Culture Shock

What is it?
Culture shock is the natural reaction to a series of transitions that occur when we are uprooted from our cultural environment and transplanted into a new situation where the language, gestures, customs, signs, and symbols that have previously helped us to make sense of our surroundings suddenly have no meaning or have new meanings. Most of all, we have lost our social supports (family, friends, classmates, coworkers), and we are having to begin again in a world where things are unpredictable. While the words “culture shock” imply something immediate, the onset is usually gradual and cumulative.

How can I avoid it?
Since culture shock is a natural response, your strategy should not be how to avoid it, but instead, how to manage it. Being able to anticipate the feelings you may encounter, and having an understanding of the cycle of adjustment should help minimize much of the difficulty of adjusting to life in the United States. While at times it may be an unpleasant experience to go through, adapting to a new culture provides great opportunities for personal growth and development.

What are the stages of culture shock and cultural adjustment?

1. “Honeymoon stage” – When you first arrive, the differences you observe are new, exciting and interesting. You are optimistic, and likely to focus on the positive aspects of your new environment.

2. “Hostility stage” – As some time passes, the differences that were once interesting have now become obstacles for you to get things done or communicate effectively. You may begin experiencing any of the following feelings or behaviors:

  • disorientation and confusion
  • acute homesickness for family, friends and places
  • loneliness
  • helplessness
  • irritability
  • sadness and depression
  • frequent frustration
  • being easily angered
  • fatigue
  • withdrawing from friends or other people
  • self-doubt, sense of failure
  • recurrent sickness
  • desire to go home

3. “Recovery and Adjustment stage” – Gradually, you begin to feel more comfortable in the new culture and are functioning well at work or school. Your confidence builds as you start to adjust to the differences and expand your social network. You are able to view things more objectively and are becoming more flexible.

4. "Reverse Culture Shock” – Do not underestimate the adjustment that will be required when you return home from your sojourn. People go through a similar series of stages upon re-entry to their home culture.

How long will it take for the unpleasant symptoms to go away?
Sometimes the symptoms of the hostility stage last just a few days, but more commonly, a few weeks or even months. Your friend may appear to adjust easily while you are suffering miserably. Several different factors, such as your pre-departure expectations, coping skills, and any past experience living overseas can affect the degree to which a person is affected by culture shock, making each individual’s experience unique. Also, people often move back and forth between the stages throughout their stay.

Suggestions on how to make your adjustment as smooth as possible.

  • Realize that what you are going through is normal. Remember that the unpleasant feelings are temporary, natural, and are common to any transition that a person makes during their life.
  • Be patient and give yourself the time to work through this process.
  • Take good care of yourself. Eat well, exercise, learn relaxation and stress reduction techniques.
  • Maintain a sense of humor. Be able to laugh at yourself and at the predicaments you get into.
  • Resist the temptation to constantly disparage the host country. Begin to consciously look for logical reasons for anything in the United States that seems strange, confusing, or threatening. There is a reason why Americans do things differently than people do in your country. Most importantly, when you are having a difficult time, do not be afraid to talk to someone, especially if you are thinking of leaving the U.S. You can always talk to family, friends, members of your host department or the staff at the Services to International Students and Scholars Office who have a lot of experience with this process. Professional counseling is a wonderful resource, is available free to all students, and is often part of an employee’s health plan. For more information, see COUNSELING section below.

Books to help you through your transition
The following books are published in the U.S., but may be found on the internet at or at any local San Francisco bookstore or library once you arrive.

American Ways: A Guide for Foreigners in the United States
Gary Althen. Intercultural Press; 2nd edition (2002)

Stress Management for Dummies
By Allen Elkin. IDG Books (1999).

By William Bridges. Addison-Wesley Publishing (1980)

Beat Stress with Strength: A Survival Guide for Work and Life
By Stephanie Spera and Sandra Lanto. Park Avenue Books (1997).

Living in the U.S.A.
By Alison Lanier. Intercultural Press (1988).

A Foreign Visitor’s Survival Guide to America
By Shauna Singh Baldwin and Marilyn M. Levine. John Muir Publications (1992)