Culture shock

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Whether it’s for a few months or for a longer period of time, moving abroad is a decision that entails curiosity, a will to learn, an open mind and adaptability.

Sometimes, even when you feel confident and ready, reality might be different from what you had imagined and you might find yourself wondering if going abroad was a good idea. You might experience what experts call “Culture Shock”, a process a person may go through after moving to a different country. Each one of us may go through these stages differently: some go through the same stages more than once, some do not even go through all of them, for some it may all happen immediately, for others it may happen after a few months.
 

Stages of culture shock

Honeymoon stage

During the honeymoon stage everything seems perfect. The place you just moved to looks idyllic, everything is exciting and fascinating. You can’t wait to explore the surroundings, get to know the city and find your favourite spots. You feel confident that everything will be good, and that your decision to move was the best decision you have ever made.

Distress stage

During the distress stage you might start having doubts. After some time, places do not feel so new anymore, you start noticing things you didn’t before, things that might annoy you. You may feel like this place is not that perfect after all, things may work in a way that is unusual to you and you might have difficulties understanding why. You might blame your frustration on the country, forgetting that it takes some time to adapt to a new place.

Some may encounter an additional “sub-phase” that we can call “Idealization”. In this case, you may start idealizing your home country. You may start remembering only the best things, and home sickness might kick in. Suddenly your home country seems like the only place that suits you, the best place to be.

Adjustment stage

After all those doubts, you might slowly start seeing things in a different light. You will not just see the negative aspects, but you will also start seeing again those things that made this place look so fascinating in the beginning. You will start to get used to how things work in this new place and you will feel a new wave of positivity.

Adaptation stage

This is the time when you finally start feeling at home, you are getting used to how things work and you are finally starting to call this your new home. By this time, you might have already found your favourite spots in the city and you might have met new people, made new friends. Probably your schedule will also be more organized by then and you will start having a new routine.

Ask for help

In some cases, culture shock may generate depression-like symptoms. If you feel like this may be your case, remember to ask for help. You may feel alone, but you never are. Please, talk to University Staff members, friends, family or your tutor about how you are feeling.

Practical Tips

To help you make it through or ease your experience of culture shock, here are some tips you may find useful.

  1. Read, ask, explore: Try to learn as much as you can about your new home already before moving. You can read about their habits, what is considered rude and what are common ways to act in different situations. This way you will face less obstacles once arrived, and also meeting locals and making new friends should be easier.

    You can also ask from people who have already been in the same country, use forums and blogs.

  2. Goals: Make sure you have a clear set of goals you wish to achieve during your stay. You are visiting a new country and you are going to study there, what do you wish to learn/discover? What skills do you wish to gain/improve? Try to make goals that concern both your personal career as a student, but also the culture of the country you will be living in. For example, if the country has a national sport, go watch a game!
  3. Things you love: write down a list of things you love about the country when you arrive. Things you are fascinated by, that make this place so interesting. Keep the list and use it to look at it later, whenever you feel frustrated. It will help you remember why you chose this place.
  4. Self-care: It is normal as human being to experience stress every day, from small annoyances to big crises in our lives. Our lives will never be free from problems to solve or difficulties to endure, but we can learn to take care of ourselves and help our bodies recover from the inevitable stress that we experience. Cultivating hobbies that allow us to focus on pleasant, joyful and meaningful things is very helpful. It allows you to rest, to think about something else other than what you “need to get done”. Hobbies can make you feel good and happy, even when nothing else feels right. Exercise that makes you sweat is particularly helpful, because it uses up the stress hormones that otherwise may stick around and cause long-term stress that keeps you up at night. Find a healthy way to recover after experiencing stress in your everyday life, a sport, a creative activity, a book club, practicing your culinary skills, or relaxing and watching a movie. Regardless whether you prefer doing this alone or with other people, it is a good idea to find activities that make you feel happy and balanced.
  5. A piece of home: There is a famous expression that goes “Home is where the heart is”. Bring something with you that will remind you of your loved ones. Home can be anywhere you feel happy and comfortable, and having a picture, a book, a letter from the ones we love and who love us can be a great help in moments of need. Also, keeping in touch despite the distance has probably never been as easy as it is right now. Use video-calls and emails and keep in touch with your family and friends. Sharing your experiences as they take place will make you feel closer to them, as if you never left.

Remind yourself that all your experiences are normal: To summarize, anything you’re feeling is a normal reaction to new and sometimes stressful circumstances. It’s what you do with your experiences that really matter!

Exercises

Here are some exercises that you may find helpful when dealing with your experience of cultural shock:

Introspective exercises

  1. Investigate which phase of cultural shock you are experiencing right now. Are you experiencing characteristics of several phases at once? Which other phases have you experienced previously?
  2. Have you ever experienced cultural shock before? Maybe when you started university and had to adapt to its culture? Have you lived abroad before? What was your experience like back then and how did you deal with any experiences of cultural shock?
  3. Make a list of 10 things that you can do to take care of yourself when things feel difficult. Put it in a place where you can find it again later (top tip: hide some chocolate in the same place!).
  4. Make a list of new things that you’re excited to experience while you’re here. What would be really cool to have done? Write down at least ten, but include as many as you can come up with!
  5. Consider which of your personal values have taken you here. Why did you choose to come here? In which way is this experience making you more the person you want to be?

Exercises that you can try “out there”

  1. Do something new. It could be as small as trying out a new thing to eat, or as big as you like.
  2. Do something nice for yourself and try to experience it as fully as you can. When you take good care of yourself, you have more to give to others.
  3. Do something nice for someone else. Altruistic actions have been shown to bring happiness to the person doing them, so it is a win-win situation!
  4. Go experience places with all your senses open. If it helps you focus, you can set a timer on your phone on 5 or 10 minutes at a time for as many times as you like. Try to experience your surroundings fully for whatever period of time works for you, and then give your mind a small break and an internal high five as a reward. Challenge yourself to really see, feel, smell, hear and taste anything that you experience. Enjoy everything that is there to be enjoyed, focus on seeing the intensity of colours or light on different surfaces. Is there something familiar, or something you have never noticed before? When your thoughts take you away from the here and now, as they will do, just gently bring your attention back to the present. Enjoy!
  5. Do something that scares you a little bit but that is safe and that you are excited to try.