Culture & Culture Shock

See our question and answer session with the Swinburne University of Technology to learn more about Australian culture. 

I. Culture Shock

Culture shock is defined as the lack of direction, the feeling of not knowing what to do or how to do things in a new environment, and not knowing what is appropriate or inappropriate. The feeling of culture shock generally sets in after the first few weeks of coming to a new place.

Symptoms of Culture Shock

  • Comparisons - Unwarranted criticism of the culture and people
  • Constant complaints about the climate
  • Heightened irritability
  • Preoccupation with returning home
  • Continual offering of excuses for staying indoors
  • Utopian ideas concerning one's previous culture
  • Continuous concern about the purity of water and food
  • Refusal to learn the language
  • Preoccupation about being robbed or cheated
  • Pressing desire to talk with people who "really make sense."

There are 4 Stages of Culture Shock:

Honeymoon Stage

This is usually during your first few days or weeks.  You experience emotions like excitement, euphoria, anticipation, and eagerness. Everything and everyone is new and exciting.


Frustration Stage

The frustration stage can result in the following symptoms:

  • Sleep difficulty
  • Sadness
  • Homesickness
  • Exhaustion
  • Increased worry
  • A desire to withdraw
  • Unexplained crying
  • Overeating

If you experience these feelings, it is important to talk to an staff member so they can help you with this transition.  It is likely that staff member have experienced the same adjustment as they have been abroad before. 

Adjustment Stage

During the adjustment stage, you become more familiar and comfortable with the culture, people, food and language of your host country.  You will likely feel less homesick and have made friends that you can rely on for support.  You will better handle the situations you previously found frustrating 

Acceptance Stage

You’ll be able to compare the good and bad of your host country with the good and bad of your home country.  You feel less like a foreigner and more like your host country is your second home.  You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you can live successfully in two cultures; this is a huge milestone!


Kangaroo Australia students get to know some of the local wildlife.

Cultural Adjustment Curve

Some people choose to describe the stages of culture shock and adjustment.  While this is helpful, it is important to know that you may have some bad days that cause you to revert and that is fine.  You may also notice that you do not progress from stage 1 to 2, but rather go back and forth between stages.  This is a normal process.

Culture Curve

The above chart shows the stages that culture shock is often categorized into at different points of time during the experience (Schneider, Barsoux, 2003, p.188).

How to Deal With Culture Shock

These are a few strategies that you can implement to help you cope with the stress of culture shock.  Remember, they are easier said than done, so really push yourself to act on these.

  • Realize that this is a normal process
  • Don’t be quick to judge – keep an open mind
  • Set some goals for yourself and evaluate your progress
  • Get involved in activities
  • Talk to your Site Director, Assistant Site Director, or International Student Advisors – they can help!
  • Make an appointment to see an on-site mental health professional
  • Ask questions
  • Develop a hobby
  • Don’t compare
  • Be patient
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously
  • Exercise
  • Treat yourself to your “must haves” from a specialty market
  • Allow yourself to feel sad about the things that you have left behind: your family, your friends, etc.
  • Find ways to live with the things that don't satisfy you 100%

II. Reverse Culture Shock

Not only may students experience culture shock while living in a foreign country, but they may also experience what is called "reverse culture shock." Reverse culture shock occurs when students return to their home country after having been away for an extended period of time. Symptoms of reverse culture shock resemble those of culture shock. See the reverse culture shock packet for more information on the stages, symptoms, coping techniques. 

III. Concerns of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Participants

It is important to be aware of laws and attitudes towards LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered) issues when traveling abroad as there are varying cultural norms around LGBT issues globally.  Here are a few resources available related to LGBT students and their international experience.

Northeastern LGBTQA Resources Center

Northeastern University has a LGBTQA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Questioning, and Ally) community resources center with information regarding resources on-campus as well as online.

NAFSA’s Rainbow Special Interest Group

The Rainbow Special Interest Group (SIG) of the National Association of Foreign Student Advisors (NAFSA) has great resources for students who are studying abroad. 

LGBT Students and Study Abroad – downloadable PDF

Ithaca College has created a downloadable guide for LGBT students studying abroad. 

LGBT Resources for Study Abroad – UC Riverside

UC Riverside has created a resource center for LGBT students and topics in study abroad.