The process of mentally, physically, and emotionally adjusting to a new environment is commonly known as “culture shock.” It is a response to being in a situation where everything is different from your previous experiences, including language/slang, food, transportation, body language, and everyday activities. Culture shock covers a wide range of reactions from mild annoyance to frustration, depression, fatigue, and excitement.
Here are a few ways to cope with culture shock:
- Know that everyone experiences some degree of culture shock, and everyone’s experience is different.
- Remember that you are the foreigner and that people will expect you to adapt to their expectations.
- Try not to label things as “good” or “bad,” but merely “different” and don’t blow things out of proportion. You may incorporate some cultural differences into your routine, and others you may not. Some habits may disappear when you leave the host country, and others may stay with you.
- Develop habits or join organizations that will help you interact regularly on the host campus and in the community.
- Laugh at your mistakes. They can actually help you in the learning process.
The feelings of culture shock are unavoidable, but learning to recognize them will help you prepare yourself and learn from the experience. Do some research before you leave, Utilize the resources listed in the pre-departure handbook, talk to IP staff or students who have been abroad, and enjoy the journey!
Learn about Your Host Country
Researching your host country is one way to reduce culture shock, and to be a responsible traveler. Here are some questions to consider about the culture and history of your host country. Try to answer as many of them as you can before you leave. If you need help finding the answers, use the resources listed in this handbook. Also, talk to international students on campus, or students who have already studied abroad. If you haven’t met any of them, make an effort to do so! The Study Abroad Office can help.
- Politics: Who is the country’s leader? What is the country’s current political structure?
- History: What is the history of the relationships between this country and the United States? Who are the country’s most important national heroes and heroines? Who are the most widely admired public figures today?
- Language: Are languages spoken besides English? What are the political and social implications of language usage?
- Holidays: What are the national holidays? Why are they celebrated? Will the university, banks, post office, or other businesses be closed?
- Religion: What is the predominant religion? Does religion play an important role in the political and social life of the average citizen? What are the most important religious observances and ceremonies? How do members of the predominant religion feel about other religions?
- Social norms: What is the attitude toward drinking? What things are taboo in this society? What are some of the prevailing attitudes toward divorce? Toward extra-marital relations? Toward homosexuality? Toward contraception?
- Laws: What is the legal age for drinking alcohol? What other laws might affect your daily life (driving, traffic, drugs, visa regulations, employment)?
- Family: Are typical families nuclear or extended? At what age to people normally move out of their parents’ home?
- Shopping: Is the price asked for merchandise fixed or are customers expected to bargain? How is the bargaining conducted? If, as a customer, you touch or handle merchandise for sale (including such things as fruit or linen tablecloths), will the seller in the store or market think you are knowledgeable, inconsiderate, within your rights, completely outside your rights? Other?
- Daily life: How do people organize their daily activities? What is the normal meal schedule? Is there a daytime rest period? What is the customary time for visiting friends? What is the normal work schedule?
- Communication: How long do people talk when they use the telephone? Do friends call each other frequently to chat? How do people feel about having other people make long-distance (overseas) calls from their private house phones?
- Food: What foods are popular and how are they prepared?
- Clothing: What is the usual dress for women? For men? Are pant or shorts worn? If so, on what occasions? Is it o.k. to wear jeans or tennis shoes in certain settings? Is it o.k. to wear sleeveless shirts? What are expectations for dressing for class, a family dinner or a more formal event?
- Medical care: How is medical care structured (private or public hospitals)? How is medical insurance structured—am I covered by my U.S. insurance, or does the host country government require additional insurance?
Differences in Academic Systems
Part of studying abroad is learning how different academic systems function and understanding some of the comparative advantages and disadvantages of the American system. Although every host country will be unique, there are a few general points to keep in mind.
- Support services and office hours are generally less extensive than what you may be accustomed to in the U.S. You must actively seek information as to how the services and office hours work at your host university.
- Course requirements will typically not be as extensive as you are accustomed to in the United States. Other academic systems do not usually offer continuous assessment through quizzes, short papers, midterms, labs, discussions, and reading assignments. You may be given only a recommended reading list and then have 70-100% of your final grade based on only one or two projects or a comprehensive exam. Students may be expected to work independently. If you find that you have a lot of time on your hands, make sure that you clarify the course requirements with your professor so that you do not put yourself at risk of missing assignments or failing a course. Undergraduates must receive at least the equivalent of a C– at UNCP in order to receive transfer credit for your coursework abroad.
- Accessibility of professors will often be less than in the U.S., and professors may have limited or no office hours. Nevertheless, you should make every attempt to speak with your professors if you have questions about course content or academic performance expectations. Teaching styles will also vary. In most other university systems, professors are not considered responsible for motivating students or for ensuring good academic progress. You may encounter professors who only read prepared lectures, or who require a great deal of rote learning. Classroom norms also vary across cultures. Be sure you understand policies and expectations regarding class attendance, late arrival, participation in discussion, and the importance of lecture details.
- Language issues may be of concern if you are taking classes in a foreign language. The first few weeks will require extra effort. In the beginning, you may want to focus on listening comprehension. Before class, ask your professor if you can record lectures, or ask a fellow student if you can borrow his/her notes. Another helpful strategy is to join or create study groups with other students.