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Cultural Adjustment

From the University of the Pacific Cross-Cultural Training Course curriculum


There are many stages of “cultural adjustment” students may experience during the first few months while studying in the U.S. We have identified some of those stages below.


  • Culture “Surprise”: Usually occurs early in your stay in the new culture when you begin to be aware of superficial, novel, and startling differences. Often characterizes the “honeymoon” phase of adjustment.


  • Culture “Stress”: A mild response to “stimulus overload.” “Culture Stress” is of-ten seen in travelers abroad. One becomes tired and withdrawn. Annoyance builds as daily reality becomes more difficult.


  • Culture “Irritation”: Often manifests itself in terms of “Item Irritation” and is usually traceable to a few observable behaviors that are common in the culture, and to which an individual reacts particularly strongly (a personal “hot button”). These may include spitting, hygiene, verbal harassment, public displays (affection, drunkenness, etc.), or other overt behaviors to which an individual has a strong negative response.


  • Culture “Fatigue”: A fairly short-term response to “stimulus overload.” This occurs when you begin to respond to the behavior of the “new” culture and are stressed by trying to deal with lots of new cultural information all at once. Stress and irritation intensify as you attempt to study or work in a foreign environment. There is a cumulatively greater impact due to the “need to operate” in unfamiliar and difficult contexts. Symptoms intensify. Ability to function declines. It can occur soon after arrival or within a few weeks. It can hit you quickly and is often  accompanied by “Language Fatigue.” Language fatigue occurs when, trying to use a second language constantly, you become physically and psychologically drained by speaking, listening, and finding meaning in, until now, a little used “new” language.


  • Culture “Shock”: Culture Shock comes from the natural contradiction between our accustomed patterns of behavior and the psychological conflict of attempting to maintain them in the new cultural environment. While the time of onset is variable, it usually occurs within a few months of entering a new culture and is a normal, healthy psychological reaction. While culture shock is common, relief is available. There are ways to minimize its effects - the first of which is to accept that it is a real phenomenon - and to learn to recognize its sometimes vague, if persistent, signs in yourself as well as others.


If negative attitudes towards minor annoyances do not change, a low level of persistent frustration is likely to build up. This can quickly lead to volatile anger when accumulated stress inappropriately and unexpectedly erupts and you vent your feelings, but you are unable to trace the outburst to a single source. People around you might comment, “What was that all about?” or “Where did that come from?” Just remember that unlike temporary annoyance when you are in the presence of a particular cultural practice (for example, public displays of affection), culture shock is neither caused by a single act nor easily traceable to a particular event. It is cumulative, attributable to many small things that happen over time, and it has the potential to be more deeply felt and take longer to alleviate.


Moving beyond culture shock and continuing to live and learn overseas puts you on the path to becoming inter-culturally fluent. Becoming more deeply engaged with the local culture increases our level of intercultural adaptation and your ability to reach your goals. It also makes cultural learning more enjoyable, if not always easier.


The learning process is complex and almost inevitably results in reports from returning students that “I learned more about myself and my culture than about the culture I was living in.” The learning process can be a bit painful, take longer than expected and can lead to the onset of symptoms associated with culture shock. The good news is that this indicates that learning is occurring and that you are getting better and better at understanding the culture. Being aware of this cycle of cultural adjustment will allow you to better understand your reactions during your time abroad. In addition, this cycle of cultural adjustment can be linked with levels of Cultural Awareness.


Prescription for Culture Shock:

  • Understand the symptoms and recognize signs of “culture fatigue” and “culture shock”
  • Realize that some degree of discomfort and stress is natural in a cross- cultural experience.
  • Recognize that your reactions are often emotion and are not always (or easily) subject to rational control.
  • Gather information so at least the cultural differences will seem understandable, if not natural.
  • Look below the surface.
  • Look for the practical reasons behind host culture patterns that “fit” the culture - discover why!
  • Relax your grip on your normal culture and try to cheerfully adapt to new rules and roles.
  • Don’t give in to the temptation to disparage what you do not like or understand.
  • Identify a support network among host nationals, teachers, fellow students, etc. Use it, but don’t rely upon it exclusively.
  • Understand that any “cultural clash” will likely be temporary.
Give yourself some “quiet time,” some private space and don’t be too hard on yourself when things are not going perfectly.