Beware! International Student Culture Shock

culture shock

Have you ever found yourself in a completely unfamiliar cultural situation, feeling overwhelmed and intimidated? 

If you are an international student who is considering studying abroad or has recently moved to a new country, chances are that culture shock may have already started to creep up on you. 

Don’t panic! It’s common for international students to face this challenge as they adjust their mindsets from one culture to another. But what is culture shock? How does culture affect education?

In this blog post, we’ll define culture shock, explore the different aspects of culture shock and how best to deal with it. 

Further in the Article:

From learning about local customs and lingo through socializing with locals to celebrating holidays in your host country — there are several strategies for battling any expat blues! Put this culture shock study guide into practice so that you can enjoy the full experience of your new home away from home — minus any uncomfortable surprises along the way.

What is a Culture Shock?

What is the definition of culture shock? Culture shock is a term used to describe the feelings of confusion, disorientation, and anxiety stages that individuals may experience when exposed to a completely different culture. 

Every culture can be defined as the shared beliefs, values, traditions, behaviors, and artifacts that characterize a group or society. 

The culture shock definition was first introduced by Canadian anthropologist Kalervo Oberg in 1954. This definition of culture shock refers to the discomfort or disorientation that an individual may feel when encountering a new environment that is significantly different from what they are used to.

Cultural shock occurs when individuals confront cultures that differ significantly from their own in terms of these characteristics.

Some common cultural shock examples include language barriers and unfamiliar customs and traditions, as well as foreign social norms/values, dress codes, foods, and cuisines.

What causes culture shock? As international students transition into new cultural environments, they can experience homesickness, loneliness, confusion, and anxiety about fitting in and making new friends. 

The effects of culture shock can worsen over time if not addressed properly, leading to difficulties in academic performance or even dropping out of studies altogether. So, the cultural shock definition means that you are experiencing feelings of confusion, disorientation, and anxiety in a new culture.

Factors that Contribute to Culture Shock 

Culture shock can be caused by various factors that can affect international students in different ways. Some of the factors include:

  • Different customs and traditions: The way people behave, communicate, dress, and interact with others can vary significantly even among common cultures. For example, in some cultures, it is customary to remove your shoes when entering a home, while in others, it may be considered rude.
  • Language barriers: How does language reflect culture? Language differences can cause misunderstandings, isolation, and difficulties in interpersonal interactions, leading to anxiety and frustration.
  • Social norms and values: Social norms such as individualism/collectivism, gender roles, and the concept of time differs across cultures and can cause students from another cultural background to misunderstand or fail to adapt quickly to a new environment due to them being culture shocked.
  • Feeling homesick: Being away from family members, friends, and a familiar environment triggers feelings of loneliness, which makes the transition difficult.
  • Different educational systems: Students who are not used to different education systems can feel overwhelmed with expectations in terms of learning styles or grading standards, which will impact their overall grades.
  • Discrimination: Any form of discrimination based on race, ethnicity, or religion is a transgression on human rights that students might face when encountering people who do not accept diversity; this could lead to social isolation and depression.
  • Cultural fatigue: Overstimulation by all the new experiences related to a new culture may lead an individual to exhaustion over time, causing them difficulties with concentrating on their academic performance.

Examples of Culture Shock

examples of culture shock

Image source: Funalysis

For instance, an international student from Japan may experience shock impact factor when studying in the United States due to the stark differences in communication styles, educational systems, culinary traditions, social expectations, and even body language.

Conversely, for American students studying in China, culture shock occurs when they are challenged with a completely different language system and different customs, such as greetings or expressions of respect.

At first I felt like I’m on a different planet. So much freedom around, such friendliness coming from everyone. But the more freedom I was seeing, the more frightened I was feeling. Honestly. It took time to adjust to this whole new life in Canada.

Fatemeh Samman, international student in Canada

A student who comes from a collectivistic culture where interpersonal connections are highly valued may feel anxious or isolated when moving to an individualistic Western country where personal achievement is prioritized over group loyalty. 

These examples of cultural shock outline its significance and importance for analysis.

Symptoms of Culture Shock

As international students immerse themselves in foreign cultures, they may experience cultural shock, which typically involves different stages of emotional and psychological responses.

The following are symptoms of cultural shock experienced by international students:

  • Anxiety: International students may feel anxious as they try to adapt to the new environment, especially when faced with unfamiliar situations.
  • Confusion: Adjusting to new social norms and customs can be confusing and overwhelming.
  • Homesickness: Missing loved ones, familiar foods, and daily routines can create feelings of isolation and loneliness.
  • Language barriers: If one were to ask why language is important to culture, the answer would be that struggling to communicate effectively in a new language can lead to frustration and embarrassment.
  • Culture fatigue: Constantly having to adjust one’s behavior to fit into a new culture can be mentally exhausting, leading to social shock.
  • Depression: The honeymoon period, when everything seems exciting and fresh, eventually wears off, leading some individuals to feel depressed.
  • Identity crises: Someone shocked may experience an identity crisis as they struggle to reconcile their cultural identities with their global experiences.
  • Resistance to / lack of acceptance: International students may reject certain aspects of the host culture that conflict with their own beliefs or values.
  • Homesickness for food/manners/customs: If some customs/foods from home are not available in the country of study, international students may experience a heightened sense of longing for their native culture.

These are just some of the symptoms of cultural shock experienced by international students. It is important to remember that culture shock is a natural process, and with time, individuals can learn to adjust and adapt to their new environment. 

The 5 Stages of Culture Shock & the Culture Shock Cycle

What does culture shock mean? Culture shock, by definition, is the disorientation experienced by individuals when subjected to unfamiliar cultural environments and international culture.

This feeling is a reaction to new and different traditions, customs, and different types of culture groups in foreign cultures

Culture shock in sociology often results from one’s inability to adjust quickly or adequately to new ways of living and thinking.

What are the stages of culture shock?

stages of culture shock

Scientists identify five stages of culture shock — honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment, mastery, and reverse culture shock:

  1. The Honeymoon Stage: Honeymoon stage meaning refers to the initial excitement that occurs during the first few weeks or months in a new culture. Everything feels fresh and intriguing.
  2. The Negotiation Stage: Once the honeymoon stage concludes, individuals start facing the reality of everyday challenges like language barriers, issues with discrimination, or cultural differences at their university. This depression after honeymoon stage leads to anxiety and confusion.
  3. The Adjustment Stage: This stage occurs when people begin developing effective strategies for coping with cultural differences and start reaching out for aid from peers as well. Things start getting easier.
  4. The Mastery Stage: After spending many years fully immersed in another country’s culture, someone can successfully adapt to and master it while still retaining aspects of their own original culture and values. This allows them to blend both cultures together fluently.
  5. Reverse Culture Shock: This happens when a person returns to their home environment after living abroad, whether for a short or long period. They may realize that many things have changed while they were away. This can feel like a shock, making them feel uneasy, as if everything is very different from what it was when they left initially.

It is imperative to analyze culture shock meaning and note that everyone will progress through these stages of shock at varying degrees depending on how much knowledge they have acquired about the host country beforehand or how comfortable they are with change. 

Culture Shock Test: Check if You Have Culture Shock

If you think that you may be experiencing culture shock, it is important to remember that this is a normal process. However, taking a culture shock test can help identify if that is truly what you are experiencing.

The individual culture test can help to identify if you have any symptoms of culture shock and also help to determine what stage of the culture shock cycle you are in.

We’ve compiled ten culture shock questions that require simple “Yes” or “No” answers to help you assess your current situation. 

  1. Are you excited to live in a different country/state/territory?
  2. Do you feel angry or frustrated over relatively small things?
  3. Do you miss your friends and family back home?
  4. Do you like some of the norms and values in this country/state/territory better than your own?
  5. Do you feel misunderstood by the locals?
  6. Do you get annoyed when people back home talk negatively about the country/state/territory you live in?
  7. Do you enjoy exploring the city and discovering new places?
  8. Do you feel lonely at times?
  9. Have miscommunications become less common since you first arrived?
  10. Has living in this country/state/territory made you look more critically at your own norms and values?

Now, if your answers are mostly “Yes,” then you might be experiencing culture shock. 

If more than eight questions are answered with “Yes,” then you likely have severe culture shock. It is recommended that you seek help from friends and family or from professional counseling. 

If 5-7 questions are answered with “Yes,” then it is likely that you are experiencing mild culture shock. This can be managed on your own by making some lifestyle changes, such as keeping in touch with family and friends or talking to other expats who are also experiencing similar issues. 

However, if your answers were mostly “No” or just a few of the questions were answered with “Yes,” then you are likely in an earlier stage of the culture shock process and should experience more positive emotions soon. 

Regardless of your results, it is important to remain mindful that you are participating in a learning process that can bring valuable insight into new cultures. 

American Culture Shock: What Should an International Student Expect

Studying abroad can be a rewarding experience, but it can also cause foreign exchange students problems, particularly when they are adjusting to a new culture. 

Culture shock is a very expected part of the transition process and can surprise international students.  

I always wanted to move to the USA. It was one of my biggest dreams. So imagine how confused I was when after 4 months of staying in my dream place I find myself depressed. At first I couldn’t figure out why. But then friends suggested it was homesickness and culture shock. I did a bit of reading and it turned out that almost every international student has it.

Akari Saito, international student from Japan

American culture is distinct from other cultures, and international students may find themselves feeling unprepared for the culture shocks in America they encounter.

Examples of Culture Shock in America

In America, communication is generally straightforward. However, many country cultures rely on indirect communication strategies to convey messages.

Moreover, the United States is a melting pot of cultures and people from all over the world. While this can be stimulating and exciting for international students  experiencing new cultures, it can also be overwhelming when confronted with different beliefs, values, and lifestyles.

American social norms and culture of people regarding personal space, greetings, and body language can vary greatly from those of other countries. This culture shock example often confuses newcomers until they understand these social cues.

What is more, American cuisine has developed with a unique fusion of cultures, resulting in mixed flavors unfamiliar to international students’ palates (originating from different dietary habits), causing American culture shock for international students.

Although English is the most commonly spoken language in the United States, many people speak other languages, such as Spanish or French, more than English itself, which causes international students to face language barriers when interacting among themselves or with natives.

These culture shock examples in US and unspoken rules of American culture show the importance of addressing this issue!

Where Do International Students Experience Culture Shock in America? 

International students may experience culture shock in numerous settings when studying abroad in America. Culture may affect everything — from campus life to daily routine.

Let’s examine some of the most common places where the shock can manifest itself:

  • Campus Life: International students may experience culture shock in academic settings such as new teaching styles or grading methods that differ from those in their country of origin. Shocking can be caused by the campus environment itself due to its size and diversity, with many American students going about their lives oblivious to international students’ struggles.
  • Everyday Life: Daily routines such as navigating public transit systems or using kitchen appliances can be challenging for international students not used to local equipment or procedures. Running errands like grocery shopping or paying bills can also be a major challenge if they do not know what is available in stores near their campus.
  • Social Events: Attending parties and social gatherings shocks a lot of international students, since they may feel uncertain as to how Americans socialize and engage during formal events.
  • Transportation: Public transport systems may differ significantly from those in the student’s home country, resulting in new routes and ways of communication that cause difficulties until they adjust to them thoroughly. So, culture in other countries even affects transportation.
  • The Medical Care System: Healthcare regulations vary widely between countries and their cultures, so international students must familiarize themselves with this aspect before studying in the United States, since medical attention is sometimes required unpredictably.

Culture shock can have many manifestations on campus, as well as in city life and transportation systems employment opportunities, amongst other aspects affecting daily routines in unfamiliar environments that require adaptability skills over time. These causes of culture shock show that even a small trigger can produce large problems!

Foreign Exchange Student Problems & Culture Shock

Foreign exchange students can face a range of problems when studying in America, and culture shock is one of them. Here are some of the common issues foreign exchange students may experience during their time abroad:

  • Language Barriers: Communication difficulties resulting from language barriers profoundly affect foreign exchange students who struggle constantly to comprehend English properly and require cultural adaptation.
  • Homesickness: Students who move to the United States to study can feel homesick with their friends and family far away, which often leads to loneliness and isolation if they are not supported by fellow comrades and facilities.
  • Academic Hurdles: International students may find that the coursework style differs significantly from what they are used to, or that faculty expectations are more demanding than expected; this difference is due to the diverse background educational system that local schools require.
  • Financial Burdens: Living expenses like rent payments, grocery bills, transportation passes, and tuition fees can add up quickly depending on price ranges, which may be difficult to deal with for international students without additional financial resources.

Adjusting to life in America can be difficult for immigrants adapting to new culture, leading to hurdles in acclimating.

Therefore, it is necessary to define cultural shock and implement countermeasures to prevent reverse-culture shock symptoms such as depression, stress, and anxiety.

How to Deal with Culture Shock

If you are an international student, don’t worry; there are ways to cope with culture of different countries! Here are a few tips on how you can successfully adjust to a new environment. So, how to deal with shock?

  1. Identify the Symptoms: Culture shock can manifest itself in many ways, including feelings of anxiety, confusion, irritability, depression, and homesickness. First, recognize what you are experiencing physically and emotionally.
  2. Learn about the Culture: Educate yourself on American culture and customs. For example, read books, watch videos, or talk to local Americans to familiarize yourself with American etiquette and social norms.
  3. Embrace Differences: Try to keep an open mind while adapting to the cultural differences around you. Understand that such adaptations may take time but remain patient in embracing other cultural sensitivities while developing this process.
  4. Build Relationships: Make an effort to meet new people — be it other international students or people from America itself — to build relationships and develop a support network that may help you adapt to such cultural differences and find common ground or interests.
  5. Get Involved: Participating in student events and activities on campus will likely sufficiently expose you to “local” communities/settings, helping you to adapt to their ways, such as habits and customs/cultural mores.
  6. Ask for Help: Universities that support international students may provide counseling services, language classes, or guidance counselors to assist them in adapting to the cultural shifts and emotional stress that come with acclimating to a new environment.

By following these simple tips, foreign exchange students experiencing different cultures can successfully adjust to their new environment. 

My way of dealing with culture shock was to stay indoors and cram. Guess my peers thought I was some sort of a phycho but that’s what helped me embrace all the confusion caused by totally new surroundings.

Wang Shu Huang, recent International graduate from China

The Unexpected Benefits of Culture Shock

Culture shock is often viewed only as a negative experience, but this phenomenon has unexpected benefits. Today, there are many culture shock articles that prove it to be beneficial. 

Here are some of the advantages of experiencing culture shock:

1. Increased Tolerance and Understanding

By confronting a culture barrier firsthand, individuals can develop increased tolerance and understanding towards diversity in life with regard to beliefs, cuisines, communication styles, and value systems, amongst others. 

2. Personal Growth

 Cultural shocks in America are common. So, dealing successfully with the challenges of culture shock requires stepping out of one’s comfort zone, leading people to develop courage and emotional resilience.

Newcomers learn skills such as negotiation and conflict resolution through direct communication when learning English, as they may not be able to rely on non-verbal cues. This contributes to the development of an individual’s mental flexibility.

3. Broadening One’s Perspective

Exposure to different cultures often broadens one’s perspectives, allowing them to understand new traditions, customs, lifestyles, cognitive biases, and culture norms

It enables individuals to see things in unique ways that may help them make more informed decisions or analyze problems from different angles.

4. Boosting Intellectual Power/Benefits for Career Development

When individuals immerse themselves in the US culture shock, they will likely encounter challenging situations. However, by developing coping mechanisms, they can solve these issues positively, which helps to enhance critical thinking capabilities and other cognitive abilities. 

Moreover, as they become bilingual, foreign exchange students can gain a competitive edge when they enter professional work environments or pursue higher education levels. This can help them excel in their careers and achieve their goals.

5. Enhanced Empathy

Nowadays, soft skills are highly valued competencies that can positively impact interactions with peers and colleagues. 

Developing these skills can create a more inclusive environment when working with teams and resolving interpersonal conflicts, ultimately leading to healthy professional and personal relationships for each individual involved.

In summary, culture shock experiences can initially be overwhelming, but they can also promote personal growth and increase tolerance and understanding. 

By exposing oneself to new surroundings and cultivating emotional resilience, one can enhance their cognitive abilities and broaden their perspectives, improving their personal and professional goals. 

These culture shock definition and examples allow individuals to look at the world outside of their own cultural lens, identifying uncommon angles for addressing external challenges and ultimately improving their quality of life.

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Steven Bloom
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Steven is an IT student who constantly seeks new opportunities for self-development. He is also fond of popular culture and entertainment. Lately, Steven has started writing about the challenges he faces as a student. He finds it helpful to brainstorm when difficult tasks arise.