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What Are the Cultural Differences?

When we are in our native environment, we are relatively comfortable because of our familiarity with the culture. In general, we know what kinds of reactions to expect from people in a given situation. We know how to get what we need. The cues and symbols that we use to make these determinations are based on our culture. In a different culture, we suddenly lose cues and symbols that orient us to situations of daily life. The process of adjusting to another culture and of gaining an understanding of it often creates psychological discomfort, commonly referred to as culture shock. This is the reaction to differences and difficulties one encounters in a foreign culture and can consist of many phases.

Normal feelings encountered as a reaction to culture shock may include helplessness, hopelessness, loneliness, homesickness, slight depression, irritability, and boredom. For most participants, going through culture shock means that they are truly making an effort to understand and adjust to their new environment. It can be a time of tremendous personal and academic growth.

Other reactions may also accompany culture shock:

  • changes in sleeping habits and chronic fatigue
  • disorientation about how to work with and relate to others
  • language difficulties and mental fatigue from speaking and listening to a foreign language all day
  • unexplained emotional surges, such as verbal outbursts or crying
  • placing blame for difficulties on the program or host culture
  • decline in inventiveness, spontaneity, or flexibility
  • stereotyping of host country/culture
  • increase in physical ailments or pain
  • compulsive eating or lack of appetite
  • inability to work effectively.

Often participants cannot explain why they are feeling this way; only that these strong feelings exist. This process of discovering cultural differences and experiencing culture shock is a powerful learning tool. As participants work through the challenges and emotions of cultural adjustment, the result can be a high degree of understanding both about themselves and about the culture in which they are living. Past participants have stated that study abroad can be an invaluable education about what it means to be from the United States and to gain first-hand knowledge about the diversity of lifestyles and beliefs in the world.

During these challenging times it is easy for participants to stick together because it is more comfortable for them to be with people from their own culture. However, by doing so, they may miss many of the beautiful experiences the host country has to offer. It often takes a lot of effort to develop relationships across cultures, but the rewards can be considerable.

Students discussing a text in Seoul, Korea

Before You Go

Before departing it can be helpful for participants to think about how their own cultural background has influenced their beliefs and values as well as how the foreign culture will similarly influence those who live in it.

It is also important for participants to identify goals, objectives, and expectations before leaving in order to plan for their experience and to mitigate some of their anxiety or apprehension.

Adjusting to a new culture is a process. Although usually more intense, this process is similar to the ups and downs, excitement and frustrations that we all go through when we start a new job or move to a different part of the country.

The above version of the cross-cultural adjustment curve is an attempt to represent the following phases of adjustment. Keep in mind that each individual will experience cultural adjustment differently.

  1. Anticipating Departure. Before going abroad, participants are often excited about the trip and at the same time wary of the upcoming challenges.
  2. Emotional Highpoint. Upon arriving in-country, participants may find everything to be new, different, exciting, and fascinating. These initial feelings, sometimes referred to as the "honeymoon" stage, may last anywhere from a couple weeks to a few months.
  3. Critical Low-point. The novelty of the new culture eventually wears off and participants confront difficulties stemming from the loss of familiar cues and symbols. The resulting frustrations and annoyances are commonly referred to as culture shock.
  4. Initial Adjustment. Things tend to get better as participants develop their language skills and learn to navigate in the host culture. Many of the uncomfortable reactions to culture shock go away. Participants may begin to see a balance between the positive and negative aspects of the culture.
  5. Confronting Deeper Issues. Participants may again feel an increase in frustration as they confront larger cultural and personal difficulties. Sometimes at this point, deeper personal issues surface. The result may be feelings of isolation, boredom, and a lack of motivation.
  6. Adapting & Assimilating. After resolving some of the feelings of isolation, participants may feel more and more comfortable in the host culture. Some develop strong relationships with non-Americans; others decide they are only long-term visitors and as such will not develop close relationships. They may gain a better understanding of the major differences and deeper aspects of the culture. They may integrate aspects of the culture into their own identity, so that the host culture has become a part of them.
  7. Anticipating the Return. A few weeks before returning home, participants often think a lot about what the return home will be like. Feelings of anxiety may increase as they think about leaving what has become their home, about how much they have changed, and about how the changes will be perceived by friends and family back home.
  8. Reentry Adjustment Upon return, participants must again adjust but this time to a culture that was once familiar. Many of the above phases of adjustment may repeat themselves, with varying intensity, as participants readjust to being home.

Practical Advice

In order to gain some perspective about the experience, read as much as possible about where you are going. This could include reading guidebooks, foreign and international newspapers, magazines, novels, plays, poetry, and political and economic analyses. You may also want to talk to international students and veteran travelers who have been where you are going.

You may also want to read about culture in general and how it affects our behavior, beliefs, customs, and how we view the world.

The following questions may clarify how culture can influence the goals, expectations, hopes, and fears that participants may have about the upcoming study abroad experience. They are intended to help you prepare for the cross-cultural aspects of the experience as well as invite you to think both about how culture affects you and how it will affect your experience.

  • Who am I? (awareness of personal beliefs and attitudes)
  • Where do I come from? (awareness of US cultural beliefs and customs)
  • Where am I going? (awareness of foreign culture customs, behaviors,, and values)
  • Why am I going? (To practice a foreign language, interest in foreign countries, to see famous sites, to leave the US, etc.)
  • What am I willing to consider? (How open will I be to different ways of doing things? Will I "try on" some of the behavior and values of the foreign people?)