International Student Services

Cross-Cultural Adjustment

Cross-Cultural Adaption

Living in a second culture is an adventure and a challenge!  You might be fascinated at some of the differences between peoples' behavior and thinking in this country your home country.  At the same time, dealing with different surroundings, different customs, and a different language day in and day out can be stressful indeed.  Understanding cross-cultural adaptation and understanding North American culture are the keys to helping you cope.

Cross-Cultural Adjustment

It is natural for people who live in a new country to go through what is called "culture shock." This happens because the values, traditions, customs, and beliefs one carries may vary greatly from the new culture one now lives in. Adjustment to any new situation or culture is not accomplished in a few days. It takes time to adjust to a new lifestyle and to make new friends.

Culture is not just experiencing new foods or language or living in a country with a different political system. 

Remember, culture refers to the values, traditions, norms, customs, and beliefs of a group or society.  It encompasses not just what people think, but how they think and process information.

While each person undergoes adjustment at his or her own pace, successful adjustment usually includes passage through the following four states as identified by Gregory Trifonovich:

The Honeymoon Stage

The first adjustment stage is characterized by a sense of anticipation, exhilaration, and excitement. This is an exciting time as you are fascinated with your new surroundings. Although you may not fully understand your surroundings at this time, you are eager to fit in. When misunderstandings increase, you are likely to experience the second state of cultural adjustment.

The Hostility Stage

This adjustment stage is characterized by feelings of frustration, anger, anxiety, and sometimes depression. The initial excitement gives way to frustration with the college bureaucracy, the weariness of communicating in English every day, and in some cases, physical discomfort or other problems. Although not fully aware of it, you probably react to these stressors by rejecting and displaying hostility toward the new environment. Many academic problems begin during this stage. The hostility stage can be a difficult and painful stage. It is important for you to keep in mind that you are not alone -most individuals in your position experience these emotions to some degree and that you are able to overcome them in due time.

The Humor Stage

This stage occurs when you begin to relax in your new surroundings and begin to laugh at minor mistakes and misunderstandings which would have caused you major headaches in the hostility stage. By now, you have made some friends and adjusted to the complexity of the new academic system.

The Home Stage

The final adjustment stage comes when you have retained the allegiance to your home culture, but also "feel at home" in your newly acquired one. You may now have successfully adjusted to the norms and standards of the new environment, and should be commended for the ability to live successfully in two cultures.

Suggestions for Adapting to a new culture

The following were suggested by individuals interested in helping people like you in the process of adjusting to a new culture:

1) Listen and observe. Since there are new rules and norms that may be unfamiliar to you, listen carefully to verbal communication and observe non-verbal communication carefully and try to put them in proper context.

2) Ask questions. You should not assume that you always know what is going on or that you understand wheat you hear or see. Most Americans will be very helpful if you need an explanation of something.

3) Try not to evaluate or judge. You may see many things different from your own culture. Most customs, habits, and ideas are simply different from what you have known before.

4) Be open and curious. To experience a new culture and to learn from it, it is important to be open to new experiences. Relax and try to think of it as a new adventure and be curious about the way things are done in a new place. The more you explore, the more you will learn.

5) Exercise a sense of humor. It is very likely that you will make mistakes as you explore a new culture, and if you can laugh at them yourself, it will help you to learn and the other people will respond with friendliness.

6) Expect some anxiety and frustration. Learning to function In a new culture is not easy, and it is natural to feel some anxiety and frustration. If you recognize that these are a normal part of the experience, you may be able to deal with them more effectively. Your sense of humor and openness will also help.

7) Become involved. The more you put into the experience of becoming acclimated to your surroundings during your sojourn here, the more you will learn from it. You should make an effort to meet people, establish friendships, get involved in activities, and learn about the people and their culture. One way to do this is by participating in the cross cultural activities such as the International Coffee Hour and trips/excursions sponsored by the International Student Services Office or other campus groups. For details about some of these activities and programs visit the International Student Services Office, the Office of Student Life, and the Office of Multicultural Services.

Adapting to a new culture is an on-going process. To reduce confusion or prevent misunderstanding, do not hesitate to ask questions about customs, practices, or values. Communication is the key to understanding. Don't worry about your accent. If you don't understand, make sure you ask for an explanation of clarification. Remember, asking for assistance or an explanation is not considered a sign of weakness in the United States.

By practicing these simple steps you can insure a smooth transition to life in the United States while studying at Lewis University.

Culture Shock or Culture Fatigue

“Culture shock” is a well-known expression that describes the stress and disorientation a person feels when living in a foreign culture.  However, the word “shock” suggests a specific occasion (in English, for example, we might refer to getting bad news as “a shock”).  A more accurate term is “culture fatigue.” It describes the gradual accumulation, day by day, of stress from encountering the many differences in the new culture. 

Your good and bad feelings will normally follow in a cycle.  It is typical and most common to feel happy and excited when you first arrive.  Later, after several weeks, life in college may no longer seem special or interesting.  Many students will feel very homesick and depressed at these times.  Normally, this feeling passes and the student returns to a happier lifestyle that shows a realistic and healthy understanding of himself/herself.

Here are some situations that trigger culture fatigue:

Your normal habits of communication (customs of politeness, idioms, expressions of emotion, etc.) don’t always work the way you expect.

People behave in ways that are not customary in your country.  Sometimes, it is not clear to you what the rules for appropriate, customary behavior is.

You find that people have surprisingly different values in this culture regarding the importance of family, money, time, or other things.

No one seems to understand who you really are:  People may not know or care who your family is, and your previous accomplishments, profession, or job positions seem unimportant – you are now “only” a student.

You discover that people have different beliefs from your culture about reality, such as what causes sickness/health, or whether there is a spiritual realm, and its nature.

Despite all these stresses, you are expected to function with full competence.

Some Symptoms of Culture Fatigue

It is not unusual to experience some of the following symptoms from culture fatigue:  exhaustion, irritability, depression, homesickness, sleep difficulty, anxiety, a desire to withdraw from the target culture, unexplained weeping, overeating or overdrinking.  Many people experience one or more of these symptoms between two months and a year into their stay in the foreign country.  Don’t be surprised if you do too!  Normally, these symptoms will come and go, and eventually pass.  If they do not after several weeks, seek advice from a staff person in International Student Services, Residence Life and Housing Services, Leckrone Academic Resource Center, University Ministry, or Student Affairs.

Managing Culture Fatigue There are ways to keep your culture shock to a minimum and to return to a happy and comfortable state. 

  • First, take care of your physical health: keep a good diet, get exercise and plenty of rest. 

  • Second, maintain good attitudes: Keep your sense of humor and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.  Remember that cultural differences may make you a bit uncomfortable, but that feeling will pass. 

  • Learn as much as you can about U.S. culture.  Be curious and interested.  It will help you understand why Americans do what they do. 

  • Make at least one American friend - this is important.  It will increase your English ability, help you understand the U.S., and make you feel a part of the community quickly.

  • Be non-judgmental, open-minded, and tolerant of cultural differences. Remember that cultural practices evolve as part of a whole cultural system;  there may be parts of a culture you dislike or disapprove of, but it is part of a broader social system, and makes sense inside that system.

A person can improve and increase these characteristics in himself, simply by consciously practicing them.

If you are in immediate need of someone to talk to, find a friend, or an international student who has been here for a while and can help you interpret the situation.  Remember also, you can always talk to a staff person in International Student Services, Residence Life and Housing Services, Leckrone Academic Resource Center, University Ministry, or Student Affairs.

Above all, remember that the cross-cultural lessons you learn now will be with you all your life.