Cultural Adjustment

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Why do I need to know about cultural adjustment?

The information below is intended to help you understand yourself and others during cultural adjustment. Whether you have come to IHOPU from another country, a different region of the US, or from within an American subculture, it takes time to adjust to life in a new place. Visit the staff of International Student Services any time you have questions, would like prayer, or would like to share your experiences. The office is located in the main administration area.

The experience of living in a new environment is a wonderful learning opportunity. Not only do you get to explore a new place and meet new people, you can also learn a lot about yourself and about other people’s perspectives. Like any other experience, change is an opportunity to grow closer to God.

As you prepare to move and settle in, you may get advice from people about preparing for “culture shock.” This term may sound alarming, but it is simply a term for cultural adjustment; it describes the emotions and experiences people often go through when they move to a completely new environment.

For some, the experience of entering a new cultural environment requires very little adjustment, but for others, it can be somewhat disorienting. The degree of adjustment depends on many factors:

  • The degree of difference between your culture of origin and your new environment.
  • The degree to which people in your new environment understand cultures besides their own and the challenges of adjusting.
  • The level of diversity in your new environment.
  • How well different cultural groups in your new environment are integrated and interact with one another.
  • Whether you allow yourself time to adjust.
  • How much support you are offered or look for when you arrive in a new environment.

Loss of familiar signals and symbols

It is normal to experience some stress when entering a new culture. It is difficult to feel that you do not know how to do simple things, that you no longer know what is appropriate or inappropriate, and—if you are conversing in a language you are not fluent in—that you are not able to express yourself as clearly.

This comes from the sudden loss of familiar signs and symbols you normally use to relate with people. On an unconscious level, we rely on many gestures, signals, and symbolic cues to navigate through everyday situations. For example, when meeting new people, how do you determine whether you should shake hands? How do you choose what to say? Or again, when in conversation, how do you know when to take a statement seriously or not?

The signals and cues people rely on may be gestures, facial expressions, appearance, customs, or other behavior. They are as much a part of a culture as the language spoken, and most people learn them as they do their native language: naturally, as they grow up.

When a person enters a new cultural environment, all or most of these familiar signs are suddenly missing or insignificant; they may even have an entirely different meaning. This can be amusing, but it can also be a source of some frustration and embarrassment. Some people feel as though they have suddenly been transported back to the experience of childhood because they have so much to learn.

Stages of cultural adjustment

The phrases below illustrate how some people feel at each of four general stages of cultural adjustment. Perhaps you may identify with some of them.

Stage 1: Honeymoon

  • Everything is new and exciting.
  • You are having a wonderful time and are fascinated by all the new things you are experiencing.
  • You find differences amusing, interesting, and fun.

Stage 2: Culture Shock

  • You soon discover there are many differences in this new environment and you are not sure how to deal with them.
  • You did not think this new environment would be like this. You do not like this place as much as you thought you would.
  • Communication is more difficult than you expected it would be, and people do not respond in the ways you would expect them to. Miscommunication occurs often.
  • Sometimes you feel impatient, angry, homesick, or sad without fully being able to account for the reason.
  • You feel that your reactions are disproportionate to the actual situations you face.
  • You feel incompetent and rejected, or wonder if people around you view you as incapable or weak. This frustrates you. You are confused about how to present yourself.
  • People do not seem to understand your difficulties; they seem insensitive and unsympathetic.

Stage 3: Adjustment

  • You find ways to approach problems and differences that lower your level of stress.
  • You feel self-confident—more like your “old self.”
  • As you gain understanding, you discover the reasons and background behind many of the differences around you.
  • While you still struggle with frustration, you are sometimes able to see the funny side of things; you find yourself laughing at yourself, your mistakes, and interactions with other people.
  • You don’t feel as lost anymore.
  • Your expectations of the way things are said and done in your new environment are now generally met.
  • You experience a desire to “belong.”

Stage 4: Acceptance

  • You have come to see what used to seem like strange customs as just different ways of doing things.
  • You function in your new environment without anxiety or strain.
  • You are comfortable with your place in the community; you may even feel that you belong.
  • When you leave for good, you miss the environment and the people you got to know.

Signs of cultural adjustment

The human body, heart, and mind find ways of expressing the stress you are under while you are in cultural transition. Sometimes these signs of stress are unexpected, or seemingly unrelated. The important thing to remember is that they are all normal, although you are not likely to experience more than a few, and they will all lessen as you settle in. This list is not meant to alarm you, but rather to let you know that if you should experience any of these, they may simply be related to stress and will disappear as you adjust. These may include:

  • Unusual need for sleep
  • Aches and pains; skin irritation; allergies—sometimes ones that are new to you
  • Desire to eat more—or less—than normal
  • Headaches or upset stomach
  • Feeling hot or cold all the time
  • Low spirits; feelings of sadness or loneliness
  • Feeling vulnerable or helpless
  • Anger, resentment, irritability—especially in situations you would usually be able to cope with graciously
  • Indecision about whether to change/adapt and/or how much
  • Lack of confidence—whether a fear of trying new things or fear of doing something you typically manage just fine
  • Feelings of inadequacy or insecurity
  • Feelings of being lost, overlooked, or misunderstood
  • Homesickness
  • Difficulty concentrating on work or study
  • Marital or relational stress—unusual levels of conflict or need for affirmation
  • Exaggerated cleanliness

Ways to thrive

Navigating change with confidence and grace requires effort. Here are some things to bear in mind.

  • Be as patient with yourself as you can. No matter how strong you are or how much you prepare for change, it always takes time to adjust. Remember that no one is at their best when in an unfamiliar situation.
  • Remind yourself often that you won’t always feel this way.
  • Remind yourself—or ask others to remind you—of the kind of person you are at your best, and of your gifts and abilities. You are still that same person even if you are temporarily feeling unsettled or inadequate.
  • While it is important to build relationships with people who claim your new environment as their home culture, it is helpful to get to know other people who share your experience of living in a new cultural environment. Even if their home culture is very different from yours, they may share your feelings and experiences. Exchanging stories with them will likely encourage you. You may even gain some helpful insights.
  • Having stated the importance of making friends with others who share your experience of cultural change, make sure not to use these relationships to insulate yourself from people in your new environment. You do not need to have international or cultural experience in common with someone to make a new friend.
  • Consider that, unlike you, most of the people you will meet have not had much interaction with a different culture. They may never have even left the US, and even if they have, their time in other countries may well have been short. While you cannot force others to embrace the opportunity to learn about your culture, you do yourself a tremendous favor by choosing to learn about theirs. Read about American culture »
  • Find people you feel comfortable with and choose to share your feelings and experiences with them even if you do not feel like it. You need support more than you need to protect yourself.
  • Maintain a sense of humor and try to see the funny side of unfamiliar situations.
  • Try to get regular exercise, eat a nutritious diet, and spend time outside, getting sunshine. All of these things help to decrease stress and keep you healthy.

Read about American culture »