What Is Culture Shock? How Can You Deal with It?

As the new semester begins, many international students are arriving in Freiburg. Although it is a beautiful place that welcomes students from all around the world sometimes it may feel strange to be away from home –both physically and mentally.

This post will explain what culture shock is and will give tips about how to deal with it. First of all we should remember that culture shock is not an “diagnose”; it does not mean we can’t fit into a place. On contrary, it is a normal and common process; as an international student myself I can relate to this as well.

Culture Shock

You say your goodbyes and move to a new country to study or to do your internship. Starting from the moment you arrive in the airport everything is new and different. You observe things, places and people around you as you begin to take it all in. You feel surprised, curious or confused. Well, this is called culture shock. It is a process which consists of understanding, adapting and recognizing. Since your daily routine, your surroundings, some rules and attitudes of people around you change it is very normal to feel this.

When you leave your usual environment you come across with a set of new gestures, tone of voice and daily habits. Normally when you are in a familiar environment you perform these as well without even noticing. They are unwritten and unspoken “normal”. In a new country, we become more aware of these cultural differences, well because they are different. You will probably be not literally shocked, but feeling disoriented and processing new ways is culture shock and there are four stages to it:

Initial Euphoria / The Honeymoon Stage Arrival: everything looks wonderful and you can’t actually believe you are here. In this stage you are likely to look for cultural similarities rather than differences. “It is too good to be true” you think.

Irritation and Hostility / The Negotiation Stage Slowly the initial feelings wear off. You begin to realize differences and probably be irritated with the ways things work differently (I especially think of bureaucracy). It may look like things are all working against you and obviously disorganized –even though they actually aren’t.

Gradual Understanding / The Adjustment Stage You’ve finally reached to an emotional balance. You can now relax. Instead of getting mad you begin to understand and become more interested the way things work. Eventually you will make more effort to fit in and learn more.

Adaptation or Biculturalism / The Mastery Stage You reach to a new level of comfort in communicating with locals and working your way through harder tasks. You understand and respect cultural nuances. Your routine becomes more natural and new friends and activities are part of your new life.

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Tips and Suggestions for Dealing with Culture Shock

  • Learn as much as you can about the new location before you go. This means the good, the bad, and the simply different — from time zones, to what side of the street people drive on, to climate/temperature, to foods, political system, culture, customs and religion(s).
  • Be open-minded and willing to learn. Ask questions. Whether about local food, best hiking trails or common idioms.
  • Make an effort to learn the language.
  • Don’t be judgemental, instead be empathic.
  • Keep notes when you first arrive, so that when you feel disoriented you can go back to them and remember what you loved when you first arrived.
  • Maintain a sense of humour. (Perhaps the most important!) For instance, when you have a case of miscommunication don’t take it personal.
  • Don’t withdraw! Travel within the country, and visit cultural events and locations, such as museums or historic sites. Attend the local festivals and celebrations.
  • Build new friendships. Associate with positive people. Try to make local friends. A Tandem Partner is both good as a local friend and a person to practice German.
  • Bring a few touches of home with you, such as photos of your favourite locations and of family members, etc.
  • Keep in touch with people at home by Skype, email, phone, postcards — whatever. This can give you some comfort while away, and it will help you to minimize reverse culture shock when you get back home.

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Don’t Let Culture Shock Stop You from Studying Abroad

Study abroad isn’t all fun and games. It is a kind of personal challenge and sometimes an emotional journey. However, it is totally worth it since you’ll make great friends and have great memories and later on laugh when you remember you were yelled at when you accidentally walked in the bike lane (might or might not have happened to me in Amsterdam).

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