Living Abroad

Culture Shock

A ‘shock’ is defined as an impact, a collision, a sudden disturbance or commotion, a momentary reaction to a strong physical or psychic stimulus. In that context ‘culture shock’ may be a scary phrase when we first see it, but, in fact, it is a part of everyday life, especially as changes occur in our cultural surroundings. It is a very normal process that nearly everyone goes through. Coming to the United States from a different culture, we carry with us important values, patterns of behavior that are customary in our cultures. The more we know about this, the better we’ll see and understand the cultural differences we encounter abroad. Culture has been defined as shared behavior, which is important because it systematizes the way people do things, avoiding confusion and allowing co-operation so that groups of people can accomplish what no single individual could do alone. The individual and the culture in which she or he lives are a complex set of relationships. In part, the individual determines his or her culture; in part, it is determined by the culture itself. By contributing to the culture around him/her, the individual becomes part of the cultural change.

Since social conditions influence the way human beings behave or engage in different activities, for a society to function effectively, individuals need to accept and adjust to its values and norms. Therefore, students going abroad to obtain a degree, gain academic expertise, and learn a new culture must adapt to the new culture rapidly in order to operate effectively. International students face problems such as language barriers, racial discrimination, dietary restrictions, financial stress, loneliness and academic stress. Some of these problems are shared by native students as well.

According to experts, the four stages of culture shock are:

  • Honeymoon stage: An initial reaction of enchantment, fascination, enthusiasm, admiration and cordial, friendly, superficial relationships with hosts
  • Crisis: Initial differences in language, concepts, values, familiar signs and symbols lead to feelings of inadequacy, frustration, anxiety and anger
  • Recovery: The crisis is resolved by a number of methods such that the person ends up learning the language and the culture of the host country
  • Adjustment: The sojourner begins to work in and enjoy the new culture, though there may be occasional instances of anxiety and strain.

Culture shock is often brought on by the anxiety of losing all familiar signs and symbols of social interaction. These signs are ways in which we orient ourselves to different situations in life: when to shake hands and what to say when we meet people, when and how to give tips, how to make purchases, when to accept or refuse invitations, etc. These cues, which may be words, gestures, facial expressions, customs, or norms are acquired by all of us in the course of growing up and are as much a part of our culture as the language we speak or the beliefs we accept. When we enter a new culture, all or most of these familiar cues are removed. We experience frustration and anxiety.

No matter how broad-minded or full of good will we may be, a series of props have been knocked from under us. This is followed by a feeling of frustration and anxiety. People react to the frustration in much the same way. First they reject the environment which causes the discomfort: the ways of the host country are bad because they make us feel bad. For example, if Americans who are in a different land get together to grouse about the host country and its people, you can be sure they are suffering from culture shock. Another phase of culture shock is regression. The home environment suddenly assumes a tremendous importance, everything becomes irrationally glorified. All difficulties and problems are forgotten and only the good things back home are remembered. It usually takes a trip home to bring one back to reality. Individuals differ greatly in the degree in which culture shock affects them.

Another stage is characterized by a hostile and aggressive attitude towards the host country. This hostility evidently grows out of the genuine difficulty which the visitor experiences in the process of adjustment. There is school trouble, language trouble, housing trouble, transportation trouble, shopping trouble, and the perception that people in the host country are largely indifferent to all these troubles. They help but they just don’t understand your great concern over these difficulties. Therefore, they must be insensitive and unsympathetic to you and your worries. You become aggressive, you band together with your fellow countrymen and criticize the host country, its ways and its people. This criticism is not an objective appraisal but a derogatory one. Instead of trying to account for conditions as they are through an honest analysis of the actual conditions and the historical circumstances which have created them, you talk as if the difficulties you experience are more or less created by the people of the host country for your special discomfort.

Culture shock is lessened as the visitor succeeds in getting some knowledge of the language and begins to get around by himself/herself. This is the beginning of her or his adjustment to the new cultural environment. The visitor still has difficulties but she or he takes them with a more positive attitude. Usually in this stage the visitor’s sense of humor begins to exert itself. In the final stage of adjustment the visitor accepts the customs of the country as just another way of living. She or he can operate within the new milieu without a feeling of anxiety although there are moments of strain. Only with a complete grasp of all the cues of social interaction will this strain disappear. With a complete adjustment you not only accept foods, drinks, habits, and customs but actually begin to enjoy them. When the visitor goes back home on leave he or she may even take things back and he or she might even miss the country and the people to whom they have become accustomed.

It is important for a student to adjust to the new culture rapidly in order to give good academic results. Although there are individual differences in how much and how quickly students adapt, the adjustment process can be viewed as a developmental process.

Social Customs In the U.S.

Americans are generally friendly and interested in the culture of their international guests. They are also casual and informal. We hope that the following outline of social customs will help you. Do not hesitate to ask questions about social customs that you may not understand.


You do not have to bring a gift when you are invited to dinner, except on special occasions (for example birthdays or Christmas). If you are staying overnight or wish to offer a thank you present, candy, wine, flowers or something from your country is recommended.


Men usually shake hands when they first meet, unless they see each other often. A man does not usually shake hands with a woman unless she offers her hand. A man is expected to shake the hand of another man with a firm grip. When you say Hello to someone he or she may answer Hello, how are you? or Hello, how is it going? You do not have to tell him or her how you really feel; it is only an expression. In the same manner, Americans often say farewell by saying See you later, which does not mean that they are definitely planning to visit you or that you should show up at their house without calling first.

Home Visits

An invitation to an American home will give you a chance to see American family life. Most American households do not have domestic help, so it is courteous to offer your help to your hosts. Unless the host or hostess says otherwise, do not begin eating until he or she is seated at the table. If you have any dietary restrictions, do not hesitate to say so beforehand.


Written invitations should be answered in writing, unless a telephone number is given. When no answer is expected, the invitation will not have the letters RSVP written on it. If the invitation is made over the phone, be sure to understand the date, the day of the week, the time, and the place. If your children are not mentioned when you are invited to dinner, they are not expected to come with you. If you wish to bring them, it is all right to ask. If the children are not invited you should arrange for a babysitter or decline the invitation.


In general, Americans appreciate punctuality when you have arranged to meet an American on the street, for dinner or lunch, or for medical and business appointments. If the hours are stated on an invitation, you can arrive anytime within those hours, and leave at any time after a reasonable stay. Arrive at least ten to fifteen minutes early for cultural or sporting events.

Partial List of U.S. Holidays

January 1: New Year’s Day
A celebration of the first of the year. Frequently, there are parties the night
before to see the New Year in.

January 15: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
A day to observe and honor the life and works of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a
famous African-American civil rights leader.

Third Monday in February
Celebration of the birthdays of two famous presidents of the United States,
George Washington (Feb. 22) and Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12)

April 1: April Fools Day
A day for playing harmless jokes on others.

Second Sunday in May Mother’s Day
A day to honor mothers and grandmothers. Cards and/or gifts are given to them.

Last Monday in May Memorial Day
A day to honor the memory of those killed in war.

Third Sunday In June Father’s Day
A day to honor fathers and grandfathers. Cards and/or gifts are given to them.

July 4: Independence Day
The birthday of the United States of America. The Declaration of Independence
was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. Parades, picnics and
fireworks displays are popular entertainment.

First Monday in September Labor Day
Labor organizations sponsor events such as parades to honor workers. It is the
symbolic of the end of summer.

October 31: Halloween
This is mostly a special day for children. They dress in costumes to be ghosts,
witches, or characters from movies, TV, or books, and in the evening go Trick
or Treating. They ring doorbells of neighbors and say Trick or Treat, and in return the neighbor will put candy or some treat in their bags.

November 11: Veteran’s Day
A special day to honor the courage and patriotism of the men and women who
have served in the U.S. armed services.

Fourth Thursday in November Thanksgiving
A day for giving thanks by feasting and prayer for blessings received during the
year. Turkey is traditionally the main course of the meal.

December Hanukkah
An eight-day holiday celebrated by Jews to commemorate the rededication of their temple in ancient days. Gifts may be exchanged among family members.

December 25: Christmas Day
A holiday celebrated by Christians to observe the birth of Jesus Christ. A spirit of good will pervades and gifts, cards, visits and entertainment are exchanged among family members and friends.