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Study abroad : Once you arrive

Understanding and dealing with 'culture shock' w/ Stacie Berdan

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Stacie Nevadomski Berdan is an international careers expert and award-winning author of four books on the intersection of globalization and careers. Her work has appeared in leading newspapers and magazines, and she frequently speaks on college campuses.

Here, she takes us through the issue of 'culture shock’, a common issue for many international students at some point. Her latest book, A Student Guide to Study Abroad (IIE 2013) is available on Amazon.


'Culture shock is one of the most widely discussed and often misunderstood aspects of any international experience, including study abroad. Technically speaking, culture shock is the confusion, disorientation, and emotional upheaval that come from immersion in a new culture. For example, you may be tired of using frustrating and confusing public transportation that doesn’t seem to work well. Maybe you’re exhausted from making yourself understood all the time and just want to speak with someone like you. Even just standing out, looking foreign, bothers many people abroad. These minor problems balloon into massive problems. You feel like an outsider and may even be depressed. You are experiencing culture shock.

Culture shock typically follows a three-phased cycle starting with a honeymoon period when everything feels grand. But fabulous turns to frustration, depression and confusion, and often this is triggered by an event involving seemingly minor cultural differences. All usually ends well, however, as the recovery phase restores equilibrium after you’ve regained confidence and learned to appreciate the culture as a whole. A little bit wiser, you’re able to move on. International newbies are often either overly optimistic (‘won’t have any trouble adjusting’) or overly pessimistic (‘Everyone takes six months to get used to the basics before they can do anything productive’).

A Student Guide to Study Abroad

You may have heard some people say that they don’t experience culture shock. Well, odds are, they did, but perhaps didn’t recognise it as such, or they’re too embarrassed to share their stories. Worse still, they might not have immersed themselves in the local culture, and so were never exposed to it to the point where they had to confront their discomfort in the first place. That would be sad, and we certainly don’t recommend that you take that approach. Culture shock is a learning experience and leads to broader perspectives, more tolerance, and greater appreciation for your new culture and your home culture. It’s important that you prepare for culture shock, and learn how to deal with it. Doing so is one of the best ways to experience the deep personal growth of life abroad, as so many others have. Here are some tips on dealing specifically with culture shock:

  • Assume differences until similarity is proven
  • Relate to individuals, not a “culture”
  • Work with a culture rather than against it
  • Ask “what do I need to understand?” not “what should I do?”
  • Listen and observe, think and then talk
  • Focus on the benefits of differences rather than simply trying to avoid mistakes

In fact, almost everyone who spends a significant time abroad experiences some degree of culture shock with every major cultural transition—whether moving to a new culture or dealing with a new cultural group or subculture at home. You can experience a type of culture shock if you are working on a project on your home campus with a group of diverse people from different backgrounds, or returning to the U.S. after time abroad. Whatever your encounters are, you will need to develop coping mechanisms.

Once you’ve spent time in cross-cultural environments, you will learn to recognise your own pattern of adjustment to new experiences. You will put to good use the coping mechanisms that work best for you. By giving yourself the space, time, and other support you need to adjust, you can smooth your transition and develop your own culture shock absorbers. This adaptability is important because you will need to cope and move on – not let these encounters stymie your growth or experiences – so you can continue to study and eventually work productively across cultures.'



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