Cultural Adjustment & Immersion

Cultural Adaptation

Experiencing new cultures, and obtaining a better understanding of your own culture, can result in some of the most positive, life-altering experiences students have while studying abroad. When going abroad, students will experience differences in manners, beliefs, customs, laws, language, art, religion, values, concept of self, family organization, social organization, government, behavior, etc. All of these elements combine to form culture.

While the introduction to new and foreign cultures greatly benefits students, it can also be overwhelming. Cultural differences can be so great that a student may need extra time to adjust. This is normal. The new cultural elements a student encounters may be so different that they seem ―shocking‖ in comparison to cultural norms they are used to at home. A student’s reaction of feeling ―shocked‖ by a culture’s attributes can manifest itself in mood swings ranging from anger, to depression, to panic. It can be difficult to explain culture shock, especially if you have never been through it. As Bruce La Brack wrote in his article ―The Missing Linkage: The Process of Integrating Orientation and Reentry:

 "Just as you can’t really describe the taste of a hot fudge sundae to someone who has never experienced one, it is difficult to actually convey just how disorienting entering another culture can be to a student without any cross-cultural experience." 

Prepare yourself for some down times; they happen to practically everyone trying to make it in a culture they have never lived in before. Realizing that what you are feeling is natural and that other students are probably experiencing the same thing, will help you to avoid discouragement. Culture shock has its ups and downs, good days and bad—but you will pull through. Many students studying abroad experience times when they feel depressed. However, the overwhelming majority comes away from their experience abroad even stronger and better adapted for living and working with others.

Rhinesmith’s Ten Stages of Adjustment

1. initial anxiety
2. initial elation
3. initial culture shock
4. superficial adjustment
5. depression-frustration
6. acceptance of host culture
7. return anxiety
8. return elation
9. re-entry shock


Culture shock and its effects can occur in a number of stages. However, culture shock is not an exact step-by-step process; every student doesn’t experience culture shock the same way or at the same time. When things are going well, a student may feel comfortable, adjusted and relaxed. When negative or stressful situations spring up, a student often lapses back into feeling depressed rather than happy and well-adjusted. Sometimes a ―normal‖ level of stress that a student can easily deal with at home suddenly turns into a high-stress situation abroad because a student is outside of his/her comfort zone. The following 10 steps of cultural adjustment outlined by Steven Rhinesmith show how culture shock can be like a roller coaster ride of emotions:

Riding the roller coaster of culture shock, a student actually follows a natural pattern of hitting peaks and valleys. The high points of excitement and interest are succeeded by lower points of depression, disorientation, or frustration. Each student will experience these ups and downs in different degrees of intensity and for different lengths of time. The process is necessary in order to make the transition from one culture to another; it helps a student or traveler to balance out and adjust. 

Source: Returning Home, Canadian Bureau for International Education, 1984, p. 7.

Prior to going abroad, students may be excited about new adventures to come. The student arrives and perhaps begins to develop increasing independence as he/she starts to experience a country’s culture. At first, a student’s expectations may be too high. Through close contact with orientation advisors, introduction to housing, and supported group tours, a student may see things almost as a tourist would during the first few weeks abroad.

A student may be heavily comparing and contrasting his/her home culture with the culture abroad. It is common for students to focus on what they see as weaknesses in foreign cultures. Students tend to point out what a foreign culture lacks; this often leads to feelings of frustration over what is ―missing or what can’t be obtained abroad the same way as at home. Students may be challenged on a regular basis by different ways of living abroad (banking, eating, relationships, etc.). Negative feelings and frustrations may reach a level where you begin to recognize you are going through ―culture shock.

As a student gets used to the ways abroad, things that seemed like a ―crisis may now simply be seen as different ways of doing things. Most students gradually adjust their lifestyles to be balanced with a country’s own cultural norms. The cultural traits that once annoyed or bothered a student generally come to be accepted as normal. Students usually begin to understand and appreciate the cultural differences between the U.S. and abroad. However, if significant problems arise, a student may briefly return to the ―frustration stage of culture shock.

As a student begins to adapt more and more, he/she may have a new set of friends, may be traveling more, and may even be dreaming in another language. The culture abroad may now become the ―normal way of living. The challenge here is that the better a student becomes integrated to the ways of a country’s culture, the more difficult it may be to re-adapt to the U.S. upon return home. The U.S. just won’t look the same way it did before leaving to study abroad; a student may see home with new eyes and may also be more critical of U.S. cultural traditions once thought to be ―normal. This is called reverse culture shock. Fear of experiencing reverse culture shock should not deter students from trying to integrate as fully as possible while abroad. No matter how integrated a student becomes while abroad, he or she will probably still be ―shocked by differences noted at home after so much time spent abroad.

Making Friends

While abroad, try to make friends with locals. These people can help explain cultural practices and customs. Learning about a country’s culture firsthand from the locals may make you more tolerant and lessen your culture shock. They can help you with the language and introduce you to things that tourists and vacationers never experience. They also protect you from the worst blows of culture shock that come from the temptation to only hang around with other Americans. Above all, pay attention to the unique viewpoints you bring with you. Just as a foreign culture will offer new insight to you, so too can you offer new insight to locals you meet. Making friends while abroad can help foster the international camaraderie that overseas living is all about.


Stress has many definitions. Stress affects everyone differently. The additional/new kinds of stress you may encounter abroad may lead to anxiety/panic disorders, depression, paranoia, eating disorders, and other phobias. Any mental health challenges you have prior to going abroad may become more severe once you experience the effects of culture shock. Even mental fatigue from constant language immersion and time change may cause the symptoms of culture shock to seem overwhelming. It is okay and normal to get stressed out abroad. Do not keep this stress to yourself. Seek help by speaking to your resident director or send an e-mail to counseling services at UNH.

Worldwide Concern

The symptoms of cultural adjustment a student experiences may be more intense due to the events of September 11th and other worldwide threats. Students, parents and administrators may have additional anxiety; they may also take studying abroad and safety abroad more seriously than they did prior to September 11th. Any added feelings of panic or fear related to the international war against terrorism can directly affect how well a student deals with culture shock. Because terrorism is an international phenomenon, terrorist threats in one part of the world--away from where you are studying--may create a chain reaction with consequences for the country in which you are studying. A threat to one country may be taken as a threat to all.

 It is important to remember not to fear another country’s culture; no culture is wrong or bad—it’s just different from your own. If you let world events turn your culture shock into culture fear, you will not be able to fully adapt or integrate into the culture of the country in which you are studying. Remember, counseling is always a good option; talking to someone can usually help to work through anxiety or fears. Students can also talk to a study abroad staff member about their challenges in cultural adjustment abroad. For some students, the process is relatively simple, others may need counseling to help deal with their mental health challenges and stress abroad.

Prescriptions for Culture Shock

1. Pursue information gathering.

2. Look for logical reasons; make sense of your environment.

3. Don't disparage the host culture.

4. Make friends with a local.

5. Use all the wisdom and patience that you have.

6. Use your sense of humor.

7. Have faith in yourself and your hosts.

8. Don't fall into self-pity.

9. Be active--mentally, physically and socially.

10. Get sufficient rest.

11. Maintain a regular, well-balanced diet.

12. Have a sense of adventure--take reasonable risks.

13. Ask for help.

14. Use your friends and family as an emotional support group


A developmental model of intercultural sensitivity:

This model by noted interculturalist Milton Bennett describes ethnocentricity as the idea that one's own culture is superior, at one end of a spectrum with "ethnorelativism," a successful blending of more than one culture, at the other end. The model has many stages and people often move subconsciously through these stages as their international and intercultural experiences grow.

Ethnocentric states


I. Denial of difference. No recognition of cultural difference because of isolation or Intentional separation. Attribution of deficiency in intelligence or personality to culturally deviant behavior. Tendency to dehumanize outsiders.

II. Defense against difference. Recognition of cultural difference coupled with negative evaluation of most variations from native culture - the greater the difference, the more negative the evaluation. Evolutionary view of cultural development with native culture at the acme. A tendency towards social/cultural proselytizing of "underdeveloped" cultures. III. Reversal. Tendency to see another culture as superior while maligning one's own.

IV. Minimization of difference. Recognition and acceptance of superficial cultural difference such as eating customs, etc., while holding that all human beings are essentially the same. Emphasis on the similarity of people and commonality of basic values. Tendency to define the basis of commonality in ethnocentric terms (i.e. everyone is essentially like us).

V. Physical universalism. Emphasis on commonality of human beings in terms of physiologic similarity. VI. Transcendent universalism. Emphasis of commonality of human beings as subordinate to a particular supernatural being, religion, or social philosophy.

Ethnorelative states

I. Acceptance of difference. Recognition and appreciation of cultural difference in behavior and values. Acceptance of cultural differences as viable alternative solutions to the organization of human existence. Cultural relativity.

II. Adaptation of difference. The development of communication skills that enable Intercultural communication. Effective use of empathy, or frame of reference shifting, to understand and be understood across cultural boundaries

III. Integration of difference. The internalization of bi-cultural or multicultural frames of reference. Maintaining a definition of Identity that is "marginal" to any particular culture.

References: Bennett, Milton J. "A Developmental Approach to Training Intercultural Sensitivity." International Journal of Intercultural Relations. Vol. 10 (2). Summer 1986. ''Towards Ethnorelativism: A Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity." In Paige, Michael (Ed.). Cross-Cultural Orientation: New Conceptualizations and Applications. University Press. Lanham, MD. 1986.