultant on cultural expectations. When you have questions or need a second opinion on something, this person can help clarify confusions and provide support as you adjust to your new environment.

Seek out support from other international students

Many international students find it helpful to discuss their concerns with others who are going through similar transitions. Talking with others about their adjustment to the new culture can provide ideas and insights about your own experience.

Be patient - don't try to understand everything immediately

The process of adjusting to a new culture requires time. It may also require a different amount of time for different areas of adjustment. Try to encourage yourself to be patient with this experience and not be overly critical of yourself.

Adapting to a new culture is an ongoing process. It may be challenging at times, but most students who experience culture shock agree that going through this transition helped them to learn more about themselves and to develop greater confidence in their ability to navigate new situations. It can also lead to a renewed appreciation of one's own culture. There are many people on campus who are available to provide you with support. Keep in mind that you do not have to struggle alone. You can reach out to the Counseling Office on any campus at 816.604.1000.

Throughout the period of cultural adaptation, take good care of yourself. Read a book or rent a video in your home language, take a short trip if possible, exercise and get plenty of rest, write an email or telephone home, eat good food, and do things you enjoy with friends. Take special notice of things you enjoy about living in the host culture.

Although it can be disconcerting and a little scary, the “shock” gradually eases as you begin to understand the new culture. It is useful to realize that often the reactions and perceptions of others toward you—and you toward them—are not personal evaluations but are based on a clash of cultural values. The more skilled you become in recognizing how and when cultural values and behaviors are likely to come in conflict, the easier it becomes to make adjustments that can help you avoid serious difficulties.

“Will I Lose My Own Culture?”

Sometimes students worry about “losing their culture” if they become too well adapted to the host culture. Don’t worry: it is virtually impossible to lose the culture in which you were raised. In fact, learning about the new culture often increases your appreciation for and understanding of your own culture. Don’t resist the opportunity to become bicultural; that is, able to function competently in two cultural environments.

Just as culture shock derives from the accumulation of cultural clashes, so can an accumulation of small successes lead to more effective interactions within the new culture. As you increase your abilities to manage and understand the new social system, practices that recently seemed so strange will become less puzzling. Eventually you will adapt sufficiently to do your best in your studies and social life and to relax and fully enjoy the experience. And you will recover your sense of humor!