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Culture Shock

Japan 1
1. What is Culture Shock?

"Culture shock" is a term used to describe the impact of moving from a familiar culture to one that is unfamiliar. It includes the shock of any new environment, meeting lots of new people and learning the ways of a different country. It also includes the shock of being separated from family, friends, colleagues and teachers--those people with whom you would normally talk during times of uncertainly and who provide support and advice.

When familiar sights, sounds, smells or tastes are no longer available to you, you can miss them very much. Jet lag and fatigue upon arrival can cause even little things to upset you. During your study abroad, fatigue and illness can also increase your feelings of culture shock.

The most important thing to remember is that culture shock is NORMAL, it GOES AWAY, and is even POSITIVE, since it is the state in which you will learn about yourself and from which you will emerge as a more compassionate, globally aware and mature individual. Some of the following information will be provided during the CIE orientation sessions, but please read this section completely and repeatedly during your study abroad experience. Your provider will undoubtedly also talk to you about culture shock, its symptoms and how to minimize it.

Cultural Causes & Symptoms of Culture Shock

Culture shock has been widely studied. The cultural elements that cause it are such things as climate, language, food, dress and social roles. Symptoms include:

  • Homesickness
  • Headaches or stomach aches
  • Tendency to easily fatigue
  • Boredom
  • Sleeping a lot
  • Loneliness or a sense of hopelessness
  • Frustration and irritability
  • Irrational anger
  • Anxiety or suspicion
  • Distrust or even hostility toward locals
  • Withdrawal from people and activities (including withdrawal by escaping to the internet)
  • Lowered work performance, including class performance.

2. Phases of Culture Shock

Culture shock, a term created by Kalvero Oberg in 1960, consists of distinct phases. However, it varies among individuals in its severity, duration and in the phases through which an individual will pass depending upon the personality traits of the individual, the degree to which the individual has prepared himself or herself for the host country experience, and the length of the individual's stay, as you need a certain length of time to pass through all phases. Normally a semester study will produce most if not all phases.

One model of culture shock and its phases is called the W-Curve and was identified by Oberg. It includes not only the time spent abroad, but the period at home after the overseas experience, when the individual experiences "reentry shock" and then recovers and adjusts to being at home. The characteristics of these phases that the individual goes through are described below. Remember that you may not experience all of these phases or exhibit all of these behaviors.

Phase One: "Honeymoon Phase"--enthusiasm and excitement.

In this phase, the individual:

  • sees the differences between the old and new culture are seen in a romantic light, wonderful and new. For example, in moving to the host country, an individual may "fall in love" with the food, the pace of life, certain customs, the architecture and so on.
  • Views differences as exciting and intriguing. Then too, your hosts--family, program provider--are typically gracious especially when they meet you.
  • Is overwhelmed with impressions.
  • Is largely passive; does not confront the culture.

Phase Two: "Distress and Adjustment Phase"--withdrawal and loneliness

After a few days or weeks, when the honeymoon wears off, people tend to focus on inconveniences and annoying differences. This stage is critical because the individual either adjusts or succumbs--by going home. In this phase, the individual:

  • Begins to interact with the culture.
  • Finds that those initial cultural differences that seemed so charming and exciting now begin to make him/her feel insecure, uncertain, confused, frustrated and even anxious. You may long for food from the U. S. or that your mom cooks, you may find the pace of life too slow or too fast, people cold or too demanding, people's habits strange and even offensive. Comparing your new culture to your culture at home will now probably make you feel homesick, and you will find yourself calling and emailing home more often.
  • Begins to react to the behavior and dislikes the culture.
  • Begins to criticize the culture and the people.
  • Wants to go home.
  • REMEMBER: This is completely NORMAL. It is part of the adjustment and integration process and even to be welcomed as a necessary phase of your transformation as an individual. You may even notice that you are suddenly evaluating your own cultural values consciously (or perhaps unconsciously) to see if they still make sense in the light of the different values of your host culture. This is very exciting and should be embraces.

Phase Three: "Re-emergence/Adjustment"

After a few days, weeks or months, most everyone will grow accustomed to the new culture's differences and will develop routines. By this point, you are no longer reacting to the new culture positively or negatively, because it no longer feels "new." You become concerned with basic living again, as you were in your culture of origin, and you have probably worked out how to act in your new cultural environment in terms of interacting with people, making friends, doing daily tasks, and succeeding in your new academic environment. In this phase, the individual:

  • Begins to understand the behavior of the people.
  • Feels more comfortable living in and encountering the culture.
  • Feels less isolated.
  • Regains his/her sense of humor.

Phase Four: Achievement/Enthusiasm

After several months or perhaps more time. The longer you stay and the more you interact with the culture and people of your host country, the greater will become your sense of comfort and empowerment. In this phase, the individual:

  • Enjoys being in the culture.
  • Functions easily in the culture.
  • Prefers certain host country behaviors to that of his/her own culture
  • Adopts certain behaviors of the host culture.

Reentry Phase

3. How to Deal with Culture Shock

Essentially culture shock is stress. Remember that the tools you use to cope with stress at home are the same ones to use while abroad:

  • Remember that stress is normal.
  • Keep in mind that the stress is temporary and will change and go away.
  • Keep in mind the positive aspects of stress, particularly the fact that your culture shock is part of a journey of personal discovery and growth.
  • Remember that you have gone through stressful times before and survived.
  • Do your research before departure so that you have a better idea of what to expect.
  • If you do not know or have not studied the language of the country, use RosettaStone to learn at least some basic language. This will go a long way into helping you greet people, read signs, get around the town, use transportation and do basic errands at stores, banks etc. You will feel very empowered. Be sure to also study the language of the country--most programs will require that you take 3-6 credits; if your program doesn't do so anyway. The payoff is enormous. People will engage you and respond to you very favorably if you try and speak their language.
  • Keep a sense of humor about yourself.
  • Take care of your health, eat properly, exercise and get plenty of rest.
  • Establish priorities regarding the things you have to do, learn and adjust to and do the most important items first.
  • Seek out other people. Don't isolate yourself.
  • Be open and adopt a sense of adventure and open mindedness. Our attitude affects the way we see ourselves, experience others and encounter the world.
  • Be patient with yourself and patient with the people and culture around you.
  • Do not try to find a "little America" abroad. You'll be disappointed and you'll miss the unique features of your host country.

4. Culture Shock, E-Mail and the Impact on Those at Home

The internet and email are powerful tools for obtaining information and for communication. However, it can have a negative impact on the people back at home, particularly if you are writing them while you are battling culture shock. This negative impact on them is because students tend to write or call home to their parents when they are in trouble and to complain. Naturally, your parents will start to worry, especially if you do not write back for a few days. Of course, you may already be feeling better and not realize that you've created anxiety in their minds, but your parents still think you are miserable. So please be mindful of this and spare your parents this suffering by waiting until you can write or call with a more balanced message. An interesting exercise is to write an email to them and not send it but save it as a draft. You may then read it a few days later and be surprised how much better you feel and how your feelings have changed.