Studying abroad and culture shock
Are you planning to study in the UK? Are you looking forward to an exciting time, with high expectations of life in Britain?
If you have been to the UK already, then you will roughly know what to expect. If it is your first time in the country - and perhaps your first time abroad - you may find that settling in is not an automatic process but that it requires a bit of effort. You may be surprised by this, and at some stage you will probably use the term culture shock to explain your reactions. But what exactly is culture shock? What does it feel like? Can you prevent it? Probably not but you can minimise its effect. Read on and find out how. You may settle in more easily if you know in advance how you are likely to feel after your arrival.
Research into culture shock
For over thirty years, culture shock has been a bona fide field of research for European and American anthropologists and psychologists. They have studied the reactions and experiences during the first few months in a new country of travellers and diplomats, business people and international students.
The anthropologist Dr. Kalvero Oberg was the first to use the term. Others have since experimented with ‘culture fatigue’ and ‘role shock’ but these have not made it into everyday usage. Culture shock is snappy and somehow we all know what it means to us, although if asked, we may find it as difficult to define as ‘jet lag’ or ‘homesickness’.
Some researchers describe five stages; others believe it is a six or even seven stage process. Not everyone experiences the exact stages but most travellers will go through the highs and lows, the positive as well as the negative aspects of living in a new culture. The different stages roughly are as follows:
At first you are excited by the new environment and a few frustrations do not spoil your enthusiasm. When experiencing some difficulties with simple things like, for instance, making telephone calls, or using public transport, you tend to down-play negative emotions.
Then follows a period in which cultural differences in behaviour and values become more obvious. What previously seemed exciting, new and challenging is now merely frustrating. You may feel isolated and become withdrawn from life around you. You seek security in the familiar. Food from home, possibly even what you never particularly enjoyed, becomes a focus, maybe an obsession.
In the next stage you may reject what is around you, perhaps becoming opinionated and negative. You may feel that everyone is against you and that nobody understands you. Limpet-like you cling to other students from your home country, hoping to have your negative stereotypes of the British and life in Britain reinforced. However, you are beginning to re-assert yourself.
Based on your successes in negotiating a variety of social situations and, maybe, increased language skills, your self-esteem grows. You can accept the negative differences and tolerate them. Knowing that you cannot change your surroundings you now enjoy certain aspects of British culture and feel relieved and strengthened from having overcome the difficulties. You may even feel a sense of belonging.
Just as everyone’s experience of culture shock is unique, the symptoms associated with it vary, too. They can range from the physical - headaches, lethargy, sleep problems, loss of appetite and digestive irregularities - to the psychological, irritability and anger over minor frustrations, confusion about morals and values. Suffering from culture shock often leaves people feeling moody, isolated and insecure.
Researchers believe that the beginning of the negative phases happen most often within two to six months of living in a new culture but many travellers experience the full gambit of emotions associated with culture shock in a much narrower time span.
Not everyone experiences culture shock
But what about all those many people who...
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