Saint Louis University

Culture Shock

Culture shock is not quite as "shocking" or as sudden as most people expect. It is part of the process of learning a new culture that is called "cultural adaptation." You may experience some discomfort before you are able to function well in a new setting; this is known as the "culture shock" stage of the adaptation process.

Just as you will bring with you to the United States clothes and other personal items, you will also carry invisible "cultural baggage" when you travel. That baggage is not as obvious as the items in your suitcases, but it will play a major role in your adaptation abroad. Cultural baggage may include the values that are important to you and the patterns of behavior that are customary in your culture. The more you know about your personal values and how they are derived from your culture, the better prepared you will be to see and understand the cultural differences you will encounter while in the U.S.

Emerging Differences
Gradually, as you become more involved in activities and get to know the people around you, the differences will become increasingly apparent to you. Those differences may begin to seem more irritating than interesting, and small incidents and difficulties may make you anxious and concerned about how best to carry on with academic and social life. As these differences emerge, they can be troubling and sometimes shocking. But culture shock does not happen all at once. It is a feeling that grows little by little, as you interact with other students, faculty, and people in the community.

For many, this gradual process culminates in an emotional state known as "culture shock," although it is seldom as dramatic as the term implies. The common symptoms of culture shock include:

  • Extreme homesickness
  • Desire to avoid social settings which seem threatening or unpleasant
  • Physical complaints and sleep disturbances
  • Depression and feelings of helplessness
  • Difficulty with coursework
  • Loss of your sense of humor
  • Boredom or fatigue

Students are sometimes unaware of the fact that they are experiencing culture shock when these symptoms occur. There are ways to deal with this period of culture shock, so it helps to recognize that culture shock may lie behind physical symptoms and irritability.

Coping with Culture Shock
Throughout the period of cultural adaptation, take good care of yourself. Read a book or rent a video in your native language, catch up with what is going on at home through the Web, take a short trip if possible, exercise and get plenty of rest, write a letter or telephone home, eat good food, and do things you enjoy with friends. Take special notice of things you enjoy about living in the host culture.

Although it can be disconcerting and a little scary, the "shock" gradually eases as you begin to understand the new culture. It is useful to realize that often the reactions and perceptions of others toward you - and you toward them - are not personal evaluations but are based on a clash of cultural values. The more skilled you become in recognizing how and when cultural values and behaviors are likely to come in conflict, the easier it becomes to make adjustments that can help you avoid serious difficulties.

Portions taken from "International Student and Scholar Services Handbook" from Office of International Student and Scholar Services, University of Missouri-St. Louis.

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