Cultural Adaptation

Most people who move to a new culture experience an adjustment period.

The adjustment period may be accompanied by symptoms such as anxiety, headaches, digestive problems, and sleep disorders, or may bring less severe symptoms such as general discomfort and moodiness.

Research shows that most people who travel outside their home culture experience cultural adjustment in similar ways which, when charted, this adjustment has come to be known as The U Curve of Cultural Adaptation.

Cultural Shock

It is called a "U Curve" because people generally:  start at a high point, then experience a decline, or depression, before a leveling off period, then go through a critical "recovery" stage and end up more or less balanced, where they began.

  • Cultural Adaptation is a Natural Process
    Your worth as a person, your strength, your stamina, and your flexibility are not in question! You are not lessened by the cultural adaptation process; it is simply a natural phase in the overall cross-cultural experience.
  • Cultural Adaptation is an Individual Process
  • Cultural adaptation is not the same for everyone.  You may experience it differently than your friends. The speed with which you go through the adaptation is highly individual. For some it is a question of weeks, for others, months. And some experience the process more than once.

 Stages of Cultural Adaptation

 The Honeymoon Stage

Common thoughts during the Honeymoon Stage include:

Isn't this exciting?

I can't wait to tell _____ about this.

Aren't they interesting? Everything here is so _____!

Characteristics of the Honeymoon Stage:

  • You are busy taking care of business (registration, housing, bank account, etc.)
  • You are observing the new culture and familiarizing yourself with the new environment
  • You are meeting useful and friendly university staff
  • You are making your first social contacts with members of the host culture
  • You are seeing and doing new things and enjoying a new world

The Conflict Stage

Common thoughts during the Conflict stage include:

We would never do that in my country!

Why can't they just _____?

I only have __ months before I go home.

These people are so _____!

Characteristics of the Conflict Stage:

  • You begin to desire more personal relationships with members of the host culture
  • You find you have little time or opportunity to make friends
  • You are feeling isolated, out of place
  • You may feel tired, sick, depressed, angry, or frustrated
  • You have a growing awareness that your home culture's behaviors may not be accepted in the host culture, and you may have to give up, suspend, or modify your own behavior
  • Your high expectations remain unmet
  • You blame the host culture for your problems
  • You spend lots of time with members of your home culture complaining about the host culture
  • You experience problems with the subtleties of the target language

The Critical Stage

Common thoughts during the Critical Stage include:

Why shouldn't they say/do that?

We say/do that too, but differently

Characteristics of the Critical Stage:

  • You choose to become an "explorer" in the new culture
  • You accept the challenge of self-reflection
  • You assume responsibility for your own cultural adjustment 

The Recovery Stage

Common thoughts during the Recovery Stage include:

You don't understand them like I do.

I'm beginning to like this.

Characteristics of the Recovery Stage:

  • Your language skills improve noticeably
  • You begin to understand the actions of members of the host culture
  • You have finally made friends and feel part of the community
  • You develop a greater tolerance for what is strange and new
  • You become a mediator between the two cultures
  • You feel proud that you can make yourself understood in the target language and that you can understand native speakers

 Hints to Make the Cultural Transition Easier

  • Ask Questions
    Ask questions of the practical nature, such as "Where may I find foodstuffs from my home country?", or "Where is the nearest bank?", but also ask questions about persons' opinions on things, and about their experiences. Ask for their reactions to local events, newspaper articles, television programs, etc. You may find that some stereotypes you held about your new host culture are crumbling!
  • Learn and Practice the Local Language
    There are regional and local variations to most languages. Learn the version that pertains in your new host culture. Watch television, listen to the radio, read local newspapers, and Talk! Talk! Talk! with persons you encounter everywhere you go during your everyday routine.
  • Observe Ritual Social Interactions
    Notice what people say and how they say it when they greet an acquaintance, when they are introduced to a stranger, when they take leave of a friend or of someone they have just met. Watch for variations with age, sex, and apparent social status.
  • Take "Field Trips"
    A field trip is a visit to a place where you can observe what happens. Yours may be conducted in a visit to someone's home, at the grocery store, riding public transportation, attending a church service, or visiting a public school. You may be amazed by how much you can learn simply by observing.
  • Talk with Experienced International Students
    One of the benefits of studying at most universities abroad is the presence of other international students from different countries. Their experiences can be an invaluable resource for you, the new sojourner. Don't limit yourself to members of your own culture group: be adventuresome!
  • Keep a Journal
    Journal-keeping is a time-honored method of coping with a new culture. Writing about your experiences forces you to be observant and to reflect on what is happening to you and around you.
  • Read
    An abundance of materials exist about your new national, regional, and local host cultures. Newspapers, magazines, and the university libraries are excellent resources for your quest.
  • View Yourself as a Teacher
    You can use your stay abroad to teach at least a few host country nationals about your home culture. Thinking of yourself as a teacher may give you additional patience and help you avoid becoming irritated when asked questions which may seem just plain stupid to you!
  • Reflect
    An essential part of the cultural adaptation process is taking time to reflect on what is happening to you and around you. Demands of academics are rigorous and reflection time won't happen unless you purposefully set out to reserve the time for it. As k yourself such questions as "What did I expect from my study abroad experience?" and "How does reality compare with my expectations?" "What can I do to make my experience more constructive and interesting?" and "How is the experience preparing me to meet my goals for the future?"