Study/Work/Travel Abroad Information Sheet #15 Cultural Adaptation: So You Are Entering a Different Culture Living in a foreign culture is an experience we often look forward to with excitement and enthusiasm. However, many of us are often unprepared for the extent of the cultural dissimilarity we encounter. Culture shock is a very real phenomenon and all travelers entering a foreign culture are affected by it in some way. Culture shock ʺCulture shockʺ, says R.L. Kohls, ʺis the term used to describe the more pronounced reactions to the psychological disorientation most people experience when they move for an extended period of time into a culture markedly different from their own. For some people, the bout with culture shock is brief and hardly noticeable. For others, it can cause intense discomfort, often accompanied by hyper‐irritability, bitterness, resentment, homesickness and depression. In some individuals, culture shock may be accompanied by distinct physical symptoms of psychosomatic illness. Culture shock has two distinct features: • It does not result from a specific event or series of events. It comes instead from the experience of encountering ways of doing, organizing, perceiving or valuing things which are different from your own. This may threaten your basic, unconscious belief that your encultured customs, assumptions, values and behaviours are ʺrightʺ. • It does not strike suddenly or have a single principal cause. Instead, it is cumulative. It builds up slowly, from a series of small events that are difficult to identify. Preparing yourself for culture shock Perhaps the greatest strategy for successful cultural adaptation is the maintenance of a strong sense of personal identity. Ask yourself these questions: • How do my personal beliefs and values influence my lifestyle and behaviour? • Am I aware of the cultural norms and values of my host country? What are the host countryʹs expectations of me? • Why am I going overseas? (purposes may include: learning, growth, language acquisition or improvement, interest in the host country, self‐motivation, others ....) • What am I willing to attempt? How will I respond to language barriers and unfamiliar non‐verbal cues? Think seriously about your motives for going abroad and entering another culture. Be confident in your decision and realize that despite the difficulties you may encounter, your trip overseas will ultimately be rewarding and fulfilling. Also understand that this may not be the right time for you to be traveling abroad. This decision is okay ‐ you have a whole lifetime ahead of you. Responding to culture shock: • Realize that culture shock is normal. • Accept the lesson that culture shock imparts ‐ oneʹs own culture does not possess the single right way or best way of providing for human needs and enjoyment. • Know your host country ‐ do some research on it. • Select a few areas of interest in your host country and investigate them thoroughly (music, art, the environment, womenʹs issues). • Look consciously for logical reasons behind everything that seems strange, difficult, confusing or threatening. Examine your experiences from the host cultureʹs perspective. • Make a list of all the positive aspects of your present situation. Put the list in a place where you can see it throughout the day. Keep a journal so that you can look back on your progress. • Avoid the temptation to spend all your time with other expatriates, especially if they belittle the host culture. Resist making jokes and disparaging comments ‐ these only reinforce your shaky feelings of superiority and slow down the process of adaptation. • Maintain a healthy sense of humour. Make sure that you can laugh at yourself and the mistakes you make. • Talk to someone whoʹs been through the cultural adaptation process. This person can probably give you a positive perspective on the experience youʹre having. • Keep yourself busy and active; keep your mind occupied. Donʹt sit around feeling sorry for yourself. • During the deepest plunges into culture shock, take a trip ‐ get away to a scenic spot or a nearby country. When you return, be open to having good ʺcoming back homeʺ feelings. • Even during the worst times (especially at the worst times) have faith that you will work your way through culture shock to the brighter days that lie ahead – even if you do nothing but wait. An open mind and these eleven steps are sure to guide you safely through your experience of culture shock. Successful cultural adaptation will ensure that the rewards stemming from your overseas experience will be yours to relive for the rest of your life. Stages of Cultural Adjustment (U‐Curve/W‐Curve): This roller coaster ride is a natural pattern of valley and peaks, where excitement and interest are succeeded by depression, disorientation or frustration. The intensity of the ups and downs depends upon the individual, as does the length of time an individual experiences each stage. It is important to realize that this process is both natural and necessary for the sojourner’s optimum adjustment to the transition from culture to culture. References Please note: numbers in brackets indicate the Queen’s University International Centre (QUIC) Library call numbers. Barker, M. (1990) Oriented for Success: A Resource Book on Overseas Student Services. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service. Cumyn, A. (1998) What in the World is Going on? Ottawa: Canadian Bureau for International Education. (TVL HSF 45) Hachey, J.M. (2004) The Big Guide to Living and Working Overseas: 3045 Career Building. Ottawa: International System. (OPA WRK 62) Kohls, R.L. (2001) Survival Kit for Overseas Living. Intercultural Press Inc. (TVL HSF 306) Resources adapted with permission from the University of Guelph Centre for International Programs. Last updated: July 2009 All Study/Work/Travel Abroad Information Sheets are available in the International Resource Library or on the QUIC website.
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