Culture shock in studying abroad – handling and tips
A culture shock cannot be prevented and it often catches you when you least expect it. Basically, the right preparation is the be-all and end-all! Deal with the phenomenon of culture shock, above all 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. Anyone who has this opportunity should take advantage of it.
Above all, make yourself aware of the valuable opportunities studying abroad offers you and that a culture shock is something completely normal that you can grow from personally. It is important to overcome the low point as quickly as possible. Because if you only study abroad for a quarter or a semester, you have little time to adapt and risk leaving in the middle of the collision phase and ultimately bringing home only negative feelings and frustrations. The following tips should help to overcome the crisis as successfully as possible.
Look for contacts with locals and improve your language level
When you’re in culture shock, you tend to withdraw. Or maybe you are only looking for contact with people who have a similar cultural background to yours in order to feel less foreign. But those who spend their studies abroad exclusively with other international students, or even only with other German-speaking students, will remain alien to the host culture. Those who withdraw and isolate themselves miss the great opportunity to acquire intercultural skills while studying abroad. In addition, mastering the foreign language is an important aspect in order to be able to study in the country of studyto feel at home. Only those who communicate a lot with locals can learn the foreign language or further improve their language level.
Studying abroad offers many opportunities to socialize with local students. It is of course best to live in a shared flat with locals or with a host family, because the interaction is particularly intense here. But the universities also usually offer a lot of events that promote socializing and integration. Take part in activities that are typical of the country, join a student or sports club and continue to pursue your hobbies.
Observe and not judge
It is of course completely normal to compare your country of study with your home country while studying abroad. But ultimately, it’s about how “objective” these comparisons can be. Because you should be aware that two different cultures cannot actually be compared with one another, as there is no common yardstick. During a culture shock, there is an exaggerated tendency to evaluate the cultural phenomena of the host country without realizing that one has an ethnocentric view of it. This means that you evaluate the other culture against the norms of your own culture. One’s own culture appears to be superior and deviations are perceived as “deficiencies”.
On the other hand, you should try to take a polycentric view and to be open to and respect other cultures, ways of life and ways of thinking. Each culture is unique and independent and one’s own culture is not the measure of all things. Instead of immediately categorizing everything into familiar 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: Closing yourself off from the other culture and losing interest in it is more than counterproductive and will not help you to overcome the crisis. Try local specialties, try new things and show the locals that you are genuinely interested. Every new intercultural communication also offers a new opportunity that you should use to break down prejudices. Despite negative experiences, you should avoid leaning against all members of the host culture. “The” Chinese or “the” Americans do not exist. Every person is unique and also shaped by their own culture in very different ways. After all, you too do not want to be reduced to stereotypes and prejudices.
Keep in touch with parents and friends at home
Anyone who is currently in a crisis naturally longs for the familiar and is terribly homesick. Parents and friends offer comfort and emotional support on bad days. But there is little point in constantly skyping or talking on the phone with the loved ones who stayed at home. Because when you hang up again, the homesickness is often all the greater. The “flight forward” 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 that you discovered during the honeymoon phase.
The settling into a new culture does not happen overnight. Remain patient and allow yourself breaks in between to reflect on what you have experienced. Frustration and a bad mood are quite normal and should be allowed too. Nobody expects you to be able to speak perfect American English or read the hundred most important Chinese characters in a short time. And building new friendships also takes time.
Only those who are aware of their own cultural standards are also able to distance themselves from them and get involved in the new culture. And only those who recognize, for example, that few cultures communicate as directly as the German one, understands why the intercultural interaction partner suddenly reacted hurt 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 known as re-entry shock, reverse culture shock or also as self- culture shock. The symptoms are similar to a foreign culture shock: You have adapted to the culture of the country you are studying and perhaps even internalized some of it. When you return, your own culture suddenly appears alien to you.
High expectations are also associated with returning home, which may be disappointed. After all, you have experienced a lot that you want to share with those who stayed at home. You do not always meet with understanding and some are even not even interested in your experiences. Suddenly you notice aspects of your own culture that you find negative: The people in Germany are rude, Germany is an elbow society, it’s always about performance and results. Anyone who has spent time abroad and lived in and experienced a different culture has changed personally. The intercultural experiences and the eventual experience of a culture shock while studying abroad have shaped you.
Just as you had to get used to the cultural characteristics of the host country, you have to get used to the cultural characteristics of your home country again. These feelings of foreignness towards one’s own are also an important aspect of intercultural learning: You take a critical distance from your own culture and realign your relationship to it. You understand that one’s own culture is neither “better” nor “worse” than other cultures. Seen in this way, the reverse culture shock is just as helpful in shedding an ethnocentric view of other cultures.
Positive effects of a culture shock when studying abroad
Of course, experiencing a culture shock while studying abroad is uncomfortable. After all, the anticipation was great and now you are in the longed-for study country of your choice and really just want to go home. But experiencing and coping with culture shock gives you the opportunity to mature personally. After all, those who overcome the crisis and begin to accept and respect cultural differences and learn to actively adapt to another culture acquire important intercultural skills. And after all, this is a major reason for studying abroad for most students. During a culture shock, one is in a sense forced to deal more intensively with the other culture and, above all, with one’s own culture. This sets in motion an intercultural learning process from which you benefit in the long term.