Cultural Adaptation Resources

What's Up with Culture? An interactive web site that provides training and resources to equip you with the skills, attitudes, and behaviors you need in order to function in your new and unfamiliar environment.

Culture Shock Part of a comprehensive online guide to study abroad.

The Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity A tool that can help you understand your attitudes towards cultural differences.

Culture Adaptation

Many people will have some initial difficulties in adapting to a new environment even if they have traveled to that country many times before. Culture "shock" will subside quickly for some and last longer for others. In other words, the way you handle it will most likely be different than the way your friend handles it. The effects can vary from mild uneasiness and homesickness to panic and loss of perspective. Everyone reacts differently to the abrupt loss of the familiar, but there are some common phases of adjustment. Although these reactions may not happen in this order and can be experienced multiple times, it is helpful to understand the following stages and recognize them as part of the normal adjustment process:

1. Preliminary stage— You have yet to embark on your journey and can only prepare yourself as much as possible for what is still unknown to you.

2. Initial euphoria— This stage, usually dubbed the "honeymoon", begins with your arrival. Everything you see will have a certain excitement with it and come with an aura of beauty and wonder. You are curious and willing to learn and display an immediate satisfaction with your new home. This stage ends when the initial excitement wears off.

3. Irritability— During this stage, you will be taking an active part in life abroad, and will encounter many differences between your home and your host culture. This stage can be painful. You start to negatively judge differences and experiences and it may seem like "everything bad is happening at once."

4. Adaptation and biculturalism— You feel even more comfortable with the host culture, more a part of it. The differences you once judged as ridiculous now make sense to you and you realize that the strand of "bad luck" was actually what made you grow stronger and more aware of how the society you live in really functions.

5. Re-entry phase— Re-entry is, of course, the process of re-adaptation when you are back home and can be the hardest of all for some people. You are expected to reunite with your friends, your family, and your way of life as if you had never left. You may be expected to talk about your trip, but not too much, and to gradually become the person who you once were, which is impossible. This phase can last the longest, as you learn to teach others who you were, who you are, and how this experience has made you a better person not just in your habits but in your world view.

Here are some suggestions from past students for overcoming culture shock and adapting to a new culture:

  • Learn as much as possible about your host culture before you go
  • Try to resolve family and personal problems before leaving so that you are not arriving with more baggage than you put on the plane.
  • Maintain a sense of humor, and be patient with yourself and others, even during the “I hate everything” phase
  • Look for help and establish support systems. Don’t be afraid if you have to ask questions or resolve issues, because they will arise
  • Keep a journal of your experiences, it helps to get them out on paper
  • Remember the problem is not with the host culture but with the difference between the host culture and your own. Look for logical reasons behind host culture patterns. If something doesn't’t make sense to you, find out why it makes sense in the host culture. Be positive and open-minded
  • Stay involved with the culture and do not isolate yourself, this will lead to depression
  • Take care of your physical and emotional health because exhaustion or illness makes coping all the more difficult
  • Remember that a frustration/depression/anxiety associated with culture shock is normally a passing phase in what you will look back on as one of the most exciting times of learning and growth in your life
  • Bring something you know will help ease the stress of adapting (students in the past have suggested favorite American snacks, magazines, or videos)
  • Communicate with your host family, program director, and other students about the phases you are going through, an extra ear means extra advice for how to cope and knowing what other students may be experiencing will help you feel less isolated

Although adapting can sometimes be painful, it provides a valuable opportunity for personal growth. It is a mind-stretching process that will leave you with a broader perspective and wider tolerance for others and others’ ways of life. It will teach you about your limitations, your strengths, and how you handle change.