Culture shock

A culture shock happens to the best of us when studying abroad. This page serves to explain what you can expect while you are abroad. If you are aware of your negative feelings, you will also be able to adjust your actions. The development of a culture shock differs per person, but generally exists of at least one of the following phases.

Honeymoon phase

In the first days and possibly weeks, you are most likely to embrace the new country positively. Think about it: All is new to you. The new culture, food and local habits can therefore be both fascinating and exciting. At the same time, an exchange student may receive extra attention, particularly when student exchange is a top priority of this university. Like a honeymoon, this stage fades after a while.

Crisis (or regression) phase

Eventually (timeframes may differ), excitement will turn into feelings of negativity and hostility. As you get accustomed to your new life and develop daily routines, anything (think of: language, food and traditions) may upset you or feel as an offense to your own culture. As a result, many things may seem to go wrong.

These experiences may result in physical conditions (such as insomnia), but more importantly, will have psychological effects. In this phase, homesickness and feelings of loneliness grow. The language barrier worsens this situation as it can be challenging to express your feelings in a different language.

At this point, it is important to reflect on your feelings and to remain in touch with both local and other international students. Undoubtedly, their experiences will be comparable to yours, so sharing is essential.

Adjustment phase

Luckily, the negotiation phase fades as you grow more accustomed to the culture and your life is normalised. In this stage, you have learnt how to handle the new culture, resulting in less negative reactions to the new culture. At this point, you will be able to differentiate between the new and old culture without judgments.

Recovery phase

Once you have reached this stage, you have 'mastered' the new culture. It does not mean that you are fully integrated (you will still connect with aspects of your own culture), but the new culture feels comfortable.

How to cope?

Some tips and tricks may help you get accustomed to your new life more quickly:

  • Prepare for your move: read about the country, buy a tourist guide and sign up for the buddy programme.
  • Make friends, stay active: when everyone is new at the campus, it is easy to meet people. Join the orientation programme for new (exchange) students. The more people you know, the less lonely you will feel, and the less time you have to think about your negative feelings.
  • Just arrived and found no friends yet? Do not stay in your dorm. Instead, stroll around campus or the neighbourhood, go shopping, and play sports. This is an excellent way to make friends with regular students.
  • Talk to your fellow students about your feelings: someone else may be feeling the exact same way. 
  • Get to know a local student: learn to get to know their culture from their perspective. It will help you understand where differences originate.
  • Get involved: join student clubs, participate in volunteer activities.

Above all: stay positive. Play your favourite song, make yourself write down something good about the new country every day, and actively avoid negative thoughts about the host country. Remember that exchange is not just a vacation; it is a personal-development experience. You will face issues, which you will have to solve yourself. This is always scary, for anyone, but you will benefit forever from the personal growth and independence you have gained from this experience.