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Cultural Adjustments

Stages of Adjustment

Living in a foreign country can be very challenging. In the first year, almost everyone experiences "culture shock" in some form or another and to varying degrees. Culture shock is a feeling of dislocation which affects people who move to a new place or country. Many who experience it do not even realize that they are suffering from it - all they know is that everything is very difficult in their new home.

What causes culture shock?

Culture shock is caused by unfamiliarity with the new country, by not being able to speak the language fluently or understand the many new idioms, and by not knowing how to behave in an unfamiliar culture. Not only is the language different, but gestures, facial expressions, body language, and traditions are also different. Newcomers can sometimes feel like children because they cannot understand all these new things at once.

What are the stages of cultural adjustment?

There are four stages of culture adjustment, though each lasts a different length of time for every individual who experiences it. In general, the stages are:

Stage 1: During the first stage, foreign visitors often feel excited. The new country is interesting, the people are friendly and helpful, and the future looks promising.

Stage 2: Problems! School, language, shopping - everything is difficult. Things that were simple back home require more effort in the new country. It seems hard to make friends, and at this point, foreign visitors may begin to believe that the local people are unfriendly. Homesickness begins, and along with it complaints about the new country. This is the stage we hear referred to as "culture shock."

Stage 3: Recovery is beginning. The foreign visitor begins to use the language more fluently, so communication with locals becomes easier. Customs and traditions become clearer, and slowly the situation passes from impossible to hopeful. Minor misunderstandings which were stressful in stage 2 become manageable.

Stage 4: Stability starts to set in. Eventually foreign visitors begin to feel more at home in the new country. What they do not like about their new country no longer makes them so dissatisfied and unhappy. Life has settled down, and they are now able to find humor in the situations in which they find themselves.

How can you know if someone is experiencing culture shock?

People who are experiencing culture shock worry and complain about all aspects of life - the food, the weather, the people, etc. They worry about minor ailments and pains. They often become frustrated and angry over minor problems, and some even refuse to learn the new language. Overall, they feel helpless and homesick, and want to go home to see relatives and to talk with people who "make sense."

Overcoming culture shock

People often do not fully understand culture shock until they return home to their country, when they are surprised to see their own country with new eyes. Although culture adjustment takes place every time a person moves to another country, with each move the shock usually lessens. However, there are some things you can do to get used to a new country quickly and comfortably:

  • Explore - get a sense for the physical environment.
  • Visit every building on campus and find out what they do, what classes are taught in that building, etc.
  • Talk to faculty and staff in your department
  • Try to find a student to show you around
  • Read the Wayne Stater and local newspaper (Wayne Herald)
  • Go to the "brown bag" series and other events on campus
  • Find a friend and do a walking tour of the campus and Wayne
  • Observe people on campus and in the community to get a sense for norms of behavior - watch people's behavior and keep a journal of what you observe, then process it with a domestic student, seasoned international student, or the ISA  to learn more about the norms of this area
  • Watch and practice how people greet each other
  • Watch the behavior of people on the streets and across campus
  • Go to events where you can meet people over time
  • Take WSC General Education and exploratory classes
  • Participate in Intramural Sports
  • Join student organizations
  • Talk to everyone you meet
  • Talk to WSC employees
  • Visit with other students
  • Make conversation with everyone you meet
  • Read, listen, and watch
  • Try all local newspapers: The Wayne Herald, The Norfolk Daily News, The Wayne Stater, etc.
  • Check out books from the Conn Library about American culture
  • Listen to KTCH-FM (Oldies - 104.9), KTCH-AM (Real Country - 1590), and K-92(91.9 FM) - the college radio station
  • Watch KTIV-TV (Channel 4), Siouxland's (includes Wayne) local television station located in Sioux City, Iowa
  • Watch KWSC-TV (Channel 24), the campus station

Be slow to judge and keep in mind that customs are different all around the world - Relax, take it slowly, and keep your sense of humor! Observe first, then find a "cultural interpreter" (someone who knows the culture) and ask questions. A good place to find cultural information is with the ISA in the Counseling Center Office - he will be glad to answer any questions you have and assist with your cultural adjustment. While you are observing behavior, you might think about what people would do in the same situation in your country. That way you will learn about your own culture as well and have a basis of comparison.

Adapted from University of Texas-Austin