Nervous to go abroad for the first time? Worried about traveling somewhere you’re not familiar with? You’re not alone!
Stepping out of your comfort zone is absolutely where the magic happens—growth, critical thinking, and life changing experiences—but that doesn’t make it easy.
Whether this is your first or fiftieth time abroad, you are not immune to culture shock. Let’s start with the basics:
What is Culture Shock?
Culture shock is used to describe the range of emotions related to feeling disoriented when experiencing a new culture or settling into an unfamiliar country. Experiencing culture shock is normal and will affect people in different ways and at different times during their transition to visiting or living in a new culture. It can happen immediately, after a few weeks, or even months. While many times culture shock is associated with negative feelings of fear, depression, or frustration, emotions of excitement are also connected to culture shock.
In moving your life abroad, it’s normal to feel out of place and uncomfortable as you adjust to and immerse yourself into a new lifestyle. Even after visiting 45 countries, I am not immune to culture shock and it can show up for seasoned travelers in new ways.
Symptoms of Culture Shock
Everyone experiences culture shock, but the experience is different for each person. Some common traits of culture shock may include:
Heightened euphoria of being abroad and experiencing so many new things at once
Homesickness or feeling isolated
Constant making of comparisons to your home culture
Hyper irritability or frustration with how things are done
Not wanting to leave your room (spending time inside and on technology)
Sleeping a lot or feeling constantly exhausted
Overeating or under-eating
Stages of Culture Shock:
Culture shock generally moves through a few different stages in a wave-like pattern: honeymoon, frustration, adjustment, and acceptance. The time someone can spend in each stage and its impact will vary greatly for each person. For a quick overview, check out this great video on the stages of culture shock from ITA faculty member, Wayne Walker.
1. The Honeymoon Stage—Initial Euphoria/Excitement
You feel positive and curious about this new experience; you’re ready to learn new things. Everything feels wonderfully new and exciting. You may even feel the new culture is superior when comparing it to your own.
You’re diving into the language, trying new foods, and captivated by the new friends you’re making. The decision to move abroad feels like THE best decision of your life and you never want to leave.
When traveling on vacation as a tourist, the honeymoon stage can last the entire time you’re abroad.
2. The Frustration Stage—Irritation/Hostility
You get lost, feel homesick, and the things around you feel disorganized. The novelty has worn off, and you start to feel the differences more starkly. You miss how things are back home. The new systems and ways of life are frustrating and feel stupid rather than exciting. You blame the new culture for its shortcomings. Things feel overwhelming, and you are easily irritated. Small things set you off and feel like major catastrophes. You feel exhausted in not understanding and the language barrier feels too high.
This is the most challenging stage of culture shock.
3. The Adjustment Stage—Gradual Adjustment/Understanding
You’ve made it through the highs and lows, and you’re gradually able to relax with increased familiarity and time in your new surroundings. You have an easier time reading the cultural cues and have developed an objective view of the culture. You feel more emotionally balanced and start to have a more positive outlook, including a sense of humor. You make an effort to embrace the experience and make the most of it.
In this stage you open yourself up to a deeper understanding about the culture, your assumptions about the world, and how you live back home.
4. The Acceptance Stage—Adaptation and Biculturalism
The new culture doesn’t feel new, but rather like a second home. You feel a sense of belonging and appreciation of the host culture. You’re comfortable in your new home and the things around you make sense. You’re able to communicate with locals comfortable and you understand the cultural nuances.
Acceptance doesn’t mean you totally understood the new culture in every way, but rather you realize you don’t need to completely understand it to have a normal routine and thrive while there.
5. The Re-entry Stage—Reverse Culture Shock
You go home and life does not feel the same. There are many emotional, psychological, and even cultural aspects related to the experience of re-entering your home country after being abroad. Similar to culture shock, each person may experience reverse culture shock differently. It’s important to accept that you have changed, your home has changed, and you will need to readapt to your home.
Check out this alumni ambassador’s experience adjusting to reverse culture shock after returning home.
Recommended reading: Tips & Resources for ITA grads returning home from teaching English abroad.
Tips to Overcome Culture Shock:
Learn as much as you can about where you’re headed (before and while abroad). Read through travel blogs, buy a guidebook, subscribe to news updates. Talk to people who have been there or are from there to get a better sense of what to expect. Check out lots of our alumni interviews & videos. Research cultural norms and what’s taboo in that specific culture. Once there, immerse yourself into the culture and stay open-minded.
Practice Gratefulness. Write down one thing about the host country that you love every day. Many people cannot afford going abroad or don’t know how to go about doing it. You made this happen and you should be proud.
Connect with home. Set up a weekly Skype date with a friend or family from back home to share your experiences. Watch a favorite show from back home on your computer, but don’t get too addicted or stay inside all the time! Pre-make package boxes for friends to fill with postage paid and assign them each a month to send you a note or goodie
Blog or keep a journal. Reflect on your experiences—the good, the bad, and the adventurous! You will love looking back on this at the end, and will be shocked at how much you have changed and grown.
Get involved & make new friends. Join a new group or community—sports league, trivia night, volunteer work, etc. Universities have many clubs and societies that you can join. Pick up an activity from back home or learn something totally new! You can also reach out to those in our alumni Facebook groups and set up a meetup with a new friend. This is a great way to make friends and keep consistent socializing, so you don’t feel as lonely and homesick.
Improve your language skills. The language barrier can be a primary source when experiencing bouts of culture shock. Take a formal language class or find a conversation buddy to do a language exchange with.
Learn to cook. Try learning how to cook local dishes or offer to share a favorite meal from back home with new local friends.
Travel. Go out and see new places outside of the city, region, or even country you’re based in to help you appreciate where you are based.
- Be patient with yourself and know it will take time! Don't forget to give yourself some grace and take care of yourself if you're feeling tired.
The most important thing to remember is that everyone will experience culture shock, even the most well-traveled. It’s what makes travel an adventure and journey. You discover new things about yourself, are faced with challenges, and come out on the other side with new learnings, understandings, and perspective.
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About the Author: Ashley Houston
A Midwestern gal at heart, Ashley's a true industry pro and brings 10 years of expertise to the ITA team. She studied abroad six times and has traveled to 45 countries.