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Culture shock!

Understanding cultural differences and preparing for culture shock are critical for your academic success when studying abroad.
Cultural differences are hard to grasp. We live in our own world and have a hard time imagining a social world that is so different than our own. Moreover, globalization and the internet lead us to underestimate cross-cultural differences across different parts of the world. But in fact, basic behaviors related to speaking, eating, personal space, manners and more, are different in different countries. When travelling to study in another country, cultural shock is unavoidable. But the good news is that culture shock follows a predictable pattern, and knowing it can minimize its negative impact and reduce its duration.

The Pattern of Cultural Adjustment

When going to study abroad, people will go through a natural process of adjustment that will include the stages of: Honeymoon, crisis, recovery, and adjustment.

The Honeymoon phase:
In the beginning, you will be excited about the new country and everything it has to offer. You will likely think the locals are friendly and welcoming, and maybe over-estimate how easy it will be for you to integrate into the new society.

The Crisis Phase / Culture shock:
As time goes by, you will begin to feel more how your perceptions and social responses are not in line with the local culture. This often happens due to objective situations, such as a small accident, a suitcase that does not arrive, or one of the million other small annoying things that sometimes happen in life. Then you find out that you do not really know how to take care of things that were so natural and easy in your home country. You may try to be nice and assertive, yet come across as overwhelming and aggressive. You may try to be polite, but come across as cold or weird. Worse yet, you will probably not be able to understand the social cues that tell you that you are doing something wrong. Accumulating negative experiences like these causes an internal crisis and deep frustration. This "culture shock” can result in sleeping issues, appetite changes, and in many cases sadness. But this is a natural response to a dramatic change in your life. And this is only a stage in the cultural adjustment pattern. It gets better from here.

Recovery and adjustment:
As you begin to admit that you don’t know the new social codes – you open up to learning them. Your language becomes better, you start to know people, and you begin to feel more comfortable with the culture. During recovery and adjustment, you will begin to expand your social networks and obtain support of your old and new friends; you will understand what you love about the new culture and how to balance it with the traditions and customs of your home country. You will gain more and more positive experiences that will boost your confidence and make you feel more at home.

Jacob Bacon, a Change-Management expert and GradTrain co-founder, explains that the attitude towards change depends to a large extent on people's personality traits. “It is common to point to seven factors that would determine a person’s ability to cope with change: Positive perception of yourself, positive perception of the world, focus, organization skills, proactiveness, flexible-thought, and a flexible-social attitude. People who have these traits will likely have an easier time going through change.”

Be prepared for cultural differences

The cumulative expertise of the GradTrain team produced some practical tips for people who go through culture shock. “We are five people who came from five different countries and studied five different fields,” says Lital Helman, GradTrain VP. “We have a quite broad experience in dealing with cultural shock, and know that the hardship is worth it.” Here are some tips that can help other people who go study abroad and are going to have a cultural shock:

1. There are quite a few amusing yet real and useful examples of differences in the way people speak in different countries here and here. The scholar Geert Hofestede also summarized some key differences between countries. This is really helpful.

One case that we heard of at GradTrain is of someone who moved to study in the US from a country that has a significantly more direct and explicit culture. People would tell her ‘let’s have lunch sometime’ and she kept inviting them to lunch. It ended up being OK and she actually made many friends this way. But she would have had a much easier time had she read some of these guides and known that in American culture, when people say ‘let’s have lunch sometime’ they actually mean ‘it was nice to meet you – and maybe we’ll meet again at some point’.

2. Stay positive and remember that these feelings are temporary. Look for the positive things in the new culture and look to connect with other people who are currently going through this process.

3. Remind yourself of the long term goals of why you are here. As said above, focused people have a better resilience to change.

4. Be proactive. Don’t wait for things to happen to you! Reach out to other international students from your own country that already have experience from the country you are going to study in. Connect with a GradTrain coach (starting August). They can help you cope. It is easier to go through it when you see that others are - or were - in the same boat as you. 

5. Be organized! Plan what you can do to better adjust, and follow this path.

6. Remember that even when the culture shock is strong, recovery and adjustment will follow. Don’t despair! It is much easier to recover and adjust when you understand that this is a natural and normal process!

Do not forget, that while culture shock is hard, it is also a blessing. Being exposed to other cultures opens your mind and allows you to gain a greater understanding of the world, expand your social capabilities and cope in more complex situations in your life.  Understanding cultural differences is just one of the many important skills that international education will provide you. Make sure you embrace these differences!

We know that many of our readers have experience with studying abroad. Why don’t you tell us about your “cultural difference experiences,” whether they be funny, interesting, profound, sad, irritating, or all of the above.

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