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Cultural Adjustment

What is cultural adjustment?

Finding yourself in the midst of an unfamiliar culture can be exciting. Everything around you is new and different: language, climate, clothing, food . . . but other differences are not as noticeable at first.

  • How people are expected to interact at home and in public
  • How to interpret body language and non-verbal cues
  • Even what's considered humorous and what's not . . .

You may sometimes feel confused by cultural patterns with which you are unfamiliar. Adjusting to all of your new environment's cues, both obvious and subtle, can leave you with feelings of uncertainty, frustration, and anxiety.

It helps to remember that you're not alone. Experiencing such stresses is a normal part of the cultural adjustment process, which every study abroad student goes through to some extent. The best strategy is to:

  • Educate yourself about the host culture prior to departure to minimize surprises
  • Learn about and recognize the symptoms of cultural adjustment
  • Practice healthy methods of processing your new experiences

Cross cultural adjustment cycle

Your personal adjustment process will vary according to your  background knowledge of the host culture, the length of your program, the level of immersion, and your own experiences.

Each stage in the process is characterized by "symptoms," or outward and inward signs and behaviors. Many people describe the cultural adjustment process as a series of ups and downs:

Image: cultural adjustment phases: application anxiety, honeymoon period, culture shock, initial adjustment, mental isolation, acceptance and integration, return anxiety, re-entry shock, re-integration


  • Honeymoon period: Initially, you will probably be fascinated and excited by everything new. Usually, visitors are at first overjoyed to be in a new culture.
  • Culture shock: You are immersed in new problems: housing, transportation, food, language and new friends. Fatigue may result from continuously trying to comprehend and use the second language. You may wonder, "Why did I come here?” Find tips for dealing with culture shock.
  • Initial adjustment: Everyday activities such as housing and going to school are no longer major problems. Although you may not yet be perfectly fluent in the language spoken, basic ideas and feelings in the second language can be expressed.
  • Mental isolation: You have been away from your family and good friends for a long period of time and may feel lonely. Many still feel they cannot express themselves as well as they can in their native language. Frustrations and sometimes a loss of self-confidence result. Some individuals remain at this stage.
  • Acceptance and integration: You have established a routine (e.g., work, school, social life). You have accepted the habits, customs, foods and characteristics of the people in the new culture. You feel comfortable with friends, associates, and the language of the country.
  • Return anxiety, re-entry shock, and re-integration: Surprisingly, re-entry shock (also known as reverse culture shock) can be more difficult than the initial culture shock of traveling abroad. Learn more about re-adjusting to life back home.

Resource material: The International Services Office, The George Washington University, Washington D.C. (Original source unknown.)

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