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Culture Shock

Living in a new culture can be exhilarating, rewarding, and stimulating. It can also be disorienting, frustrating and depressing. Such distress or “culture shock” is due to the twofold challenge of being in a new environment with unfamiliar customs, language, food, housing, etc., and being away from your familiar home environment with all of the ease and support it provides.

To avoid or minimize the challenges associated with being in an unfamiliar environment, it can help to educate yourself beforehand about the culture you will be visiting and to be open-minded about the different customs and environments you will be experiencing. You are strongly encouraged to do your own research and to be proactive rather than passive.

To avoid or minimize the challenges associated with being away from your usual support network, plan ahead so that you can be in contact with friends, family, mental health professionals, etc., back home as needed. Research cell phone / internet connectivity, time zone differences, etc. To maintain a healthy communication balance, try to avoid spending so much time in contact with home that it interferes with the opportunity to engage your new culture.

Students have discovered a variety of other strategies that help to lessen culture shock:

  • Keep your sense of humor.
  • Avoid other Americans who are overly negative or who complain excessively.
  • Take care of your health.
  • Occasionally treat yourself to your favorite American food or news source, if they are available.
  • Try new activities.

Even with preparation, it is likely that you will experience some form of culture shock. Recent studies suggest that culture shock includes distinct phases: initial excitement/euphoria, irritability during acclimation, gradual adaptation, etc. Upon return to the United States, many students face "reverse culture shock." If you are interested in learning more about the process of cultural adjustment and readjustment, the University of the Pacific has created a cultural training resource.

If at any time your culture shock crosses over into symptoms of depression or other mental health conditions, please reach out to your program leader, onsite administrators, onsite resources and/or UC Davis Student Health and Counseling Services, where mental health staff are available 24 hours a day 7 days a week by phone at (530) 752-0871 (follow the prompts to reach a mental health counselor – press 55).

Just as you may have challenges adjusting to your new culture, your host culture may have challenges adjusting to you. Stereotypes go both ways, and American students can be perceived as loud, arrogant, crude, promiscuous, alcohol-obsessed, rich, cheap, politically naïve, shallow, etc. Please avoid reinforcing such stereotypes. You are an ambassador of the United States and the University of California, Davis – respect others and act responsibly.

Also consider the nature of the political climate and relations between the U.S. and your destination, as well as other countries you plan to visit. In some cases, Americans living/traveling abroad may be singled out as objects of resentment, intimidation or even violence because of U.S. government policies. In this case, it may be prudent to adopt your style of dress and behavior as much as possible to local norms, so that it is more difficult to identify you as an American.