12 Tips to overcome culture shock

12 Tips to Overcome Culture Shock

Coming to a new country can be disorienting and overwhelming, and most people who move to a new culture, experience an adjustment period that we call “culture shock.”

What is Culture Shock?

Culture shock describes the anxiety that a person experiences when he or she moves from a familiar culture to an entirely new culture or social environment. It occurs when the language, gestures, customs, signs and symbols that you are used to and previously helped you to make such of your surrounding suddenly have no meaning or have new meanings. Perhaps most upsetting is the loss of social support system (family, friends, classmates, coworkers), and the necessity of starting all over again in an unfamiliar environment. How long culture shock lasts varies from student to student, so it is important to know what to look out for in each stage.

There are 4 known stages of Culture shock.

Stage 1 – The Honeymoon Stage

Common thoughts during the Honeymoon Stage include:

Isn’t this exciting?

I can’t wait to tell _____ about this.

Aren’t they interesting? Everything here is so _____!

Characteristics of the Honeymoon Stage:

  • The student is full or energy and excitement about his surroundings.
  • The student has a positive attitude
  • The student is busy settling in (setting up room, familiarizing themselves with the neighborhood, preparing for school)
  • The student is getting to know the host family and their first social contacts in school.
  • The student is participating in daily and routine activities with the host family.

Significance for hosts: The honeymoon phase is a time when students are feeling excited about their move to a new place, and new environment; however, this excitement WILL wear off once their daily routine sets in. The honeymoon stage often gives hosts a false impression of how their relationship with the student will unfold, so it is important to realize that there will be changes in the student’s attitude and mood as they experience the subsequent stages of culture shock.

CHN relationship managers are conducting student orientations and school visits during this stage, and check in with students on how they are feeling at home and at school. It is important for students to get involved in local activities within their school or the community as this helps lessen the impact of the next stage – Culture shock.

Stage 2 – The Culture shock stage

Common thoughts during the Conflict stage include:

  • We would never do that in my country!
  • Why can’t they just _____?
  • I only have __ months before I go home.
  • These people are so _____!

The novelty of the new culture has worn off – what was new and exciting has suddenly has shifted to something unknown, unfamiliar and tedious. Minor things become difficult.  It is important to note that this stage often coincides with the Winter time, which is especially difficult for students as they are dealing with the changes that come with our shorter days and longer nights.  This is a good time to speak to them about the Winter blues and the important of keeping active and busy. 

Characteristics of the Culture shock Stage:

  • The student may be more tired, frustrated, angry and generally moody. Trying to immerse themselves in a new culture speaking and thinking in a new language is mentally exhausting.
  • The student may display physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches, indigestion, etc.
  • The student may begin spending all their time with members of their home community (comfort zone).
  • They compare the home and host cultures, and often spend time complaining about the host culture. They either blame the host culture for their external symptoms or blame it on themselves by compare themselves with other students.
  • They can be feeling discouraged, negative, isolated and out of place, not understanding the nuances of the new culture. They have a growing awareness that the home culture’s behaviors may not be accepted in the host culture, and they may have to give up, suspend, or modify their own behavior. Little things like taking public transport, making phone calls, or navigating a school day can become overwhelming.

Significance for hosts:

This can be a time when stereotypes form, and you may notice the student speaking negatively.  They may also be struggling in school. Help the student by talking through the stages of culture shock with them, and also ensuring that they are getting the help and support they need in school through the academic advisors and guidance counselors.

Stage 3 – The Recovery Stage

Common thoughts during the recovery stage include:

  • Why shouldn’t they say/do that?
  • We say/do that too, but differently

Students are beginning to gain a deeper understanding of their host culture, and as a result, a greater respect for it.  This process is gradual and longer than the other stages. 

Characteristics of the recovery stage:

  • Students choose to become an “explorer” in the new culture
  • Students are more positive towards their host culture and have regained some confidence.
  • They assume responsibility for their own cultural adjustment

Significance for hosts: When a student is in recovery stage, it means they are headed towards positive adjustment. Episodes of frustration and anxiety will be less frequent and more manageable.

Stage 4 – The Adjustment Stage

This is what the individual strives for. They are more comfortable in their surroundings, and more accepting of the things they cannot change. The feeling of being a foreigner diminishes greatly.

Common thoughts during the Recovery Stage include:

  • I’m beginning to like this.

Characteristics of the Adjustment Stage:

  • The student’s language skills improve noticeably
  • They begin to understand the actions of members of the host culture
  • They have made friends and feel part of the community
  • They develop a greater tolerance for what is strange and new
  • They become a mediator between the two cultures
  • They feel proud that they can make themselves be understood in the host language and that they can understand native speakers
  • Their sense of humour returns.
  • They are participating more willingly within the community.

Significance for hosts:

This is the ultimate goal for the student and a good way to motivate the student when they are in the previous stages. The student is more independent at this stage and had adjusted to the culture.

12 Tips to Make the Cultural Transition Easier

  1. Contact the student prior to arrival and research their culture.
  2. Encourage the student to sign up for local community activities
  3. Encourage the student to sign up for school clubs and sports teams.
  4. Identify ways to manage stress
  5. Talk to the student and ask questions about their life back home.
  6. Make sure the student knows where they can get support i.e. school guidance counselor, student advisors etc.
  7. Practice basic questions with them so they feel comfortable speaking to local people
  8. Monitor how much time they spend alone.
  9. Be clear in your communication with the student
  10. Encourage the individual to eat healthy
  11. Prepare them for the Canadian winter and the winter blues
  12. Reflect with them by asking questions like:
    • “What did you expect from your study abroad experience?”
    • “How does reality compare with your expectations?”
    • “What can you do to make your experience more constructive and interesting?”
    • “How is the experience preparing you to meet you goals for the future?” 

As a general rule of thumb, once the student has a social circle of friends, and is keeping themselves busy with activities, the adjustment becomes  easier for them.  However, if at any point you feel that your student’s attitude or mental state is deteriorating, please don’t hesitate to reach out to your relationship manager. 

-contributed by Shalini Dowlani, RM, Montreal


University of New Brunswick website