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Most people experience some form of culture shifts (also known as culture shock) when living abroad. Symptoms can include homesickness, irritability, and irrational behavior due to feelings of anxiety, isolation, and apprehension over integrating into a different culture. This is to be expected since students will be adjusting to their new "home away from home." Students will be in a foreign environment with different surroundings and living conditions. Each day will present a new challenge that at first may seem exciting yet overwhelming. However, this is a normal phase of adjustment. It may take students a few days or weeks to become accustomed to their new way of life. Everyone adjusts to culture shifts in different ways depending on their previous intercultural experience, personality, and familiarity with the destination.
You should be aware of local customs and traditions in their host country as well as in other countries they visit. Observe the way people do things where students are living and do not assume that behavior acceptable in the US will be permissible elsewhere. Hand signals and body gestures have different connotations in various parts of the world. Time, space, rituals, economic class, and social status also have symbolic meanings that are not universal and may vary widely.
Individuals from different cultures may observe the same event but interpret its content and significance in very distinct ways. It is important that students try to understand the perspectives of others. Students should avoid making assumptions based on American practices and try as best as they can to "fit in" to their new culture. Misunderstandings are bound to happen no matter how prepared students might be. Students should take experiences in stride and then make adjustments in their future behavior.
You are encouraged to do further research on their own to look at norms, customs, and more of specific countries. The International Center has a wide variety of resources on these issues. In addition, program site-specific cultural issues will also be discussed in the program-specific orientation meetings. The general pattern of cultural shifts includes:
- The Before Leaving period is a time of anticipation, excitement, fears, and the stresses of getting ready to enter another culture. The time period is variable.
- The Honeymoon Period is a period of initial excitement followed by crisis and eventual adaptation. This typically lasts from arrival to about a week, though it can last longer.
- The Crisis Time is the immediate culture shift and is the frustrating period of cultural integration. It typically lasts from 1 to about 6 weeks, though it can last longer and can happen again during the adaptation period.
- The Adaptation period is a realization period where travelers begin to understand, accept, adopt, and even prefer the cultural norm of their host culture. The adaptation period is not always an upward progression of cultural integration. There are frustrating times of ups and downs within this period where students long for the familiarities of home—friends, food, and so on—especially around the holidays. Students can also return to crisis during this time.
- When students re-enter their home country, they often experience Reverse Culture Shifts and can go through stages 1–4.
To reduce the impact of culture shift, there are a variety of things students can do to acclimate more smoothly:
- Talking with past program participants about their experiences is useful. CGIS can help put students in touch.
- Once there, get involved with local groups and make new friends. Isolating oneself from the culture only prolongs the experience of alienation.
- Students should write down thoughts in a journal, send postcards/letters home to family and friends, and encourage them to write in return.
- Students should begin now to familiarize themselves with their host country. Students can do that by reading about their host country’s geography, culture, and history.