Culture Shock

Dealing with Culture Shock

Traveling abroad can be one of the most exhilarating learning experiences of your life. Or, it can turn out to be a series of bewildering and frustrating incidents that leaves you longing for home. Aside from the basic preparation of the "hows" and "wheres" of your trip, it is valuable to also take some time to investigate the "what am I likely to encounter" - that is, the things that will happen to you as you mingle with people whose values, traits and characteristics are different from your own. By thinking and preparing for these encounters, you will certainly enrich your travel abroad experience.

Cultural Differences - What are they?

We are surrounded by elements in our own culture which influence who we are and how we relate to the world. Because we have grown up with this culture, we are comfortable in it. Our values and attitudes about who we are and how things should be have been shaped by our experiences in our native culture. What happens when we suddenly lose cues and symbols that orient us to situations of daily life? What happens when facial expressions, gestures and words are no longer familiar? The psychological discomfort that we feel in this foreign situation is commonly known as "culture shock."

Reactions to Cultural Differences

Culture shock is a logical reaction to differences we encounter in a foreign culture. Luckily, it is only one phase in the process of getting into the culture of a foreign country. The various phases that you might find yourself going through in this process include:

  1. Being fascinated with all the new things you are experiencing.
  2. Feeling uncomfortable because you don't belong.
  3. Rejecting the foreign culture and people as being strange.
  4. Learning to decipher foreign behavior and customs.
  5. Accepting and enjoying the foreign culture.

Our emotional reactions to these phases will influence how we relate to local citizens. Naturally, being excited and fascinated with foreign behavior and customs will help to pave the way for positive interaction. Conversely, acting hostile and aggressive toward those "strange and un-American" customs will do little more than perpetuate the "ugly American image" and cause foreigners to want to avoid us.

Preparing for Cultural Differences

In order to gain some perspective, read as much as possible about where you are going. Your bibliography might include guidebooks, foreign and international newspapers and magazines, novels, plays, poetry, and political and economic analyses. Talk with international students and veteran travelers who have been where you want to go. The Center for International and Cultural Education has travel tips from returnees, many of whom are willing to be contacted and give advice in person.

A Sense of Purpose

Have a clear idea of what you specifically want to accomplish by going abroad. When planning what to do during your free time, keep in mind your own priorities for the destinations you feel are important to experience. On the other hand, it is important to keep an open mind and be willing to pursue the unexpected, especially if this means taking advantage of opportunities with your host family.

Getting over "Culture Shock"

Knowledgeable travelers advise handling culture shock with adaptability, a sense of humor, and a lot of common sense. Give yourself time to become accustomed to the cultural differences. You may even find that many of the differences are a pleasant change from the U. S. way of life. If you have an active interest in finding meaningful patterns for unfamiliar customs, it expands your horizons and adds wealth of another culture to your experience. The following advice from past travelers is invaluable:

"You can go with everything - strangeness, the inconvenience, the different customs - or you can fight it all and be miserable in the very place where others are having the time of their life..."
"When you're there, try not to compare everything with home..."

How Cultural Differences Relate to You

Discovering cultural differences and experiencing culture shock are both powerful tools. Through these, one gains a high degree of self-understanding and personal growth. Past travelers have claimed that by traveling abroad you get a great education in what it means to be an American and also in how the rest of the world's population lives and thinks; don't try to find a "little America" wherever you go. By doing so, you'll miss many of the beautiful experiences your host country has to offer.

Remember, there will be difficult and even frustrating time for you overseas. However, as some fellow travelers have noticed, bad moments (even days) are quickly forgotten, and even the bad experiences are priceless.

Adapted from a handout originally prepared by the University of Michigan International Center


You must click on the following link to Moodle to complete the orientation. You will have to log in with your Gustavus e-mail username and password. The online orientation will be taken down on December 5th at 11:55pm.

Once you are logged into Moodle:

  • Semester, Year-Long, and January Interim students MUST CLICK ON the "International Education" course in Moodle to take the quiz.
    • Once you are on the "International Education" course page click on the appropriate orientation to complete the quiz (choosing between "Semester and Year-Long Orientation," "J-Term Orientation," or "Domestic Orientation")

Off-Campus Study Orientation Evaluation (Moodle)


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