Culture Shock

You’ll get on the plane full of euphoria and expectations, with the good feeling that you’re finally off to the adventure of studying abroad. Once you have arrived in the host country, everything seems exciting, you are curious and feel that everything you have experienced is enriching, everything seems to be easy.

After some time, however, one or the other difficulty arises, misunderstandings with the locals, the processes at the host university are inscrutable and the linguistic hurdles are greater than expected. The mood tips over, the euphoria has vanished: The food here does not taste good and causes digestive problems, the people in the host country all seem to be somehow hostile and behave strangely. You would love to go home immediately, because everything is much better anyway. Diagnosis: culture shock.

In the following you will find out what this phenomenon is all about and how you can recognize that you are experiencing a culture shock during your studies abroad. We will also give you some helpful tips on how to prepare for a possible culture shock while studying abroad to alleviate the symptoms.

Culture shock: An overview

Whether it’s a semester abroad or a complete bachelor’s, master’s or Ph. D. degree course, whether it’s studying in North America, Europe or Asia – a culture shock in studying abroad can affect anyone! A culture shock is a scientifically recognized phenomenon and has nothing to do with „weakness“. On the contrary: Some people believe that without culture shock, one has not really experienced the foreign culture.

Especially in countries and regions that originate from one’s own cultural area and where one assumes that there are little differences with regard to one’s own culture, the culture shock can be even greater because one has not expected any difficulties. The apparently familiar culture is not so familiar after all. Conversely, the culture shock in Asian countries can turn out to be less intense than might have been expected, because here one reckons from the outset with great cultural differences and has already prepared for them much more internally.

The different phases of a culture shock

Even if the term „culture shock“ suggests that it is a short but very violent shock experience, it is actually a process that lasts several weeks and runs in a U-curve.

The anthropologist Karlevo Oberg has divided the culture shock into an ideal four-phase model, which has been modified several times. Jürgen Bolten, Professor of Intercultural Business Communication, has extended the model by a further phase (misunderstandings).

The intensity and duration of the individual phases depends on completely different factors. It is also possible, for example, that the first phase will be „skipped“ to some extent and that you are already in the middle of a „critical phase“, when you have hardly arrived in the country of study.

The culture shock takes place in the following phases:

1. Euphoria („honeymoon stage“)

In this phase you can see the host country and the other culture through the proverbial pink glasses. You are still tourists and have a very selective perception of your surroundings: you see above all what you want to see and what you have expected to a certain extent. Everything seems new, exciting and exotic; the images and impressions you collect are filtered by a blur.

2. Misunderstandings

In this phase, there are more and more situations that do not fit in with your image, that you have made of the other culture and that irritate you accordingly. Life in the other culture holds surprisingly many „stumbling blocks“, culture bumps, ready: Time and again you collide with the other culture and experience „cultural differences“. You are confronted with a completely different way of life, with different values, different political, social or economic attitudes.

You don’t find your way around in this strange „set of rules“, you don’t know the language well enough yet and you are constantly putting your foot in your mouth. This leads to misunderstandings, which you blame yourself for. So you will not only be confronted with a different culture, but also with yourselves. Much that had previously seemed quite natural, simple rain of behavior and courtesy, is now being questioned. In addition, there are the strange surroundings (house facades or the design of the shops), a completely different climate and unfamiliar daily routines. In short, everything that was familiar to you until now and on which you could orientate yourself is no longer available to you and everything seems uncertain, even unpredictable. The initial euphoria turns into frustration and before you become aware of it, you get into an emotional crisis.

3. Collisions („crisis“)

The collision, the crisis, is the actual culture shock. You don’t recognize the deeper causes of misunderstandings, feel alien, unwelcome and misunderstood and get caught up in some kind of identity crisis. You feel powerless and meaningless, have the feeling of being outside and feel isolated and rejected. Of course, these feelings gnaw at self-esteem and increasingly you feel the need to distance yourself from the „foreign“ culture. Without really being aware of it, you constantly compare the host culture with your own culture, whereby the host culture consistently „scores worse“. Because you see only negative things, such as a high crime rate, different standards of hygiene or the gap between rich and poor, you are beginning to reject them more and more. You feel lonely and homesick.

The culture shock and the associated identity crisis can lead to study difficulties and even depression. It is not uncommon for foreign studies to be interrupted due to a cultural shock. The students are not aware of the fact that they are experiencing a culture shock, which – if recognized as such – can be overcome.

How long the crisis lasts and how intensively it is experienced depends on various factors, but above all on personal factors. Basically, the more aware you are about the structure and typical effects of a culture shock, the quicker you will be able to overcome the crisis and enter the next phase.

4. Acceptance of differences („recovery“)

In this phase you have understood that you have to deal with the new situation and you have realised that you have approached your studies abroad with too high expectations. You try to understand the other culture better, make compromises and accept the cultural differences. You no longer feel the need to interpret and evaluate everything immediately. You have realized that your perception is strongly influenced by your own culture and that it is unhelpful to transfer your understanding of normality and meaningfulness to another culture.

You succeed in reflecting on your own behaviour and enduring apparent contradictions in the behaviour of others. Intercultural communication is now much easier for you, you recognize the causes of misunderstandings and are able to inform them about metacommunication. You understand and adapt to the rules of interaction and communication. However, your perceptions, ways of thinking and behaviour are still marked by your own culture.

5. Acculturation („adjustment“)

During a longer period of study abroad, you ideally reach the phase of acculturation. You not only accept and understand the ways of thinking and behaving of the host culture, but you even begin to perceive it partly as belonging to you, as something of your own. You have successfully integrated yourselves and much of what seemed strange and strange to you at the beginning has become commonplace and a matter of course for you. So you feel at home. This does not mean, however, that you have broken away from your original culture, it only has a much less influence on you than before.

Symptoms of a culture shock

Even if you deal with the topic of culture shock before studying abroad and have prepared yourself for it, you may not even notice that you are experiencing such a shock. Especially when it is less intense and expresses itself „only“ through latent dissatisfaction and a negative mood. However, in order to get the most out of his studies abroad and not to spoil himself with lasting negative feelings, it is important to recognize a culture shock. The culture shock manifests itself very differently, does not proceed in the same way for everyone, it is also experienced as very different intensities and not necessarily all symptoms occur. By the way, you can experience a culture shock with every new stay abroad again and again and in different forms.

  • Strong need for hygiene
  • sense of helplessness
  • The need to withdraw
  • feeling of being rejected by others
  • Homesick homesickness and the need to be as frequent as possible with parents and friends to telephone/skype
  • Feeling of isolation and loneliness
  • Anxiety and distrust
  • Increased need to sleep
  • Physical symptoms such as insomnia, loss of appetite, sweating, sudden allergies or high blood pressure
  • The host country is constantly being compared with the host country and judged negatively, even to the point of hostility and total rejection.

Cultural shock during studies abroad – handling and tips

There is no way to prevent a culture shock and it often happens when you least expect it. The basic principle is: the right preparation is essential! Get to grips with the phenomenon of cultural shock and familiarize yourself with the cultural standards of your country of study, such as time management, communication style or rules of conduct, but also with the study and education system. Many German universities offer their students the option of taking part in so-called intercultural training courses before studying abroad. Whoever has this possibility should use it.

Above all, be aware of the valuable opportunities offered by studying abroad and that a culture shock is something quite normal for you to grow personally. It is important to overcome the lowest point as quickly as possible. Especially those who only study abroad for a quarter or a semester have little time to adapt and risk leaving in the middle of the collision phase and end up bringing home only negative feelings and frustrations. The following tips should help to overcome the crisis as successfully as possible.

Find contacts with locals and increase language level

When you are experiencing a culture shock, you tend to retreat. Or maybe you are just looking for contact with people who have a similar cultural background to you in order to feel less alien. But those who spend their studies abroad exclusively with other international students, or even only with other German-speaking students, will remain unfamiliar with the host culture. Those who withdraw and isolate themselves miss the great opportunity to acquire intercultural skills during their studies abroad. In addition, mastery of the foreign language is an important aspect to feel at home in the country of study. Only those who communicate a lot with the locals can learn the foreign language or improve their language level.

Studying abroad offers many opportunities to make contacts with local students. Of course, it is best to live in a shared flat with locals or in a host family, because the interaction is particularly intense here. However, universities also offer a wide range of events that promote socializing and integration. Take part in typical local activities, join a student or sports club and continue to pursue your hobbies.

Observe and not evaluate

While studying abroad, comparing the study country with your home country is of course completely normal. Ultimately, however, it is a question of how „objective“ these comparisons can be. Because one should be aware that two different cultures cannot actually be compared, because there is no common standard. During a culture shock, one tends to evaluate the cultural phenomena of the host country to an exaggerated degree and does not realize that one has an ethnocentric view of them. This means that the other culture is judged according to the norms of its own culture. One’s own culture appears to be superior and deviations are perceived as a „lack“.

On the other hand, you should try to adopt a polycentric viewpoint and be open to and respect other cultures, ways of living and thinking. Each culture is unique and unique in its own right, and its own culture is not the measure of all things. Instead of immediately classifying everything into known categories, it is helpful to wait and see the new culture and yourself.

Be curious, open and flexible

Even if you have experienced setbacks and disappointments: to shut yourself off from the other culture and lose interest in it is more than counterproductive and will not help you to overcome the crisis. Try local specialities, try out new things and signal the local people’s sincere interest. Every new intercultural communication also offers a new opportunity, which you should take advantage of to break down prejudices. In spite of negative experiences, you should avoid having to lump all members of the host culture together. „The“ Chinese or „the“ Americans don’t exist. Every human being is unique and in a very different way shaped by his or her own culture. You, too, do not want to be reduced to stereotypes and prejudices.

Keep in touch with parents and friends at home

Those who are in crisis naturally long for the familiar and have terrible homesickness. Parents and friends offer comfort and emotional support on bad days. But it doesn’t do much good to always Skype or make phone calls with the dear ones at home. Because once you’ve hung up again, homesickness is often even greater. Escaping to the front „will certainly be more effective when it comes to fighting the longing for home. Go outside, meet fellow students or go to your favorite vantage point, which you discovered during the Honeymoon phase.

Staying patient

Getting used to a new culture does not happen overnight. Be patient and take a break in between to reflect on what you have experienced. Frustration and bad mood are quite normal and should also be allowed. No one expects that after a short time you will be able to speak perfect American English or read the hundred most important Chinese characters. It also takes time to establish new friendships.

Know yourself

Only those who are aware of their own cultural standards will be able to distance themselves from them and become involved in the new culture. And only those who recognize, for example, that few cultures communicate as directly as the German one, understand why the intercultural interaction partner has suddenly reacted injured after a well-intentioned tip and can do it differently the next time.

Back home: Re-entry shock

You can also experience a culture shock when you return home after studying abroad. This is referred to as re-entry shock, reverse culture shock or also as a culture shock. The symptoms are similar to those of a foreign culture shock: you have adapted to the culture of the study country and you may even have internalized some of it. When you return home, your own culture suddenly seems strange to you.

High expectations are also associated with the return home, which may be disappointed. After all, you have experienced a lot of things that you want to share with the people at home. You don’t always find understanding and some people are even not interested in your experiences. Suddenly you notice aspects of your own culture that you perceive as negative: The people in Germany are rude, Germany is an elbow society, it’s always about performance and results. Those who have spent a time abroad and lived and experienced a different culture have changed personally. The intercultural experiences and the possible experience of a culture shock during your studies abroad have left their mark on you.

Just as you had to get used to the cultural conditions of your host country, you have to get used to the cultural characteristics of your home country again. These feelings of foreignness in contrast to one’s own are also an important aspect of intercultural learning: You distance yourself critically from your own culture and realign your relationship with it. You understand that your own culture is neither „better“ nor „worse“ than other cultures. From this point of view, the reverse culture shock is just as helpful in presenting an ethnocentric view of other cultures.

Positive effects of a culture shock in studying abroad

To experience a culture shock while studying abroad is of course unpleasant. After all, the anticipation was great and now one is in the longed-for country of study of one’s choice and actually only wants to go home. But experiencing and mastering a culture shock gives you the opportunity to mature personally. Especially those who overcome the crisis and begin to accept and respect cultural differences and learn to actively adapt to another culture acquire important intercultural competences. After all, this is an essential reason for most students to study abroad. During a culture shock, one is to a certain extent forced to deal more intensively with the other culture and, above all, with one’s own culture. In this way, an intercultural learning process is set in motion, from which one profits in the long run.