Brandie Yale, University of Houston
International students embark on a great adventure. They travel to other countries hoping to expand both their academic knowledge and their knowledge of the world. Adventures can be scary, however, and they can be fraught with the unexpected. Some international students might become overwhelmed with adjusting to even seemingly mild cultural differences, while others may hide their discomfort and attempt to blend in, leading to continued confusion. All international students will feel culture shock at some point and to varying degrees. Advisors who learn to assist students with alleviating and mitigating culture shock can contribute to students’ success and their enjoyment of their time in their host country. In order to do so, advisors must understand the cultural and individual characteristics that influence a student’s experience of culture shock.
Factors Affecting Culture Shock
An anthropologist, Kalervo Oberg, first coined the term culture shock in 1954 to describe the anxiety felt by individuals living in a new culture (Oberg, 1954; Oberg, 1960). He saw culture shock as a disease, as at the time it was common to characterize any discomfort a human felt as being a malady that needed to be cured. For example, social scientists once considered nostalgia to likewise be a disease of loneliness or homesickness (Lowenthal, 1985). Researchers today tend to divide the study of culture shock along four approaches: cognitive, behavioral, phenomenological, and psychological and sociocultural (Chapdelaine & Alexitch, 2004; Searle & Ward, 1990).
Many different characteristics affect how a particular individual experiences culture shock, but most can be divided into two main areas: the breadth of difference between the two cultures and the individual’s personality traits. The further the cultural distance between the home culture and the culture of the host country, the more likely it is that an individual will feel discomfort and difficulty in social interactions. Cultural distance is a measurement of the difference between the values and behaviors that are the result of one’s culture, and there have been many studies that have attempted to define the dimensions along which cultural differences can be measured (e.g. De Santis, Maltagliati, & Salvini, 2016; Hofstede & Bond, 1984). An individual’s personality plays a role in how they react to new experiences and the extent to which they are willing to put themselves in awkward situations to learn the new social rules. Shu, McAbee, and Ayman (2016) explore how personality traits affect cross-cultural adjustment among international students in the U.S. Their research supports the idea that individuals with personality traits such as extroversion and conscientiousness are likely to adjust more easily to new cultures.
Chapdelaine and Alexitch (2004) offer several insights to help international students adjust to life in their host country. Their study tested the following variables as predictors of international students’ adjustment to life in another culture: family status in host country, previous cross-cultural experience, and degree of social interaction with hosts. Their results show that international students who have greater social interaction with natives of the host culture will have the greatest levels of adjustment to the new culture. They will learn the social rules and expectations quickly and develop supportive relationships that allow them to experience less culture shock. International students who bring family with them, such as their spouse or children, have the least interaction with their hosts and experience more culture shock for a longer period of time. Interestingly, the study found no effect of previous cross-cultural experience on culture shock. Although certain personality traits can help students adjust more quickly, they do not prevent the experience of culture shock all together.
Stages of Cultural Adjustment
Oberg’s (1954) anthropological discussion of culture shock identified four stages of cultural adjustment that describe the process that people go through when they are adapting to a new cultural environment. Being aware of these stages can help advisors identify intervention points and strategies for helping students. It is useful to consider this process of adjustment when working with international students at all stages of their U.S. academic careers and to understand that the time it takes each student to move through the stages will depend on how an individual student is affected by the two factors discussed above: cultural distance and personality.
The Honeymoon Stage. This stage is an exciting time when individuals explore new cultures, but involvement in the new culture is superficial and tourist-like. Students in this stage are excited to be in a new country and may neglect their studies as they explore their new environment. They will seem happy and adjusted and may not anticipate difficulties ahead. At this stage, advisors can prepare students for what they might experience and create opportunities for them to begin learning the new social rules as quickly as possible. It may help to assure students that everyone experiences culture shock and that an advisor will be available to assist them when problems arise.
The Culture Shock Stage. Stage two is characterized by irritation and frustration with the differences between the home culture and new culture. Cultural differences in communication styles and emotional expression can expound the problem and make it harder to recognize students having issues. Advisors may find it difficult to engage students in this stage. Guo (2016) provides excellent strategies for building trust and engaging international students. In some cases, advisors may need to direct students to international student services or counseling resources on campus. Advisors should also continue to provide opportunities for international students to interact with native students to increase their social experiences, allowing them to move to the next stage.
The Gradual Adjustment Stage. In stage three, the gradual adjustment stage, individuals begin to learn more about and understand their host culture. They also tend to idealize their home culture, and they may initially make fun of values and behaviors that are different from what they are used to. However, as they gain a deeper understanding of the new culture, they also gain a deeper respect for their host country. This process is gradual and longer than the other stages, and it may contain many ups and downs. Students need to learn new strategies for dealing with stress and loneliness without the support structures they are used to at home. Advisors can recognize students in this stage because they will want to talk about the differences they have noticed and share stories about their experiences. Listening to students’ concerns and empathizing with their attempts to understand can help them adapt.
The Adaptation Stage. Eventually, most individuals who spend a considerable length of time in a new culture will reach the fourth stage, that of acceptance and adaptation. They are no longer negatively affected by differences in culture and can participate in social interactions without difficulty. Students who have reached this stage can assist advisors who are working with students who are still experiencing culture shock by acting as ambassadors or peer counselors.
Advisors need to be aware of international students’ level of adjustment to their host culture. Culture shock will affect their behavior and whether they seek help when it is needed. Advisors should encourage international students to have as much social interaction with native students as possible and can help develop programs and events to facilitate such interactions. International students often seek out others from their own culture for support in an unfamiliar environment. Joseph and Baker (2012) found that Caribbean students studying in the U.S. reported feeling less culture shock when they had other students from their home country to create a sense of community. However, relying on a community of people from their own culture can cause students to remain in their comfort zone, preventing them from becoming acculturated to their new environment. The more international students find occasions to interact with native students and others in the host community, the more quickly they will conquer the impediment of culture shock and the more success they will have as international students. Learning to recognize the stages of culture shock will help advisors assist students with moving through the process of adapting to their new environment.
Director of Graduate Admissions
Cullen College of Engineering
University of Houston
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Cite this article using APA style as: Yale, B. (2017, December). Understanding culture shock in international students. Academic Advising Today, 40(4). Retrieved from [insert url here]