Adjusting to a New Culture
- “Culture Shock”/Cultural Adjustment
- Fitting In
- Discrimination Abroad
- LGBT Students Abroad
- A Special Note to Women
- Readjusting to Princeton
It can be easy to believe one understands a foreign culture even without having directly experienced it. Images in the media and information gleaned from books or encounters with natives can provide the illusion of real knowledge. Living in a culture and having to come to terms with its conventions and customs is a different matter entirely. Some cultural differences are evident (e.g., language, religion, political organization, etc.). Others can be so subtle that becoming aware of them can be a complex process. A first-time visitor may remain uncomfortable and off balance for quite some time.
In adjusting to your new environment, you will have to deal not only with real differences, but also with perceived differences. Keep in mind that people of other cultures are just as adept at stereotyping Americans as Americans are at stereotyping them—and the results are not always complimentary.
The best way to learn about local social customs is to inquire politely. Expect things to be different overseas. One of the basic reasons for you to go abroad is to develop an appreciation for the people and customs of other cultures. Anyone who goes overseas demanding that everything be the same as what he or she is accustomed is probably better served by staying at home. Be flexible and receptive in dealing with differences, and you will find your own life experiences enriched. An open mind, sense of humor, and a full dose of patience will serve you well in making a successful adjustment.
“Culture Shock”/Cultural Adjustment
Just as an athlete cannot get in shape without going through a sometimes uncomfortable conditioning stage, so you cannot fully appreciate cultural differences without first going through some stages of adjustment. It is possible that your initial reaction to life abroad will be euphoria, sparked by a sense of novelty and adventure. It is also possible that the euphoria will give way to a less pleasant emotion, as you try to make your way through an unfamiliar culture. You may realize that you are unable to follow your usual routines. Minor problems may seem like major crises. You may feel anxious. You may become depressed.
These symptoms are often referred to as “culture shock,” although this is somewhat of a misnomer. It is important to realize that these are perfectly normal responses to a new environment and, in fact, can be seen as a sign that you are truly immersing into a new culture rather than remaining in a U.S. “bubble.” There is no one-size-fits-all way of dealing with the challenges of this adjustment period, although the more you understand it, the more effectively you can move past it and use it as a way to deepen your immersion. People who are living, working, and/or studying abroad in an unfamiliar location face many of the same issues that people face making other life transitions.
Techniques for adjusting to a new culture include learning as much as possible about the host country prior to departure, looking for the reasons things are done or perceived differently, meeting local people and finding friends with whom you can discuss your reactions, reading and speaking the local language, and familiarizing yourself with local viewpoints and customs. You should emerge from the experience with the ability to function in two or more cultures with confidence.
Some of the issues you may want to familiarize yourself with about your host country are traditions or practices related to appropriate dress, food, table manners, greeting, gift giving, hygiene, punctuality, religion, tipping, transportation, physical contact, and dating.
Expect to make mistakes. There is no way to learn everything about a host culture ahead of time. Because social customs differ greatly from one country to another, it is impossible to give guidelines that are universally applicable.
Speaking the language: Most people will appreciate your efforts to communicate in their native language. Do not be intimidated even if your command of the language is limited.
Politeness: In many countries, social encounters are governed by a code of conduct that requires a greater degree of formality than in the U.S. Be aware of the differences between the “familiar” and the “polite” forms of address (and use them properly). Become familiar with the appropriate expressions of gratitude in response to your hosts’ hospitality and be prepared to offer a formal greeting to whomever you meet in your day-to-day activities.
Physical contact: When establishing social relationships, be aware of the level of familiarity that you should adopt. Physical contact, for example, may not be appreciated or understood by someone unfamiliar with the American idea of camaraderie; a cheerful pat on the back or a warm hug may be uncomfortable. All cultures have social space norms: how far away to stand when conversing, how to shake hands or wave farewell. You should learn the local customs as quickly as you can. Learning customs related to boundaries and personal space in an unfamiliar culture also plays an important role in personal safety.
Relationships: What may be considered normal relations between people of the opposite sex in the U.S. may be interpreted very differently by the host culture. Both men and women should talk to locals to understand customs as they pertain to acceptable dress and other prevailing social mores.
Personal questions: Let your hosts take the lead when engaging in “small talk.” While Americans often find it easy to talk about themselves, in some countries your hosts may view such discussion as impolite.
Drinking and drunkenness: Be extremely sensitive to others’ attitudes and feelings when it comes to drinking. You may find that your hosts enjoy social drinking as much as any American, but they might not look upon drunkenness as either amusing or indeed tolerable.
Humor: While each country has its own brand of wit and humor, few cultures appreciate the kind of “kidding” to which Americans are accustomed. Kidding comments, even when well intentioned, can be interpreted as unfriendly.
Price bargaining: Bargaining over prices is sometimes not only appropriate but expected. At other times, it is inappropriate. If you misread the situation, you may find that you have insulted the merchant. You can test the waters by politely indicating that you like the product, but that the price is more than you had anticipated spending. If the merchant wishes to bargain, he or she now has an opening to lower his/her offer. If bargaining is not part of standard business practice, you can simply (and politely) terminate the conversation.
People you encounter abroad may judge you based on your race, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, age, religion, gender, or physical ability—both in ways you might expect based on previous experiences and in completely unexpected ways. Even if you are not in the minority at home, you might be in your host culture. You can also expect to encounter anti-Americanism in some parts of the world. Try not to let the possibility of discrimination prevent you from experiencing the many benefits of travel abroad.
No two people traveling abroad ever have the same experience, even in the same program and country. Some students have reported feeling exhilarated by being outside the American context; others have experienced varying degrees of innocent curiosity and sometimes familiar as well as new types of ostracism or discrimination. The nature of the discrimination you may experience often has to do with the ethnic/racial make-up of the host country as well as cultural norms and attitudes related to gender, religion, and sexual orientation.
You may discover that what first seems like discrimination is actually curiosity. People may stare at you or ask questions that you find insensitive. In many parts of the world, a person’s only connection with Americans and certain cultural groups comes from what they see on TV or in movies, which can lead to misimpressions (often strongly held).
While you may encounter situations that are difficult to deal with, educating yourself about the host culture and thinking through scenarios you might encounter ahead of time will better prepare you to deal with life abroad. Talking with students on campus who have spent time abroad can be helpful in terms of establishing what the context will be like abroad and how to prepare for it.
LGBT Students Abroad
It is important to be aware of the laws pertaining to homosexuality in other countries, as well as the prevailing attitudes toward gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered persons. The ILGA website is a good resource for information: ilga.org. Some countries are more liberal on these matters than the U.S. and some less. Whatever the general rule, there will always be pockets of difference and personal idiosyncrasies. You should certainly talk with other students who have been where you will be.
At Princeton, the LGBT Center is a resource (www.princeton.edu/lgbt). You may also consult the website of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (www.iglhrc.org) and the NAFSA: Association of International Educators Rainbow Special Interest Group (www.indiana.edu/~overseas/lesbigay).
A Special Note to Women
Many women from campus environments in the U.S. have a hard time adjusting to attitudes they encounter abroad in both public and private interactions between men and women. Perhaps the greatest challenge to U.S. women abroad stems from their tendency to be independent and to hold the belief that women may go where men go, do what men do, and speak as men do.
The issue of sexual harassment can become a major stress factor for women and can greatly affect their experience abroad. Students may find that what is considered sexual harassment in the U.S. is socially acceptable behavior in other countries. In some countries, it is not uncommon for women to be verbally and loudly appraised, honked at, and aggressively addressed in other ways. Local women, who often get the same treatment, have usually learned to ignore it. Harassing behavior is almost always annoying but only occasionally develops into a dangerous situation. Maintain your cool and your personal boundaries.
Although it may seem rude to be unfriendly to a stranger, creating boundaries to protect yourself is important. Use facial expressions, body language, and a firm voice to fend off unwanted attention. Make sure your body language is congruent with your words—if you say no with a smile, your words lose their force. Do not be coerced into backing down. Stick to your answer. Although being culturally sensitive and respectful is an important element of your experience abroad, if something feels inappropriate or makes you uneasy, get yourself out of the situation.
If harassment toward you causes increased anxiety or anger, you should seek assistance. Responding aggressively out of exasperation is understandable, but can put you at risk. International SOS can assist you in identifying local resources.
Be careful about messages you may unintentionally communicate. In some cultures, American women are seen as “liberated,” and the misunderstandings based on this image can lead to difficult and unpleasant experiences. Eye contact or a smile at someone passing in the street may result in unexpected invitations.
Uncomfortable situations can usually be avoided by taking precautions. Dress conservatively (information about appropriate clothing for women travelers in various countries can be found at www.journeywoman.com). Do not walk alone late at night or in questionable neighborhoods.
You will have to learn the unwritten rules about what you can and cannot do abroad. Prepare yourself by learning about the gender roles and assumptions in your host country. You may not agree with some of the practices you find, but you should try to abide by them while in that country. Women can provide support for each other, and returning students suggest that you get together several times early in your stay to talk about how to deal with unwanted attention and other gender-related issues. Above all, try to maintain the perspective that these challenging experiences are part of understanding another culture, which is one of the reasons you have traveled abroad.
Readjusting to Princeton
You may face a period of adjustment after returning to campus. Returning to your home environment can often be more difficult than traveling to a different country because you don’t expect to have any issues returning “home.” If you integrated yourself successfully into your host culture you may feel torn about leaving. You may be eager to return home but also reluctant to leave behind important relationships you established while abroad.
As you resume your routines, you may recognize that you have changed as a result of your overseas experience. This change is a healthy and expected result, but your intellectual and/or personal growth may mean that you have some difficulty fitting into your old patterns of behavior. For example, you may be disappointed with friends who seem uninterested in accounts of your overseas experiences. You may find that life at home is restrictive compared with what you enjoyed abroad. While you may be eager to be home again, you may also hesitate over resuming all the rhythms of your former life.
After an initial period of dislocation, most students who have spent time abroad readjust to American academic and social life without difficulty. The experience of learning and living in a different cultural environment often has a confidence-building effect.