Culture Shock While Studying Abroad

By | July 22, 2021

You get on the plane euphoric and full of expectations, with the good feeling: Now the adventure of studying abroad is finally starting. When you arrive in the host country, everything initially seems very exciting, you are curious and find everything you have experienced as enrichment, everything seems very easy.

After a while, however, one or the other difficulty arises, there are misunderstandings with the locals, the processes at the host university are inscrutable and the language hurdles are greater than expected. The mood changes, the euphoria is gone: the food here doesn’t taste good and causes digestive problems, the people in the host country all seem somehow repellent and behave strangely. You would like to go back home immediately, because everything is much better there anyway. Diagnosis: culture shock.

In the following you will find out what this phenomenon is all about and how you can tell that you are experiencing a culture shock during your studies abroad. We’ll also give you a few helpful tips on how to best prepare for a possible culture shock while studying abroad in order to alleviate the symptoms if necessary.

Culture shock: an overview

Whether a semester abroad or a full Bachelor, Master or Ph.D. degree, whether studying in North America, Europe or Asia – a culture shock when studying abroad can affect anyone! Culture shock is a scientifically recognized phenomenon and has nothing to do with “weakness”. On the contrary: some are of the opinion that without a culture shock, you never really experienced the foreign culture.

Especially in countries and regions that originate from their own culture and where one assumes small differences in relation to their own culture, the culture shock can be even greater because one did not anticipate possible 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 perhaps expected, because great cultural differences are anticipated here from the outset and inwardly one has already prepared a lot more for them.

The different phases of a culture shock

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

The anthropologist Karlevo Oberg has divided the culture shock into an ideal-typical four-phase model that has been modified variously. Jürgen Bolten, professor for intercultural business communication, has added another phase (misunderstandings) to the model.

The intensity and duration of the individual phases depend on very different factors. It can also be the case, for example, that the first phase is “skipped”, so to speak, and you are in the middle of the “critical phase” when you have hardly arrived in the study country.

The culture shock takes place in the following phases:

1. Euphoria (“honeymoon stage”)

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

2. Misunderstandings

In this phase there are increasingly situations that do not want to fit your image that you have made of the other culture and that irritate you accordingly. Life in the other culture has a surprising number of “stumbling blocks”, culture bumps, ready: Again and again you collide with the other culture and feel “cultural differences”. You are confronted with a completely different “way of life”, with different values, different political, social or economic attitudes.

You do not find your way around this foreign “set of rules”, you do not have a good enough command of the language and you are constantly making faux pas. This creates misunderstandings for which you mostly blame yourself. So you are not only confronted with a different culture, but above all with yourself. You now question a lot of things that previously seemed natural, simple rain of behavior and courtesy. In addition, there is the unfamiliar environment (house facades or the design of the shops), a completely different climate and unfamiliar daily routines. In short: Everything that you were familiar with and that you could use for orientation is no longer available to you and everything appears 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 real culture shock. You do not recognize the deeper causes of the misunderstandings, you feel strange, unwelcome and misunderstood and you get into a kind of identity crisis. You feel powerless and meaningless, constantly feel like you are outside and feel isolated and rejected. Of course, these feelings gnaw at your self-esteem and you increasingly feel the need to distance yourself from the “foreign” culture. Without really being aware of it, you are constantly comparing the host culture with your own culture, with the host culture consistently “performing” worse. Because you only see negative things about her, for example a high crime rate, different hygiene standards or the gap between rich and poor, you start to reject her more and more. You feel lonely and are terribly homesick.

The culture shock and the associated identity crisis can lead to study difficulties and even depression. It is not uncommon for the study abroad to be broken off due to a culture shock. The students are not aware that they are currently experiencing a culture shock that – once recognized as such – can be overcome.

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

4. Acceptance of the differences (“recovery”)

In this phase you understood that you had to deal with the new situation and you realized that you approached your studies abroad with too high expectations. You try to understand the other culture better, you compromise and accept the cultural differences. You no longer feel the need to interpret and evaluate everything immediately. You have recognized that your perception is strongly influenced by your own culture and that it is not very helpful to transfer your understanding of normality and meaningfulness to the other culture.

You succeed, the own behavior to reflect endure and apparent contradictions in the behavior of others. Intercultural communication is now much easier for you, you recognize the causes of misunderstandings and are able to explain them through metacommunication. You understand the rules of interaction and communication and adapt to them. However, your perception, way of thinking and behavior are still shaped by your own culture.

5. Acculturation (“adjustment”)

Ideally, you will reach the acculturation phase during a longer period of study abroad. You not only accept and understand the way of thinking and behavior of the host culture, but you even begin to perceive them partly as belonging to you, as something of your own. You have successfully integrated yourselves and much of what seemed strange and completely alien to you at the beginning has become commonplace and a matter of course for you. So you feel “at home”. However, that does not mean that you have broken away from your original culture, it just has a much smaller impact on you than it did before.

Symptoms of culture shock

Even if you dealt with the topic of culture shock before studying abroad and have prepared for it, it can happen that you don’t even notice that you are experiencing one. Especially when it is less intense and “only” expresses itself through latent dissatisfaction and a negative mood. However, in order to get the most out of your study abroad and not spoil yourself with lasting negative feelings, it is important to recognize a culture shock. The culture shock manifests itself in very different ways, is not the same for everyone, it is also experienced as very different in intensity and not all symptoms necessarily appear. Incidentally, you can experience a culture shock with each new stay abroad again and again and in different forms.

  • Pronounced need for hygiene
  • Feeling helpless
  • The need to withdraw
  • Feeling rejected by others
  • Strong homesickness and the need to telephon / skype with parents and friends as often as possible
  • Feeling of isolation and loneliness
  • Fearfulness and distrust
  • Increased need for sleep
  • Physical symptoms such as insomnia, loss of appetite, sweating, sudden allergies, or high blood pressure
  • The host country is constantly compared with the home country and rated negatively up to the point of hostility and total rejection

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