Culture Shock

No matter where you’re from, where you’re studying, or how long you’re there, you are going to encounter things about your host country or countries that can be a bit shocking. Many popular student destinations—think London or Sydney—share English with us as a common language, but their cultures are very different from the US.  While most students who go abroad do so at least in part to really to get know another culture, that doesn’t come without its challenges. 

That’s where culture shock comes in.  It looks different for every person, happens at different times, for different reasons, and manifests in different ways.  Generally, though, culture shock tends to follow a similar pattern, much like the graph below.  Don’t think that because you are going to an English-speaking country, or just because you’ve travelled abroad before, that you won’t get culture shock.  It hits everyone.   

 

Stage 1: Euphoria 

“OH MY GOD THIS IS IT!  YAAAAS!  THIS IS WHAT I’VE BEEN WAITING FOR!  EVERYTHING IS BEAUTIFUL!  THIS COUNTRY IS AMAZING!  THE PEOPLE ARE AMAZING!  WHY DON’T WE HAVE FOOD LIKE THIS AT HOME!  A BIRD JUST POOPED ON MY HEAD OH MY GOD THIS IS SO AUTHENTIC I LOVE IT!”* 

*not an actual quote from a student 

When you first arrive to your host country, you are going to love everything about it, and you should!  After all, study abroad is about the joy of discovering new experiences.  During this part of your program, you should take it all in and ride the wave while it lasts, because next comes… 

 

Stage 2: The Crash 

“I SWEAR, IF ONE MORE PERSON ASKS ME IF I WANT A TAXI I’M GOING TO LOSE MY MIND” – every student in Cuba 

“I SWEAR, IF I SEE ONE MORE BUG IN MY ROOM I AM GOING TO LOSE MY MIND” – every student in Ecuador 

“I SWEAR, I JUST WANT NOTHING MORE THAN SOMEONE TO TALK ON THE TUBE.  WHY IS IT SO QUIET?!” – every student in London 

At some point, you’re going to hit a figurative wall and the cultural difference between your host country and home are going to get to you.  This looks different for every student – it might be a general feeling of homesickness for a few days, a feeling of absolute dread of having to deal with crowded transportation, or an incredibly strong desire to come home. 

How it hits and when it hits can are unpredictable, but there are some things that you should look out for: 

  • Are you avoiding going out with friends because you don’t feel like “dealing” with it? 

  • Are you spending more time on social media or talking to friends and family at home and less time enjoying just “being” in your new surroundings and living in the moment? 

  • Are you irritable but  not sure why? 

Often, with culture shock, you might not want to acknowledge that you are having issues adjusting, and many students displace their frustration with the culture to easier, more manageable things to deal with.  Things like complaining about WiFi, the size of your apartment, or your roommates might end up being the outlets of your frustration.  Eating, sleeping, or drinking too much are not healthy ways to deal with culture shock – talk about it.  It’s likely (although they won’t want to admit it) that your colleagues on the program are experiencing the same issues that you are.  Your faculty leaders and local staff can help work through it, too, as can your Program Manager and Advisors in Pittsburgh.  All of us have dealt with culture shock before, and deal with it just about every time we go abroad.   

Do not retreat.  When you start to experience culture shock, it might seem counterintuitive, but you need to continue to insert yourself into the situations that you find frustrating or overwhelming.  The personal growth, cultural adaptability, problem-solving and intercultural skills that come from study abroad don’t come free. 

Check yourself before you wreck yourself. Negativity can be contagious. When you find yourself complaining and doubting your decision to study abroad, step back and reflect before allowing negative attitudes to affect the group and everyone’s experience.  

Communication in a language that is not your own is exhaustingDo your very best to communicate in the host country’s language but give yourself a break when it wears you out! 

Avoid getting caught up in social media. Throughout your program, it can be difficult to find the balance between staying in touch with home and letting it consume your experience.  Especially in moments of distress, social media and contact with home should be comforting.  Just be sure to not rely on it to the point of missing out on experiences in your host country.  

 

Stage 3: The Balance 

Eventually, you’ll find equilibrium between the things that you love about your host country and the things that you aren’t a huge fan of.  You might even find that some of the things that frustrated you the most – embarrassing language mistakes, issues with transportation,  trying new and “crazy” foods – end up being the experiences that will be your best memories and that you talk about in interviews.  

 

Further Reading: Reverse Culture Shock 

Coming home might seem far away, but just a heads up: it can be equally as hard, if not harder, than arriving in country.  Read more here

What our students say

  • Rachel Mast

    In summer 2015, I participated in the International Internship Program in Berlin, Germany where I interned at an internet-based coffee retailer. Although I loved everything about my internship experience, my favorite memory came from getting to build personal relationships with my co-workers. There were four interns from around the world at my organization, and it was so cool to exchange cultural insights as well as differences in the respective educational programs. We are still connected on social media, and it is pretty cool to have friends from all over the world. Working in the consumer-goods industry, I was able to really see how Americans and Europeans vary in their preferences and response to marketing communications. Overall, the biggest thing I learned was how important it is to understand the target audience when creating products and marketing campaigns. After this experience, I feel much more confident in working for an organization with a global focus.
  • Kelsey Magilton

    Interning for the Sydney Opera House was an experience I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Choosing to participate in an internship was easily the best decision I made when going abroad. I was a marketing intern at the Sydney Opera House. The entire experience is one that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. It was an exciting time to be an intern as I was able to help the team develop new marketing collateral with their recent rebranding efforts. I joined forces with the design department to create brochures and point of sale displays, which are still on display at the Sydney Opera House today. It was especially rewarding to be included in the initial brainstorming stage and assisting the SOH implement a successful re-launch of their brand. The biggest thing I learned was the ability to work with people of different cultures. Sydney is the "New York" of Australia, therefore it is one giant melting pot. I worked with individuals from every... Read more
  • Josh Hammaker

    Studying abroad has helped me in my career in ways I would never have expected. Most notably, studying abroad taught me how to interact with people from different backgrounds and cultures. Since graduating from Pitt, I've been working in a position that involves a decent amount of travel and therefore requires me to interact with individuals from all over the world. Being able to share the adventures and experiences gained from studying abroad was likely one of the deciding factors that set me apart from other candidates for my position. Travelling to and living in another country takes most people out of their comfort zone, but every minute overseas was absolutely worth it.
  • Allie Roos

    When I was a freshman, I sat down with one of my professors to discuss what I expected from my college experience. The first thing out of my mouth was that I wanted to study abroad. Now as a senior, I have been able to study abroad twice, once with a Panther Program (Pitt in Sicily) and again with a Pitt-Recognized Program. It was this program that was suggested to me during that freshman year meeting. The Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies (ICCS) has been the premiere study abroad experience for Classics students since 1965. The "Centristi" (students at the ICCS) come from across the country and live together for a semester in a four story building located in the eternal city, Rome. I knew from the first moment I heard about the program that I needed to be apart of this institution. Not only were the students from various parts of the country, but so were the Professors. The diversity of experience and background within our small group of thirty was a... Read more
  • Emma Huckins

    Through my time in Germany, I gained many professional skills that would be hard to learn just in the classroom in Pittsburgh. Every culture has its own customs and manners when it comes to business, and with business being such an international field, it is important to be knowledgable about cultures in other countries. I was able to get first hand experience of these kinds of differences while I was in Germany working with German university students and through touring corporations throughout my trip. The two weeks abroad lead up to a final group presentation on one of the automobile industries that we studied. Each group consisted of a couple of Pitt Business students, Pitt Engineering students, and University of Augsburg students. So on top of networking with students and professionals in Germany, as a CBA student I was given the opportunity to get to know and work with Swanson Engineering students. Overall, Plus 3 Germany not only expanded my professional network, but also gave... Read more
  • Madeline Wells

    Through the Pitt in Alcalá program and the Franklin Institute at the the Universidad de Alcalá in Alcalá de Henares, Spain, I had the opportunity to shadow a doctor at the local hospital in Alcalá. This experience was by far the most challenging, but also most rewarding. I was paired with a medical student in her third year of residency and had the opportunity to shadow her work for 15 hours. She worked in the rehabilitation department in the emergency room, so we saw lots of patients with muscular or skeletal injuries. I definitely had trouble understanding what the patients and doctors were saying, because they spoke very quickly and used advanced medical terminology. However, by the end of my time shadowing there, I could tell that my Spanish skills, especially my knowledge of medical Spanish, had improved tremendously. I am currently pursuing a degree in Rehabilitation Science and plan on being a physical therapist, and would love to incorporate Spanish into my career plans... Read more
  • Jay Carter

    As an exchange student in Marseille, France, I gained insight into the international business of the European culture and its influence on the global economy. The geographical and cultural diversity of each exchange student enriched course discussions; Chinese, Russian, Mauritian, Italian, Mumbian and Londoner are just a few of the student nationalities. Classroom presentations ranged on topics of ‘ethics, corporate social responsibility, unconscious bias, personal branding, talent marketing and skills management.’ Outside of the classroom, the Interact Team was welcoming and made Marseille enjoyable. The social activities exposed us to a lot of what Marseille had to offer. A few activities included water tubing, hiking the tranquil trails of Les Calanques, scenic tours, shopping and beach activities. The faculty, staff and students of Kedge were extremely accommodating to everyone, ensuring safety and well-being. Currently, I am employed with Luxottica Retail, a multinational... Read more
  • Rachel Vinciguerra

    I spent a little over two months in Haiti this summer conducting a program evaluation for a girls' empowerment program I helped to start there two years prior as well as completing an internship with an emerging foster care agency. This summer marks the first time that I have formally been involved in professional program evaluation. After my experiences in Haiti, I can say that I led two separate program evaluations (one a mid-point evaluation and one to design monitoring and evaluation protocol pre-implementation). Having this experience not only taught me a lot about program evaluation on-the-ground and helped me identify areas I can improve, but it also communicates to others in my field that I am serious about this work. After this summer I have deliverables in the form of a program evaluation report (in two languages) and program monitoring and evaluation guides that I could share with potential employers. This experience has brought me to a new level in my academic and... Read more
  • Nina Kneuer

    I believe that the two skills I learned the most while abroad was independence and adaptation. I've always been someone who is very independent, but when you're thrown into a country where you've never lived before and you're suddenly there, without family or friends, living with new people and new friends, it can be quite a culture shock, and can really test your true independence. I learned very quickly how to make real friends and how to become comfortable with my new surroundings. I also believe that having friends in this program really helped my independence grow while I was abroad, because with friends you go out and travel, like you wouldn't otherwise do by yourself. Hence, going out to pubs for a social night out with friends and booking last minute plane tickets to a weekend in Belgium, became a usual, fun, comforting, and independent thing for me to do. Adaptation comes along with independence in the sense that you are thrown into something you do... Read more