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Stages of Cultural Adjustment

STAGE #1: Initial Euphoria - "Honeymoon" Stage
After the stress of deciding where to study abroad and completing the numerous pre-departure requirements, you prepare to leave. There is the excitement and anticipation of spending time in a new country mixed with the sadness of leaving family and friends. You find yourself stepping off the plane and into a new place. Everything seems different, new, and exciting. The language is different, the food is interesting, the buildings are charming, you are eager to meet host country friends and everything is wonderful - it's the "perfect" place. Although you miss your family and friends, the novelty and excitement of experiencing a new environment outweigh the loss. This is the first phase of many new experiences, and much excitement and adoration. You feel great, and this is the perfect way to start your time abroad.

STAGE #2: Frustration - Cultural Confrontation
After about three to six weeks the things you may have found exciting and wonderful begin to appear as more of a problem. Your feelings can shift from very positive to extremely negative. The language is a challenge and sometimes translation can be tiring. You long for familiar food, and you decide that the charming building doesn't have all the conveniences you are accustomed to at home. Homesickness may also contribute to your feelings of discomfort. You have developed "culture shock" - the reaction people feel when they move for an extended period into a culture that is different from their own. Culture shock results from the experience of encountering ways of doing, organizing, perceiving or valuing things that threaten your basic, unconscious belief that your ways are "right." It is cumulative, building slowly from a series of small events that are difficult to identify.

Symptoms of culture shock vary from individual to individual. Some students may have little or no reactions or symptoms during this phase. Others may feel tired all the time, both physically from trying to understand the language, customs and a myriad of unfamiliar daily tasks, and emotionally, because as hard as you try to reach out and connect, you realize that you will never really be one of the locals. Disappointment and irritability can set in. Suddenly, the food is inadequate, the facilities aren't clean enough, people are abrupt, and the bureaucracy is relentless.

If you decide to write home during this phase you may want to write the email and file it rather than hitting the send key. Re-read the message in a few days and see if you still feel the same way. Often the problem has disappeared and your feelings have changed. This method can help to avoid upsetting your family unnecessarily. Expressing your feelings in a journal, to a friend on your program, to your program director, or to the staff at Rice Study Abroad often helps put things in perspective.

Despite these feelings, you are making critical progress in expanding your cross-cultural awareness. Whether or not you are aware of it, you are developing your own strategies for coping with cultural differences. 

Please remember… The staff at the Rice Study Abroad and Wellbeing offices are always available if you ever need someone to talk to!

STAGE #3: Cultural Adjustment and Adaptation
Eventually, you are starting to feel more at home. You feel increasingly comfortable and competent in the culture and have adjusted to the differences. You have made friends and may feel that your language skills are really just beginning to develop as you had hoped. You start to look forward to further interactions in the host country and what you can learn throughout the remainder of your experience. Congratulations, you have adjusted and adapted!

Undergoing this cultural adjustment is in itself a learning experience and an opportunity to grow. It is a way of sensitizing yourself to another culture at a level that goes beyond the intellectual and rational. Once you have gone through the uncomfortable stages of psychological adjustment, you will be in a much better position to fully appreciate the cultural differences that exist.

STAGE #4: Acceptance - "Home" Stage 
This final stage happens when the new culture no longer feels "new", but like a second home. Now you are able to compare your host culture and your home culture and find things you like more or less in each. These differences are no longer a problem for you, but a source of richness. You appreciate both cultures and are able to critique both. You are able to live successfully in two different cultures. These are all skills and personal achievements that you can bring back home with you, and that can help you back at Rice and in your professional life.


Remember that how an individual passes through these stages of cultural adjustment varies depending on one's personal characteristics and background, the host country, and the program structure. Some study abroad students may experience few changes while others may be more aware of major transitions. One important factor that slows your adjustment to the new environment is excessive contact with family and friends back home or on your home campus. Constant e-mail, Facebook and phone contact with friends and family in the U.S. may be reassuring but it will also keep you from learning about a new environment and making new friends. We suggest you limit your communication to a few hours one day a week and spend the rest of the week living and fully experiencing your new life abroad.