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Cultural Adjustment

Cultural Adjustment

Cultural Adjustment is a normal part of the experience of living in another culture. Typically, students may experience feelings of euphoria, followed by frustration or irration during their time abroad. Understand that this is a normal process and that nearly every international/study abroad student goes through it.

The more you understand the cultural differences that frustrate you, the easier it will be for you to adjust.

Patience and active engagement in your community are the best cures for culture shock. As time goes by, you will start to better understand your host culture and feel more at home. However, you can speed up the process by actually searching for appropriate explanations and responses.


  • Anxiety
  • Homesickness
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Boredom
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Confusion
  • Self-doubt
  • Feelings of inadequacy
  • Unexplained fits of weeping
  • Paranoia
  • Physical ailments and psychosomatic illness
  • Physical and/or psychological withdrawal
  • Spending an excessive amount of time reading
  • Need for excessive amounts of sleep
  • Only seeing other members of your nationality
  • Avoiding contact with host nationals
  • Short attention span
  • Diminished productivity
  • Loss of ability to work or study effectively
  • Quitting and returning to your home country early
  • Compulsive eating or drinking
  • Exaggerated cleanliness
  • Irritability
  • Family tensions
  • Marital stress
  • Excessive chauvinism
  • Stereotyping
  • Hostility toward host nationals
  • Physical or verbal aggressiveness
  • Desire to avoid social settings
  • Physical fatigue and difficulty sleeping
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability and hostility toward host culture


  • Observe how others act in the same situation.
  • Describe the situation, what it meant to you, and your response to it.
  • Ask an American student how they would have handled the situation and what it means within
  • the American culture.
  • Plan how you might act in the future if a similar situation happens again.
  • Test your new behavior and evaluate how well it worked.
  • Decide how you can apply what you have learned next time you find yourself in a similar
  • situation.
  • Students have found that one good cure for culture shock is staying active in campus activities.

The more actively you engage in campus life, the more quickly you will learn the nuances of American culture and the more rapidly you will feel competent in negotiating cultural differences.

American students studying or living abroad may be surprised at how “un-American” they occasionally feel and how “different” Americans seem. They may also be surprised at how Thai or Italian or Swiss they have become by living overseas. They probably are already bi-cultural and have the exciting and dynamic luxury of making informed choices about values and behaviors, bridging the differences between themselves and those around you.

Cultural Adjustment Process

Cultural adjustment is experienced by individuals in many different ways. The following depicts typical psychological ups and downs that occur during adjustment. As you can see, even re-entry home will come with its own fluctuation of feelings! Almost everyone experiences “culture shock” to some degree when abroad. In fact, it can happen each time even a well traveled person goes abroad. Culture shock is the process of adjusting to new customs, worldviews, and everyday life in a new culture – from basic philosophies to daily chores.

  1. Application: I’ve arrived!
  2. Honeymoon: Everything is great here! I LOVE it!
  3. Initial Stress: Where can I find a stupid grocery store?!
  4. Culture Shock: I’m not eating. I’m not sleeping. Why doesn’t anyone speak my language?!
  5. Adjustment: Things are OK. I know where to find the grocery store now.
  6. Integration: I wish this pace of life was the same back home.
  7. Competency: I dreamed in English! I was able to give directions to a “tourist” to the nearest ATM!
  8. Depart: I’m excited to go home and see my family and friends but I am going to miss my new ones, too!
  9. Home: I’m back! I am so happy to see everyone! I missed my dog!
  10. Re-entry Adjustment: No one wants to hear my stories. I feel so different but no one here has changed.

Positive Responses to Culture Shock

Culture Shock is virtually inevitable to some degree and there are NO magic charms to escape it. Culture Shock describes the more pronounced reactions to the psychological disorientation most people experience when they move for an extended period of time into a culture markedly different from their own.

Realize that:

  • Everyone gets it to some degree;
  • It is NATURAL and not a sign that you are deficient or strange;
  • You’ll live through it!

Culture is a survival mechanism which tells its members that their ways of doing things are right and superior. Culture shock stems from an in-depth encounter with another culture in which you learn to the contrary that there are different ways of doing things that are neither wrong nor inferior. It teaches a lesson that cannot be learned as effectively by any other means - that one’s own culture does not possess the single right, best or even better way of providing for human needs and enjoyments. Believing it does is a kind of imprisonment - from which the experience of culture shock, as painful as it may be, can liberate you!


  • Develop a structured plan for maximum contact with host country nationals that allows you to answer in greater depth your questions. Informed participation is richer, more meaningful and more satisfying.
  • Begin to consciously look for logical reasons behind everything in the host culture which seems strange, difficult, confusing, or threatening. Take every aspect of your experience and look at it from “their” perspective. Search for patterns and interrelationships.
  • Try to discover the cultural value underlying “strange” or troublesome behavior.
  • List all the positive things you can identify about your present situation. Post it in somewhere that you can see it frequently.
  • Try not to spend too much time writing e-mails home if you might be avoiding interacting with the host culture.
  • Avoid other international students who are in a permanent state of culture shock and who spend their days seeking fellow complainers. They ultimately will INCREASE your culture shock, even though a “gripe session” might feel good at the time.
  • Don’t succumb to the temptation to disparage the host culture yourself.
  • Keep your sense of humor as long as it is not “dumb native” jokes! Laugh at yourself, not them.
  • Talk to another international student who has been here longer and successfully overcame culture shock to help you get some perspective.
  • Make friends with host nationals - THAT’S WHY YOU CAME, RIGHT? Hanging out with Americans will help you adjust to the host country, and produce deep, meaningful interactions.
  • Cultivate a “cultural informant,” a host national friend to whom you can ask questions about cultural values, behaviors, attitudes. But, do take care to ask questions in an open, non-critical way.
  • When you seek advice, focus on what YOU are feeling inside rather than what you consider the causes of your problems.
  • Don’t worry about losing your own values. Your values are MUCH deeper and more permanent than you may think. To act according to the customs of your host country (when appropriate) does not makes you less a member of your own culture, just a more sensitive one!
  • Keep busy; keep active; keep you mind occupied. Don’t sit around and feel sorry for yourself.
  • During the deepest plunges, take a trip to a scenic spot. When you return, be open to having good “coming back home” feelings.
  • Share your culture with your hosts. You’ll become an unofficial ambassador whose mission is to correct any misconceptions of your country/culture.
  • Have faith that you will work through it!

Get help from the Resident Assistant, your favorite faculty member, Cowell Center, or from the SCU Global Engagement Office staff.

Adapted from Robert Kohls’ Survival Kit for Overseas Living, (Intercultural Press, Yarmouth, ME, 1996).


Effective functioning in a foreign culture is based on meaningful human interaction. This requires the following core skills and attitudes:

  • Open-mindedness toward new ideas and experiences
  • The ability to empathize with people from other cultures
  • Accuracy in perceiving differences and similarities between cultures
  • Being non-judgmental
  • Astute non-critical observation of your own and other people’s behavior
  • Being less ethnocentric
  • Understanding concepts: empathy, adjustment, culture, ethnocentrism, etc.
  • Understanding the process of communication within the context of cultural differences
  • Cross cultural communication skills
  • Ability to fail, sense of humor, low “task” orientation

Hammer, M. and Gudykunst, W. (1983). A Basic Training Design: Approaches to Intercultural Training & D.

Landis and R.W. Brislin (Eds.), Handbook of Intercultural Training. New York: Pergamom.


  1. Assuming Similarity Instead of Difference: Both the foreigner and the host can easily fall into this trap. Especially when people dress appropriately and speak some of the language, it is easy to believe that they basically have similar ways of communicating nonverbally and similar thoughts and feelings
  2. Language: This seems obvious, but language refers not only to vocabulary, grammar, idioms, slang, etc., but also to understanding the meanings that are intended and implied by the words people say. For example, in some languages and cultures it is common to use sarcasm, irony or plays on words, while in others it is not.
  3. Nonverbal Misinterpretations: People from different cultures live in different “sensory realities” that is, they only see, hear, feel and smell things that have meaning or are important to them. Some nonverbal signs and symbols - gestures, posture and body movements--are relatively easy to observe, and with effort, understand. Less obvious cultural meanings, values or significance can be found, for example, in the use of time and space. These cultural differences are much harder to notice.
  4. The Existence of Preconceptions and Stereotypes: Stereotypes interfere with looking at things objectively: in other words, once stereotypes or preconceived ideas are formed, we are less likely to look for clues to help us understand someone else’s “reality.”
  5. The Tendency to Judge or Evaluate: The tendency to approve or disapprove of the words, actions, ability of the other person instead of trying to understand the feelings and thoughts that are being expressed by the other person and trying to find the ways to look at the world from the other person’s.
  6. High Anxiety: These blocks are based on the fact that people in intercultural situations are often anxious. Anxiety makes all of the other stumbling blocks worse. It is common to be tense or anxious in cross-cultural experiences because they are full of uncertainties, and this makes it necessary to constantly be alert.

Recognizing the stumbling blocks is the first step toward finding ways to reduce misunderstandings and increase learning. There are skills that can be improved in order to try to make cross-cultural experiences more satisfying and rewarding. An important first step is to realize that there are stumbling blocks that exist that need some effort to be overcome.


  • Open-Minded
  • Non-Judgmental
  • Flexible
  • Curious
  • Tolerant of differences and ambiguity
  • Sense of humor
  • Low “goal/task” orientation
  • Able to risk failure

Kohls (Survival Kit for Overseas Living) believes the last three skills are the most important. Clearly, what is most important for you depends on your situation and the kind of encounters or interactions you face.

Adapted from an adaption of an article of the same title by LaRay Barna, published


This is adapted from Occidetal College's Information on Cultural Adjustment.

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David Chan image

David Chan

"Get to know the people around you, especially, if you’re international.  Really immerse yourself in the culture and in the school, try different things…That’ll change your whole perspective."