Study Abroad & Exchange

Cultural Adjustment

"Do not stress the small stuff. Culture shock is real and it will cause stress at first, but you will get past it. Everyone on the program is there for you and you will make the most amazing life long friendships with other students as well as with the locals."

     - USAC Torino, Italy Alumni Spring 2003

-Why am I not having fun?

-Why does it seem like everyone around me is happy, and I am sad?

-Why am I so tired?

-Why do I feel so helpless and ignorant?

-Why do they do things this way?

-What’s wrong with these people and this place?

-Why don't they do things like they do in California?  It's so much better there!

These are common questions which come up when we are trying to adjust to a new way of life. Keep reading!

  • So, you are finally on your study abroad experience you've planned so carefully, and the first few weeks have been great. Everything is exciting; the food, the people, the buildings, the sites, the sounds, the gestures… Enjoy it! This is the "Honeymoon Stage" of the Cultural Adjustment process.
  • Shortly after this stage, you start to feel a little confused, frustrated, stressed. Why can’t someone speak English with you? The food really isn’t that great. The people are rude, too. Classes are boring, and most of the other students aren’t as friendly as they were when you first arrived. You don’t feel like you have made any friends and don’t have a group to hang out with.  Welcome to the second stage of the Cultural Adjustment process. This is called the "Irritability and Hostility Stage," and is the most challenging part of acculturation process.  The good news is this sense of disorientation and extreme frustration is usually short-lived, and is probably one of the most important periods of growth of your life.
  • Eventually you will start to adapt.  You will begin to understand the language better and the customs and the culture will soon feel like a second skin. You will make new friends, get to know a few locals, and begin to enjoy the little things in life again. This is the start of the third stage of culture shock and cultural adjustment; it is called "Gradual Adjustment."

Finally, after several months of ups and downs, you have adapted.  You are now “one” with the culture. You have your favorite places to hang out on a Sunday morning. You have your new lifelong friends. You are “home.”

Congratulations!  You made it through the Cultural Adaptation process (e.g. "culture shock"). Sadly though, it is time to come home… and guess what? Now you get to go through it all over again back in the U.S.!

When things get rough, simply follow these steps to help you alleviate Culture Shock:

• Learn more about your host country. One of the best antidotes to culture shock, though when you're in the midst of it this may not make sense, is knowing as much as possible about where you are.

• Look for logical reasons behind everything that happens. This will help you view things in a more positive way.

• Don't succumb to temptation to disparage the host country. Resist making jokes and comments which are intended to illustrate the stupidity of the "native," and don't hang around the Americans who do make them; they will only reinforce your unhappiness.

• Meet locals. Talk with these people about specific situations and about your feelings related to them. Talking with Americans can be helpful, but only for a limited extent.

• Keep your sense of humor! Remember to laugh. It is one of the few things every culture understands.

• Go out on a limb. It is important to remember that when you are abroad you will fail at something. Everyone will.  Don’t be afraid to fall down sometimes.

• Take care of yourself. If you are not sleeping enough or eating enough, it will only make things worse for you.

• Have faith in yourself, in the essential goodwill of your hosts, and in the positive outcome of the experience.