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 exhausting. Do 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.
The reality is that every student who has studied abroad has experience culture shock in one way or another, including every member of the Pitt Study Abroad team!