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What is Culture Shock?

Culture shock doesn't come from a specific event but from interacting in a new culture over a length time while not understanding the cultural cues. It is like trying to play a game of cards without knowing whether the Aces are high or low or if the Jack is wild. In the process, your own values and culture are called into question as you try to navigate your new home. It’s good to know the signs of culture shock so that you can recognize it in yourself or your classmates.

What should I expect?
Culture shock generally leads students to experience a series of ups and downs that we refer to as the “w-curve”. Be prepared for the emotional highs and lows and know that your classmates are experiencing them too. Embrace the discomfort knowing that in the end you will have a better understanding of who you are and differing cultural perspectives.

During culture shock, you might feel: 

  • Lonely
  • Angry
  • Irritable
  • Homesick
  • Lost

You may experience:

  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Difficulty solving simple problems
  • Stereotyping new culture

Stages of Culture Shock

1) Initial Euphoria
You step off the plane in a new country and are excited about your new adventure.  Everyone has told you what an amazing time you are going to have.  You’re feeling prepared and ready to go.

2) Irritation/Hostility
The more you experience in your new country, the more you are able to notice differences.  No matter what you do, you do not seem to fit quite right with the local culture.  Even after all of those Spanish classes, ordering dinner seems like an ordeal.   Instead of being excited by the idea of tapas, you think, “Why do the Spanish eat dinner so late?  That can’t be good for digestion.”  You’re in culture shock and suddenly small problems you would take in stride seem overhwhelming.  Your initial excitement turns to frustration or loneliness.

3) Gradual Adjustment
After giving yourself some time to adjust, you realize you’ve mastered the bus system or learned to use chopsticks.  You can tell when the street vendor wants to chat about his family and when he is too busy.  Your sense of normalcy returns as you create patterns and routine, which makes you feel more comfortable in your adopted home.  It’s not so different here.

4) Adaptation
Without really noticing, some day you’ll realize that your new culture feels like home.  Some of the new habits like train travel or afternoon tea you prefer more than your old habits.  Though it may take many years, you may find that you become equally comfortable in both cultures. 

Stages 2 and 3 may be experienced multiple times throughout your time abroad as you become more and more comfortable in your host culture.  Frustration may occur the more you begin to notice the cultural cues that aren’t quite so obvious but affect the way people interact with you. 

Image of the effects of culture shock. Explaination below

Most students experience a period of transition when they arrive in a new place. Many students say they feel slightly out of step, not sure what is appropriate. Everything seems new and different from language to street signs to table manners.

What should I do?

  • Know before you go. Research the country and its culture.
  • Try to understand the differences. Most traditions have a history and provide logical explanations for what you might find odd.
  • Remember that it’s ok to fail. Be prepared to laugh at your mistakes (Like that time you meant to tell your host family that you were full but instead said that you were pregnant, oops!) [- Or another example here...?]
  • Talk about your feelings and experiences, but don’t spend too much time being negative.
  • Make local friends and ASK QUESTIONS!
  • Journal your experiences. Identify a specific event that was confusing to you. Re-read half-way through your stay. Does everything make sense now?
  • Trust in yourself that you will be fine. Take the highs with the lows and know that ultimately you will have a memorable experience.

Work to be:

  • Tolerant
  • Open-minded
  • Non-judgmental
  • Empathetic
  • Communicative
  • Flexible
  • Adaptable
  • Curious
  • Self-reliable
  • Willing to make mistakes
Student Counseling Service
If you find that you are having trouble managing the symptoms of culture shock, Miami University Student Counseling Services is available to you even while you abroad.  To contact them, please call 513-529-4634 or email studentcounseling  

Culture Shock Resources
Bennett, Milton J. ed. Basic Concepts of Intercultural Communications. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 1998.
Kohls, L. Robert. Survival Kit for Overseas Living. Yarmouth, ME: Nicholas Brealey/Intercultural Press, 2001.
La Brack, B. (2013, January 10) What's up with culture? Retrieved from
Storti, Craig. The Art of Coming Home. Yarmouth, ME: Nicholas, Brealey/Intercultural Press, 2001.

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