Culture Shock

“Culture shock” is the term Americans use to describe the many adjustments people make when they move between different cultures. Naturally, the degree of culture shock a person experiences is related to the degree of similarity between the two cultures, but there are also other factors which may influence your experience with culture shock:

-How familiar you are with the new culture
-How comfortable you are when experiencing unfamiliar situations
-The availability of friends with whom you can discuss your feelings
-How accurate your expectations are of the new culture

The attached information about culture shock has been adapted fromHandbook for Foreign Students published by the Office of International Education and Services at the University of Iowa. We hope you will read it carefully, think about it, and use it as you prepare to come to Drake. We encourage you to discuss these topics with your family and friends, particularly anyone you know who has studied in the U.S. The International Programs staff will be available to discuss related issues with you throughout your time at Drake.

Dealing with “Culture Shock” 

A. What It Is. “Culture shock” is the name given to feelings of disorientation or confusion that often occur when a person leaves a familiar place and moves to an unfamiliar one. When coming to Iowa from another country, you will encounter a multitude of new things; the buildings look different, and so do the trees and the birds. The food is not the same as it is at home, and the people look, speak, and act differently. Your English might not serve you as well as you thought it would. You might not be able to convey all your feelings in English, with the result that other people misunderstand you. And your family and friends are far away. As a result of all this you may feel confused, unsure of yourself, and you may have some doubts about the wisdom of your decision to come here.

B. Symptoms. People experience culture shock in varying degrees. Some people are more affected by it than others. Those who experience it tend to become nervous and unusually tired. They want to sleep a lot, and call or email home frequently. They may feel frustrated, and hostile toward their host country. They may get excessively angry about minor irritations. It is not unusual for them to become very dependent on fellow nationals who are also in the new country. All these feelings may make it difficult to deal with residents of the host country and to use their language.

C. Coping with Culture Shock.  Different people react differently to culture shock. Some become depressed, while others are stimulated by the new experiences that are open to them. Here are some ideas that might be helpful.

1. Maintain your perspective. Try to remember that thousands of people have come to Iowa from other countries and have survived, even when they arrived in the cold of winter!

2.  Evaluate your expectations.  Your reactions to the United States, to Iowa and to the university are products both of the way things are here and of the way you expected them to be.  If you find yourself feeling confused or disappointed about something, ask yourself, "What did I expect?"  "Why?"  "Was my expectation reasonable?"  If you determine that your expectations were unreasonable, you can do much to reduce the amount of dissatisfaction you feel.

3.  Keep an open mind.  People in Iowa might do or say things that people at home would not do or say. But the people in Iowa are acting according to their own set of values, not yours.  Try to find out how they perceive what they are saying and doing, and try to avoid evaluating their behavior using the standards you would use in your own country.

4.  Learn from the experience.  Moving into a new culture can be the most fascinating and educational experience of your life.  It gives you the opportunity to explore an entirely new way of living and compare it to your own.  There is no better way to become aware of your own values and attitudes, and to broaden your point of view.  Here are some questions that you may try to answer as you encounter new people:  How do they make friends? How do friends treat each other?  Who respects whom?  How is respect shown?  What attitudes do they have about their families?  What is the relationship between males and females?  Why do people spend their time the way they do?  How do they deal with conflicts or disagreements?  What do they talk about?  When and with whom?

There are countless other questions you can ask.  You can compare the answers you get to those you would get if you asked the same questions in your country, and thereby help yourself develop a better understanding of your own society and of the one you are experiencing for the first time.

Adjusting to a New Culture 

Since you are in a new setting, you will have to make certain adjustments or adaptations in your usual behavior and attitudes.  It is useful to observe your own reactions to being in a new culture, and to compare your reactions with those of other people who are here from different countries.  These observations can result in increased understanding of yourself and of the various factors that have made you the kind of person that you are.

Furthermore, if you are able to keep the perspective of a person who is observing himself or herself while undergoing an unusual experience, you will be less likely to become extremely anxious or depressed.  You will learn more from the intercultural experience you are having.

Many factors influence the way different people adjust to a new culture.  One of these factors is, of course, the individual's personality: degree of self-confidence, sense of humor, ability to interact with other people, ability to tolerate ambiguous or frustrating situations, and so on.  Other factors influencing people's adjustment to a new culture are the nature and quality of differences between their own culture and the new one, the comparative economic status of their own country and the new one, the nature of the person's past experience in foreign cultures, and the type of setting in which the newcomer is situated.

Social scientists who have studied the phenomenon of adjusting to a new culture frequently identify four phases of adjustment through which newcomers to a culture commonly pass.  As summarized by the social scientist Marjorie Klein, these phases are as follows:

Spectator phase: The new person is excited and optimistic.

Stress and adaptation: Problems, disappointments, and internal conflicts emerge.

Coming-to-terms:  Increasing involvement with the host society reduces the foreigner's generalized hostility and disappointment, and helps him or her find a relatively comfortable or acceptable position in the society.

Decision to return home:  This is a period of excitement and self-examination.  If the foreigner has become detached from his or her own society, this phase brings about tension and feelings of ambivalence.  If the foreigner still identifies strongly with his or her home country, this phase brings a feeling of release and pleasant anxiety.

This is only one way of looking at the question of "phases of adjustment".  Not everyone goes through all of these phases, and different people spend different amounts of time in each phase they experience.  It can be interesting for you to see whether you pass through phases like these yourself.

University News
October 29, 2014
The Drake University Board of Trustees recently approved new degree programs in mathematics, science, education, technology, and health sciences while taking initial steps to further enhance the University’s programming through $65 million in new construction and renovation.
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