When accustomed to a particular lifestyle at home in the U.S., you may find it challenging to suddenly be thrust into a new culture, where expectations on style, language, and mannerisms, for example, are different. However, with time, patience, and useful advice we provide about culture shock, you will be able to transition more easily to your newly adopted culture.
Your life abroad will most likely be quite different from your current one, and it is important to be aware and expect this before your departure. Research the country and city you will be studying in, as well as the program/employer itself. The more information you know beforehand about the culture, life, and politics abroad, the more prepared you will be for the adjustment phase. When you anticipate the differences, you are much better equipped to handle the adjustments and almost inevitable culture shock.
There is only so much information that can be covered in an orientation program. So here is a list of questions to help you prepare on your own. The more you know about the culture in which you will be immersed — the better your experience abroad will be.
Who are the prominent people in your host country (in politics, religion, the arts, etc.)? What is the traditional folk culture (dance, music, etc.)?
What is the political structure of the country? How long has the structure been in place? What is the history of the relationship between this country and the country you are from?
What is the predominant religion of the country? Is it a state religion? Are there any minority religions? What are the most important religious observances and ceremonies? How does religion tie into daily life?
What is the attitude in this country toward alcohol? What actions and beliefs are considered taboo (or frowned upon)?
What is the predominant spoken language of your host country and are there other languages spoken? What are some common greetings and phrases?
What is the attitude toward divorce? Extra-marital relationships? Pre-marital relations? Is it common for women to work outside the home? Do university students usually live at home?
What is the usual dress for women? For men? What is the appropriate dress for you, as a foreigner?
If you are invited to dinner, should you arrive early? On time? Late? If so, how late? On what occasions would you present (or accept) gifts? What kinds of gifts are appropriate? How do people greet one another? Take leave of one another? What are the social norms surrounding dating? Mixed gender relationships?
Do you tip in that country? Is the price for merchandise fixed? If not, how is bargaining conducted? What is the normal daily schedule for a student? A family? Meal schedule? Are there daytime rest periods? What is the customary time for visiting friends? Are such visits scheduled?
What is the housing market like in the city or country you’re traveling to? Is housing expensive and in high demand? Is it easy to find? Will deposits need to be made up front? Off Campus Housing and Support Services (OCHSS) at Northeastern can assist you in answering these questions as well as help you in the housing search process, what to budget and transportation needs as you prepare to travel abroad. OCHSS also helps to connect students with others who have traveled to a destination before. Visit the International Relocation Resources page on the OCHSS website to learn more!
Ignorance is No Excuse
- Know the rules of conduct — cultural, civil, and criminal — before you go.
- Be respectful. Assume that what is appropriate speech and behavior in the U.S. is also appropriate in your host country.
- Remember you are the guest, so you need to be sensitive to your hosts, not vice versa.
- A good rule of thumb is to carefully observe what the locals do and, when in doubt, ask.
Drugs & Alcohol
- The majority of accidents and deaths overseas involve drugs & alcohol. If you carry or use illegal drugs, you will be subject to the laws and penalties of the country in which you are visiting, and in most cases, they will be more severe than in the U.S. They will not care if you are a U.S. citizen; they will not care if it was just a small amount; and there will be nothing that the U.S. government or your family will be able to do for you. The average jail sentence worldwide for a drug conviction is 7 years, and that does not include the length of time you will sit in jail waiting for a trial.
- Being abroad, you will be less able to discern the safety of your environment and the trustworthiness of the people around you. This makes you even more susceptible to problems, such as theft and assault, when under the influence.
- Always be aware of your surroundings and use the street-smart senses you have developed by living in Boston.
- Always keep your valuables (passport, money, credit card) in a safe place when at school and wear them in a money belt when touring.
- Going to a political “hot spot” may sound exciting in the abstract, but it is not worth your life.
- Pay attention to U.S. travel advisories and school warnings. They are policy for a reason.
- Avoid demonstrations. What appears peaceful can suddenly change into a dangerous situation, and you could become caught in the middle.
- When living in a different culture, you can’t expect that relations between genders will follow American traditions and rules.
- Be advised that men from other cultures may mistake friendliness for romantic interest. In many other cultures, it is acceptable for men to approach women, even touch them, without permission — especially if the woman is “western.” Some ways to avoid this are by dressing conservatively or adopting local dressing habits. Avoid walking alone or meeting a person you do not know well in a non-public place.
- Do not travel alone. In some countries, an unaccompanied woman is an open invitation.
- Safety video suggestion.
- Learn the local traffic customs and signs. Traffic accidents are actually the number one cause of injury and death among international travelers.
- Do not operate a motor vehicle of any kind while abroad.
- Be cautious even when using public transportation, and never get in a vehicle you suspect will not safely make it to your destination. Avoid overnight transport, which in many countries has become a target for crime.
- Do not hitchhike.
Legal Rights & Issues
- The best advice is to know and obey the laws of your host school and country.
- Should you find yourself in legal difficulty, contact your program coordinator or a consular officer immediately. They cannot serve as your legal counsel but they can provide you with a list of local attorneys who speak English, advise you of your rights under local laws, ensure that you are held under humane conditions, and verify that you are treated fairly under local law.
- Under international law, you have the right to talk to the U.S. consul if you are detained. If you are denied this right, be persistent and try to get someone else to contact the consulate.
- Legal protections, taken for granted in the U.S., are nonexistent in some other countries. You may be “presumed guilty until proven innocent,” denied bail, and detained until trial.
Culture Shock is the loss of emotional equilibrium that people suffer when moved from an environment where they have learned to function easily to an unfamiliar one that is less easily negotiated. The effects of culture shock may range from mild uneasiness or temporary homesickness to acute unhappiness or, even in extreme cases, psychological panic. Irritability, hypersensitivity, and loss of perspective are common symptoms.
Most experts in intercultural communication agree that the basic cause of culture shock is the abrupt loss of the familiar, which in turn causes a sense of isolation and diminished self- importance. It is brought on by the loss of understood signs of social intercourse. These signs include numerous ways in which we orient ourselves to the situation of daily life: when to shake hands, what to say when we meet people, when to take statements seriously, how to know someone is joking, and how to interpret facial expressions and body language.
Often, when a person takes up residence in a foreign country there is a period of excitement and exhilaration when everything seems new and challenging and fascinating. There may appear to be more similarities than differences. When this emotional high tapers off, a downward trend may be experienced. The newcomer may be greatly affected by subtle differences in language, housing, money, transportation, food, and recreation, just to name a few. The result may be problems, including physical ailments, not usually experienced back home.
Underlying these difficulties is the uncomfortable feeling of not really belonging, of being an outsider. If the newcomer is sensitive to these feelings, several reactions may occur:
- Hostility toward the new environment.
- Perceiving the native people as being insensitive.
- Withdrawing from his or her surroundings or becoming unduly suspicious of others.
- Overreacting to minor frustrations, delays, or inconveniences with irritation or anger out of proportion to the cause.
- Antagonistic behavior resulting in others avoiding the newcomer.
A natural defense mechanism common to students abroad is spending time exclusively with people from his or her own country. An anxiety prone newcomer may sling to the need for predictability. This phenomenon leads to the observation of natives in terms of stereotypes and results in an unfair appraisal of the new culture. It also prevents real immersion and learning of the new culture.
It is possible to shorten the duration of culture shock and/or minimize its impact. The following suggestions may help:
- Be aware that culture shock exists and will probably affect you one way or another, but it doesn’t last forever.
- Accept the idea that, while it may be somewhat painful, culture shock can be a very valuable experience, a mind-stretching process that will leave you with broader perspectives, deeper insight into yourself, and a wider tolerance for other people.
- When you become thoroughly disenchanted with your surroundings, try to remember that the problem isn’t so much with them as it is in you.
Gestures that we use in our everyday life can be easily misinterpreted abroad. For example, the simple “OK” gesture (forming a circle with your thumb and index finger) means “screw you” in Germany and “zero” or “worthless” in France. Giving someone the “thumbs up” may be interpreted as telling someone “up yours.” In Australia, if you flash the “V” “peace” symbol with your palm facing toward you, you’re telling someone to “screw you.” To play it safe, don’t use gestures until you are sure what they mean.
In addition, refrain from using the bone-crushing handshake that is favored in the U.S. It may be interpreted as a sign of aggression. Nodding your head to say “yes” and shaking your head to say “no” may mean the exact opposite in your host country. In the U.S., it is respectful to look someone directly in the eye; however, in other parts of the world, it is impolite and disrespectful. Physical contact may or may not be appreciated or understood. A pat on the back or a hug may make natives of your host country embarrassed or uncomfortable.
At first, let your hosts take the lead in “small talk.” There may be differences in what are acceptable topics. For example, while Americans may find it normal to talk about themselves, your hosts may view that as being too personal. Every culture has a different set of greetings, both verbal and nonverbal. Also, all cultures have certain unspoken rules defining how far away to stand or sit while conversing, what the appropriate volume level for a conversation, and what to do when leaving.
Speaking a Different Language
If you’re studying in a country where your mother tongue is not the native language, don’t be afraid to practice your new language. Keep the following suggestions in mind. Do not use slang. It could be misinterpreted if you use it in the wrong context, or it may translate into nonsense. Be aware of the differences between the “familiar” and the “polite” form, it can be important in other languages. Also, do not make rude comments in English assuming that those within hearing distance will not understand. Remember that English is a widely spoken language, and people often understand it even if they will not speak it with you.
There are some circumstances in which haggling over prices is appropriate and even expected, but this is not always true. If you have any doubts, there is a simple test you can use. Politely indicate that you like the item(s) very much, but that the price is more than you intended to pay. If the merchant wishes to bargain, this will give him or her an opening to offer you the product at a lower price. If, however, it is not that kind of establishment, you can politely end the conversation. Places like modern supermarkets, chain stores, or electronic stores will not expect you to try and bargain prices, so keep that in mind when you are shopping.
Please be tactful and discreet. If you want to photograph a person, it is best to politely ask their permission. Some cultures vehemently oppose taking pictures of people. Others expect compensation (money) for the privilege. In general, do not take pictures of politicians, soldiers, or military buildings unless you know it to be acceptable (at the “Changing of the guard” outside Buckingham Palace in London, for example). Stories abound of students having their film or camera confiscated, or worse.