Culture Shock During Study Abroad and How to Prepare Yourself

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At my recent webinar on “Study Abroad: Pre-departure Tips” organized by Leverage Edu, Ashish, a student, asked me, “What is Culture Shock and how can I prepare myself to deal with it ?”
Ashish is going to Study Abroad and his concerns are understandable. He is going to a foreign country to study for three years. Not only will the university be new, but the environment, climate and culture will all be different. He knows that the cultural mannerisms and the way society expects you to behave may be quite different from what he has grown up with. Ashish’s question prompted me to write this Blog!

During my teaching and mentoring experience at international universities in USA and UK, I have met international students from multiple countries. I have observed that along with adjusting to a new study program, students also need to adapt to the local culture.  Thus, understanding the concept of Culture Shock is an important soft- skill for anyone who is moving from their homeland to a foreign culture. In this Blog I will explain “What is Culture Shock and why does it occur?” and “What are some strategies to prepare in advance?”

What is Culture Shock and Why Does it Occur? 

Culture Shock is the response we have when confronted with anything new and unfamiliar.
It’s a sense of ‘shock’ about how the social expectations in a foreign culture may be so different from what is familiar to us, that we are taken aback. It is true that in our globalized world the internet can inform us about the history and geography of a country far away. We can learn about the economy, and climate, and also see images of the sights. Online media has multiple sources of information. 
However, ‘information’ is not ‘understanding’.

Through online information, we may not understand how people behave and what mannerisms are acceptable or disapproved of in culture. Hence Study Abroad students need to prepare themselves for ‘Culture Shock’. This feeling of ‘shock’ can occur in many ordinary situations on campus, with peers or just dealing with strangers at a grocery store, a public place or on the street. Below are examples of some everyday situations (with some tips) which may happen in the early weeks of Study Abroad: 

How to interact with the university office?

  • Greet with ‘Hello, I’m (name)…I have a query about…”

How to approach a Professor during study abroad? 

  • Send an email: “Professor Smith… I hope this finds you well. I wanted to seek an appointment to discuss… Would you have a slot this week when I can come to your office?… Thank you.”  

How to interact with staff at a grocery store?

  • “Hello! I’m looking for ….( item) Where can I find it ?… Thank you “

How to ask a stranger for directions as an international student? 

  • Begin with ‘Excuse me …I’m looking for….(place). Could you help me please?”

How to behave when at a restaurant celebrating with friends? 

  • Ask the staff politely for whatever you want. Do NOT yell or talk loudly. Do not disturb others by dragging chairs loudly. 

Tip: This last piece of advice is for all public places. You must take care not to disturb others when in public places. Look around and respect how others are behaving. Adapt accordingly. In short, as an international student going to a foreign culture observe how others behave, speak, eat and shop. Learn the local etiquette from them. 

What can I do to Prepare Myself to Avoid the Feeling of Culture Shock? 

I have 3 strategies which will help to minimize feeling Culture Shock: 

Read 

Make it a habit to read the local news of your campus and the region in which you are located. Online sources / Apps can help. Even 5 minutes in the morning will keep you informed so that when others talk about it during the day, you too are aware of any important happenings around you.

Watch 

During the first month in a new culture, plan to watch 30-60 minutes of local television every day. Ideally, a mix of news and talk shows will tell you what the community in the region is focused on. It may be sports events, election rallies, inflation, droughts or floods. You will learn WHAT people are talking about, and also HOW they are talking to each other. Knowing local issues in the region is very important for an international student to feel comfortable. This will help in adjusting easily to a foreign culture. 

Ask 

Asking questions is always an amazing way to learn about a culture. Different people, namely, your classmates, professors, or even a friendly person at a café or in a park may be willing to have a conversation about their country and culture. 

Important tips: Ask questions politely. Don’t start comparing your own culture to criticising the country you are living in! You are there to learn, not to show superiority. Don’t be inquisitive and ask personal questions about someone’s family, marriage or income. Those questions relate to privacy. They should only be discussed when you are sure that the other person is comfortable doing so. 

In short: Be Curious! But, not inquisitive!

Hope this helped you prepare for a culture shock during your study abroad. When you move to a foreign culture, leaving behind your familiar reality, just remember that there is much to learn—not only in the study program for which you are going but also from the society in which you plan to live for a few years. Preparing yourself with the tips above will prevent distraction from social and cultural challenges so that you can focus on academics and the exciting opportunities ahead. And, don’t forget to Read, Watch, and Ask.

We will be back next Friday with another amazing blog from Dr Maina Chawla Singh. Till then, if you have any questions or suggestions, just drop us a comment and we will get back to you. Want to study abroad? Our Leverage Edu experts are ready to assist you in narrowing down the best course and university options according to your interests and preferences.

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