Cultural Adjustments

Most people experience some form of adjustment as they move to a new environment. This adjustment period may be accompanied by symptoms such as anxiety, headaches, digestive or sleep problems, or simply discomfort. Entering a new country as a student, especially for the first time, means sudden loss of those comfortable and familiar sights and sounds found at home. The intensity of the culture adjustment will vary for each person. This can be a learning experience. The process forces one to reflect upon ones own culture and the net result is a new understanding of ones own values, beliefs, and behaviors. It does not mean that the person will turn into an "American", nor does it mean that the person must like American culture in order to adapt. It does mean, however, that the process of adaptation depends upon one being able to understand that there will be a period of adjustment.
This next section is to assist you as you go through your own process of cultural adjustment, giving you some idea of what to expect.

Honeymoon Stage: Busy taking care of new things, observing and familiarizing oneself with the new environment, there is a sense of excitement and enjoyment. The person is happy to finally be in the host culture after long preparation.

Conflict Stage: Starting to feel isolated, out of place, one realizes that ones home culture behaviors and values may not be completely acceptable or understood, while the host culture’s values begin to seem difficult. Level of language, accent, and unfamiliarity with local idioms or phrases of speech may cause miscommunication. One begins to blame the host culture for ones feelings.

Critical Period: One can either choose to become an "explorer" of the host culture, treating it as an adventure, or retreat from it, spending increasing time with other sojourners from one’s home culture. This choice affects the final stage.

Recovery Stage: If the critical period is negotiated successfully, one becomes at ease, familiar with the language, actions, values of the host culture. At the same time, ones own cultural values and norms have been examined and explored. Taking on the position of a mediator between the two, one can understand and choose which values and beliefs to uphold and which to reject from both cultures.Do you know how to convert sizes, temperatures, distances, and more into the American system? Try our measurements brochure to learn more (PDF)

Coping Strategies: What you can do to help adjust to the US

  • Asking questions to learn is a good way to constantly check the assumptions with which you might have come. If you have stereotypes that label whole groups of people, you may offend people. Just as everyone from your culture is not identical, neither are Americans.
  • Learn and practice the local English spoken. Watch television, listen to the radio, and talk to people you meet. As your familiarity and fluency improves, you will have a much easier time.
  • Observe your surroundings and the ways in which people interact to learn appropriate forms of greeting, farewell, questioning, etc. with all the variations of age, gender, and apparent social status. While you may see behaviors that are different from your own, try not to judge them until you understand the meaning they hold.
  • Talk with other international students who have been here longer, especially those from your own culture. Having gone through the process you are experiencing, they may be able to help with advice and support.
  • View yourself as a teacher about your own culture. This may give you patience with questions that seem silly or intrusive.
  • Reflect on what is happening to you and how you are feeling about it. Ask yourself questions about your experience, such as, "What did I expect?" and "How does reality compare with my expectations?" By reflection, you can prepare yourself for greater control of the situation rather than simply reacting to it.
  • If you feel really depressed or stuck, you can always seek support. The staff at the Office of International Student Affairs is experienced with dealing with such issues and is always happy to help. Additional sources of support include members of your own cultural group, a professor you may feel comfortable with, or a spiritual advisor or priest from your religious group.In your process of cultural adjustment you are not alone. You follow in the footsteps of the numbers of internationals students who have gone before you, and are accompanied by all the international students who come with you to Buffalo State College. The opportunity to study in a new culture is an exciting one, and the process of learning goes far beyond the academic component. Your motivation and courage to come this far is admirable. Good luck as you continue your journey.

The impacts of culture shock can be categorized into five areas. The following categories may take on more meaning for some people than for others.

  • The way you confront the new environment
  • Your effectiveness in interpersonal communication
  • The way your stay in the new environment affects your emotional well-being
  • The perceived need for you to modify your personal behavior in the new environment
  •  Whether or not you perceive the change as a growth experience.

There are two major views of culture shock. Dr. Kalervo Oberg, one of the first writers on culture shock as a phenomenon, has described it in a medical sense as a "disease." A common symptom of the disease is loss of control. This may occur a few months after arrival. It is reflected in situations where you may feel Americans are "trying to make life difficult for you." Control is regained when you begin to feel such situations are really humorous events during your stay. In contrast Peter Adler describes culture shock as a normal part of the growth experience, rather than a disease. Those who more easily overcome culture shock have a few key characteristics. Studies have shown that people with a low ethnocentrism, a tolerance of ambiguity, a positive self-concept, an ability to have empathy, a tendency toward task-orientation (but not excessively so), and an openness to learning from the host culture can overcome culture shock more easily. Culture shock is tied closely to personal values. The more personal values are threatened the higher the intensity of the culture shock.

During your stay at Buffalo State you will meet and work with Americans from all parts of the United States with various backgrounds and interests. You will begin to be more sensitive to the notion that Americans are people who have many similarities and are different in many ways. Since culture shock often is manifested in interpersonal communication, another way of understanding it is to understand the barriers to communication that you may encounter. The barriers are identified and described in the following:

In any encounter between two people who have just been introduced, or who know very little of each other, it is normal to have some anxiety. Some people have the capacity to deal with this anxiety faster than others. Americans tend to cope with this anxiety by looking for similarities or common experiences in first encounters.

Obstacles to Verbal Communication
America is a country of immigrants, so you will encounter Americans with different accents. It may take some of you longer than others to adjust your speaking and listening cadence.

Obstacles to Non-verbal Communication
This category is characterized by the eye, hand, and head movement, body posture, and so on. People rarely talk about the non-verbal aspect of communication. Yet, this is an area where more than one-half of communication takes place. The problem is that we often attribute our own cultural reasons for another's behavior, until we have learned what that behavior means.

In our discussions with others we may find ourselves or the others making statements like, "all ______ are like that!" Even if it is not said, it may be thought. Such thinking may offend others and result in miscommunication.

This is a tendency to judge another's behavior as being right or wrong. Aside from culturally common legal behaviors, no cultural behavior is right or wrong. Our day to day behavior is conditioned as being "natural." Thus, when we observe behavior that is strange or different to us there is a tendency for us to judge the behavior as being good or bad. It is difficult to avoid judgments. However, if one does not seek to understand the reasons for other's behavior, such an attitude may interfere with communications.
How do we overcome these barriers? The best method is to understand that culture shock is a phenomenon that you must deal with. You must continually reflect on your own experiences in the U. S. By doing so you will recognize that you can prepare yourself for greater control of the situation rather than simply reacting to it. As your experiences multiply, so will your confidence. The staff in the Office of International Student Affairs is especially experienced in assisting you with your questions, concerns, and frustrations. Please regard us as your friends.