Most people who live abroad for an extended period of time experience some degree of culture shock or cultural adjustment. In order to understand culture shock, it is important to remember that our ability to function in the world depends on our capacity to read hundreds of signs, respond to subtle cues, and behave according to countless explicit and implicit rules. At home, we know how to read street signs, how to take a bus, how much to tip, etc. Much of what we do in our daily lives is automatic and requires little thought. Abroad, the reverse is true and simple tasks become difficult--we don’t  know how to behave, our actions and words don't get the expected responses, and we don't understand the messages we are getting. We are confronted continuously with new ways of thinking, valuing, and doing things. Sometimes, our common sense is no longer useful. This is culture shock--a disorientation that can cause severe stress. Fortunately, culture shock is predictable and manageable and, if students are prepared for it, they can do a great deal to control it.

Culture shock is a cycle of adjustment that may take quite some time. The cycle is marked by four basic phases, and while the length and severity of these low periods vary greatly for different individuals, most people experience at least two low periods during their stay abroad.


  • This is the tourist phase. The traveler is excited about living in a new place. At first glance, it strikes the traveler that the local people and their way of life are not that different from what they are used to at home.

Irritation and Hostility

  • After the initial excitement is over, travelers start noticing more and more dissimilarities between life in the foreign country and life at home. Their initial curiosity and enthusiasm turn into irritation, frustration, anger, and depression. Minor nuisances and inconveniences lead to catastrophic upsets. Symptoms experienced during this phase include homesickness, boredom, withdrawal (i.e. spending excessive amounts of time reading, hanging out exclusively with others from the US, avoiding contact with local people), a need for excessive amounts of sleep, compulsive eating or drinking, irritability, exaggerated cleanliness, stereotyping of, or hostility toward, local people, loss of ability to work effectively, unexplainable fits of weeping, and physical ailments (psychosomatic illness). This second phase of culture shock is often a difficult period and may last for quite a long time. Fortunately, most people only experience a few of these symptoms, but it is still helpful for students to be aware of all the symptoms to better help them understand what is happening to them, or their friends, and take steps to alleviate it.

Gradual Adjustment

  • Over time, travelers gradually adapt to the new culture. Once travelers begin to orient themselves, and are able to interpret some of the subtle cultural clues and cues, the culture will seem more familiar and more comfortable. Feelings of isolation will decrease, and self-confidence will return.

Adaptation or Bi-Culturalism

  • Full recovery has occurred when a foreigner is able to function in two cultures with confidence. At that time, students will find that they enjoy some of the customs, ways of doing and saying things, and personal attitudes that bothered them during phase two. Students may not realize how well they have adjusted to the new culture until they return to the U.S., at which point they may well experience reverse culture shock.

How to Cope with Culture Shock

  • Since culture shock is a cycle of adjustment, people who make the effort to learn as much as possible about their temporary home country before they leave, and who arrive abroad with an open mind, eager to learn as much as possible, often find it much easier to adjust. To make the transition easier, remember not to wait for others to make the first move but instead, start reaching out right away. Students should consider buying a map of their new city, in order to become more familiar with their surroundings. Find out where the closest bank, post office, telephone, grocery store, etc., are located. The next step may be for students to familiarize themselves with some of the basic names and phrases that appear on signs, menus, etc. Even other English-speaking countries use phrases unfamiliar to most Americans. A British or Australian passerby will not know that an American student is looking for a "chemist" if they ask for a drugstore or pharmacy.

If you think you may be experiencing culture shock, here are some helpful coping mechanisms:

  • Find someone who understands the U.S. and the host culture and ask them about some of the things you find frustrating.
  • Listen carefully to people, and remember that they may not be making the same assumptions you are. If you are not sure of what they mean, ask.
  • Speak the local language as often as possible.
  • Maintain regular living patterns—eat and sleep at regular intervals.
  • If you have certain hobbies, or are involved in sports at home, try to do the same abroad. This is a great way to make friends.
  • Keep a journal about your experiences and emotions abroad.
  • Set time aside each day to do something special and make sure you do it.
  • Find a place you feel comfortable and spend time there.
  • Talk to friends or counselors on the program or in Whitman OCS if you feel you are having problems coping.  Try to look at your problems one at a time, and set out to solve them the same way.
  • Avoid hanging out with others from the US who are disgruntled with the host culture and spend their time complaining.
  • If you feel depressed, ask yourself these questions:
    • "What did I expect?”
    • "Were my expectations reasonable?"
    • “If so, what can I do to make them come true?"
    • "If not, how can I make the best use of my time?"
  • If you develop physical problems (i.e. headaches, stomachaches, insomnia), these may be signs of stress. Discuss your symptoms with a counselor or doctor, and try to identify ways with a medical professional to practice self care.
  • Contact Whitman Off-Campus Studies if you feel your problems are not getting resolved and are significantly detracting from your experience away.

Understanding Yourself and Your Culture

  • Adjusting to a new culture often requires a re-examination of personal values and outlook. Many students come back more appreciative of their own customs and culture, as well as those of the host country.
  • One way for students to prepare themselves for living in a new culture, and for dealing with culture shock, is to have a clear idea of their own goals and their intended contributions while abroad. Students should ask themselves: “what do I hope to do or learn?” “What are my personal values, and how might they be viewed in the foreign culture?”  “What can I bring to the foreign culture?”
  • It also may be helpful for students to realize how people in foreign countries tend to view Americans, and why. Before going abroad, students should take a look at the recent historical and political developments in the country they will be visiting.  Students should ask themselves how, if they were in the shoes of a local in the destination country, they would most likely perceive Americans. Because the U.S. is a powerful and wealthy country, students will probably encounter people who resent various U.S. foreign policies that affect them. In fact, people may not want to get to know students from the US at first, simply because of where they are from.
  • Some stereotypical views students may encounter (often based on the content of US movies and TV shows) include the various beliefs that all Americans are:
    • Informal and/or disrespectful of authority
    • Loud, rude, boastful, selfish, and immature
    • Hard-working
    • Extravagant and wasteful
    • Picky eaters
    • Confident they have all the answers
    • Lacking in class consciousness
    • Racially prejudiced
    • Ignorant of other countries
    • Wealthy and generous
    • Always in a hurry
    • Sexually promiscuous
  • The stereotypes are sometimes based on cultural differences.  Here are some examples:
    • In some societies, people speak more softly and at a lower tonal level than in the U.S. To people in these countries, Americans are loud.
    • Similarly, in many other countries, people are not used to calling each other by first names after a brief acquaintance, and they therefore consider Americans disrespectful or informal.  Not every society values egalitarianism as it is valued in the U.S.
    • Students may also find that people in other countries place less emphasis upon individual achievements and results, and are less task-oriented. To people from the US, individuals from other cultures might seem too relaxed (even lazy), and not adequately concerned with meeting schedules and deadlines.
    • Some cultures place less emphasis upon being self-reliant, and may be more willing to depend upon others.
    • Students should keep an open mind, and try to understand why people feel, think, or behave in certain ways different from theirs.