When you step off the plane, your first thought might be to turn around and hop back on the 20,000-ton mechanical bird just brought you to this strange land. Some of you may feel a sense of great excitement, of eagerness to "begin," whatever that might mean to you. And for a handful of you, returning to a place where you've been before and stepping off the plane might bring a sense of homecoming. As time goes by and you settle into your routine, register for classes, begin making friends, and explore the area you now call home, you will be going through many emotional, psychological and possibly physical changes. This is what is known as "cultural adjustment" or "cultural adaptation." You cannot avoid these changes, but as long as you recognize them when they occur, you will be better prepared to deal with their consequences.

Coping Skills for Transitions

When preparing to go overseas, it might be helpful to think of previous transitions in your life. Sometimes the newness of a situation can feel overwhelming and your emotional response may be very intense and perhaps even scary. Hence, to remember that in the past you have lived through similar experiences and in spite of your initial reaction you were able to adjust eventually, can be comforting. Also, it may be better to share your reaction with someone despite your possible worry that no one would understand. Chances are that when you keep a fear locked up inside you it grows in intensity and becomes pervasive. To find a way to express your concerns and reactions to someone provides relief and possibly a new perspective. Remind yourself that your thoughts are important whether they are shared by others or not. Allow yourself to listen to your feelings, thoughts and reactions rather than pushing them down or medicating yourself with alcohol, drugs, food, etc. You might gain insights, which may lead to different ways of dealing with your experience. Going abroad is not only a chance to learn about a new culture; it also provides the opportunity for you to get to know yourself better.

Remember, it is generally helpful to:

  1. Acknowledge your thoughts, feelings and reactions (at least internally) without making a judgment: I am really feeling sad; I am angry, scared; I am feeling inadequate, etc.
  2. Ask yourself: What might be going on for me? What does this situation remind me of? Invite your thoughts to go wherever they want to in order to get as much awareness and insight as possible. Sometimes a person experiences strong emotions that seem like an overreaction; it might be possible that the present circumstances provoke an emotional memory of a previously stressful or painful situation. To recognize this connection might allow you to have a better understanding of your present situation. If you worry about something excessively (obsess) and/or engage in compulsive obsessing, what might be the real worry or fear that gets masked by your conscious, obsessive thoughts?
  3. Reassure yourself that whatever you think or feel is all right even if it is negative; there is a difference between thinking and feeling something and acting it out which may not be healthy, constructive or acceptable. Thoughts and feelings do NOT equal actions. Ask yourself, given your feelings and thoughts, what would be helpful right now? What might you be able to do to comfort yourself and/or to deal with the situation constructively.
  4. Remember previous adjustments, e.g., when you first moved away from home. Imagine what you felt like when you were, for the first time alone in your room and had to face a day on your own. Note your feelings and thoughts. How did you deal with it; what was comforting to you?
  5. How do you generally deal with stress? What else could you do to soothe and take care of yourself? (e.g., make a list of activities)?
  6. Do you ever use drugs, alcohol or food to help yourself feel better? If so, what could you do instead?

The Importance of Defining "Culture"

It is difficult to begin a discussion on cultural adjustment without first defining the word "culture" and what makes culture. American Heritage Dictionary defines culture as "the arts, beliefs, customs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought created by a people or group at a particular time." If you were to ask several different people what they thought culture meant, they might come up with things such as:

  • manners and customs
  • beliefs and ideas
  • ceremonies and rituals
  • laws (written and unwritten)
  • ideas and thought patterns
  • language
  • arts and artifacts
  • social institutions
  • religious beliefs
  • myths and legends
  • knowledge
  • values and morals
  • concept of self
  • accepted ways of behaving

Everyone has a personal culture. Yours may be your preference for cowboy boots over sneakers, or rap music over classical. In short, there is no one correct list of components of culture, but at least you can get a sense of what makes up culture.

The Implications of Cultural Adjustment

As described in the beginning, cultural adjustment is a continuous, ongoing process. It never stops, and it varies from one individual to another and from one culture to another. The end process nearly always results in both a change in the individual and a change in the individual's view of the local setting. Your own personal adjustment process may require you to confront not only differences in your new culture but it may also force you to take a good look at your own cultural values and practices.

The concept of adjustment implies change. In your case, you will be moving from your "U.S. American" culture to one overseas. The nature of your adjustment depends on the nature of the differences between your original culture and the new one and on the objectives you seek to complete in the new culture. In developing new patterns of coping with your new environment, you may experience varying degrees of disorientation and discomfort. This is called "culture shock."

In adjusting to your study abroad environment, you will have to deal with real as well as perceived cultural differences. Keep in mind that people of other cultures are just as adept at stereotyping the U.S. American as we are at stereotyping them, and the results are not always complimentary.

The following, for example, are a few of the qualities (some positive, some negative) that others frequently associate with the "typical" U.S. American:

  • outgoing and friendly
  • informal
  • loud
  • rude
  • boastful
  • immature
  • hardworking
  • extravagant
  • wasteful
  • sure to have all answers
  • lacking in class consciousness
  • disrespectful of authority
  • racially prejudiced
  • ignorant of other countries
  • wealthy
  • generous
  • always in a hurry
  • promiscuous
  • politically naïve

While a stereotype might have some grain of truth, it is obvious when we consider individual differences that not every U.S. American fits this description. Keep in mind that this same thing is true about your hosts vis-à-vis your own preconceptions. Remember that you are an ambassador from OSU and the United States. Avoid falling into any of the "ugly American" categories.

Know What to Expect

Anticipating future events and possibilities makes it easier to deal with them when they happen. For example, it helps to anticipate your initial departure and plan ways to maintain relationships with people at home while you are away. Be sure to allow ample time to say goodbye to all the people who are important to you and plan ways to keep in touch.

Generations of students have found that they go through a predictable series of stages as they adjust to living abroad. At first, although the new situation is a bit confusing, most students also find it to be exhilarating, a time of new experiences, sights, sounds and activities. With so much to learn and absorb in the new culture, the initial period of settling in often seems like an adventure. During this time, you will tend to look for and identify similarities between your home culture and your host culture. You will find that people really are friendly and helpful. There will be many opportunities to meet people in your community, and you should take advantage of these opportunities.

Intercultural Communication

One of the major contributors to unease in a new situation is communication difference. You will bring your own communication habits, both verbal and nonverbal, that sometimes do not transcend cultural limits. Studies of intercultural communication have shown that the amount of time and energy needed for simple communication increases as cultural differences increase.

You should try and recognize that other cultures may use different verbal and nonverbal communication methods. Body language, the use of "personal space" when talking, and other nonverbal communication can be very different than what you are used to in the United States. Likewise, some cultures are not nearly as frank, sarcastic or confrontational when discussing certain topics. Sometimes things are implied in conversation but not voiced. It is important to remember that there are differences in communication styles.

Imposition of Personal Values

Our tendency to impose our own values and assumptions onto people in other cultures can inhibit cross-cultural understanding. While you are abroad you should avoid making definitive, prejudicial judgments that may result from your own cultural responses.

Be open-minded and receptive to different ideas, concepts and behaviors. A certain amount of "cultural self-analysis" might reveal some things about your own motivations and value system. Such knowledge can contribute to increased communication skills, increased acceptance and understanding of others, and more productive interaction.

13 Values Americans Live By:
Generalizations About the U.S. American Culture

The generalizations given below are derived from observations by L. Robert Kohl (author of the Survival Kit for Overseas Living) of mainstream, European-American culture. Dr. Kohl's list of "Thirteen Values Americans Live By" has its historical roots in the European Protestant tradition. These values do not apply to all people in the United States, and may very well not reflect you own values. However, you may find the list useful as you try to understand why others view Americans as they do.

The "American Way" is one way of doing things. In order to understand other ways of doing and knowing, it is essential to understand your own values and assumptions. This is important because we evaluate every action and every word through these values and assumptions. If we do not understand our own "cultural filter," it is far more difficult to figure out the values and assumptions of others.

1. Personal control over the environment/responsibility

Americans do not believe in the power of fate. In the U.S. it is believed that controlling nature is normal and right. People also believe every individual has control over her or his life. The problems of one's life are generally not considered to be due to a previous life, but rather from one's laziness in pursuing a better life.

2. Change seen as natural and positive

In the American mind, change is seen as a good condition. We as a culture are not usually satisfied with preserving the old. We want the new and improved version; we believe it is better.

3. Time and its control

Time is extremely important to Americans. To outsiders it may appear that we are completely ruled by time. To understand how we view and value time simply look at our language. Time is something to be on, to be kept, filled, saved, used, spent, wasted, lost, gained, planned, given, made the most of, and even killed.

Take the time to understand the different perspective of time in your host culture.

4. Equality and fairness

Equality is one of the United States' most important values. Our constitution guarantees equality and it is a civic and social goal. We tend not to care who someone is, and believe that they should be treated "like everybody else."

Because of our views on equality and fairness, authority is constantly being challenged. We feel anyone is entitled to a position of authority and that a person's authority is often dependent upon maintenance of an environment that fosters equality and fairness.

5. Individualism/independence

Each individual is seen as completely unique. Academically, individual expression is encouraged and rewarded. Socially, a need for independence and individuality is important and often expressed through one's dress.

We feel strongly that you should make your own decisions and do what is best for yourself. The individual is often placed above anyone or anything else. This is quite different from group-oriented cultures where the individual sacrifices for the group.

Privacy, the ultimate result of individualism, is extremely important to us. We view it as a necessary part of life and even have laws to guard against its possible violation.

6. Self-help/initiative

We only are able to take credit for what we accomplish. It is extremely important to do things for yourself. This is seen as academia with codes and laws against cheating and perjury, concepts that do not exist in some countries. The story of people who were able to "pull themselves up by the bootstraps" is characterized as the American dream, emphasizing the importance of doing it on your own.

7. Competition

U.S. Americans believe competition will bring out the best in an individual. We feel that it challenges and forces each person to produce the best. Competition is practiced at school starting at a very young age. Students are encouraged to answer questions even when it is believed that no one knows the right answer. In this situation the student is praised by the teacher for speaking up and sharing knowledge with the rest of the class. Competition is also important to a culture that views change as good and new as better.

8. Future orientation

U.S. Americans may acknowledge a happy existence in the present but we are always looking to the future. (How many of you are concentrating much energy in preparing yourself for your future study abroad?) We tend to make the future a better and brighter place. "When I finish this final..." "When I graduate..." When you plan you next vacation while on vacation! The present condition is seen to a preparatory step to a later and greater event, which will eventually develop into something even more worthwhile.

9. Action/work orientation

We are a nation of "doers." In a culture where change is regarded as good, U.S. Americans like to see "things happen." We often become annoyed at someone or something if there appears to be a problem and no one is "doing" anything about it. It can be quite difficult for a culture of "doers" to enter a culture where there is an orientation towards being. This combined with a different orientation of time creates situations such as "The bus leaves when it is full."

10. Informality

U.S. Americans are very informal people. First names are commonly used. In a college atmosphere we may be encouraged to call our professors by their first names. We are also accustomed to an informal setting where students can eat or drink in class, and the professor may sit on the corner of his desk or swing his feet. Some professors who encourage discussion may not mind if a student interjects or "jumps in" while the professor is lecturing. All of this can be considered to be quite rude in other cultures.

11. Directness/openness/honesty

Many cultures have subtle ways of informing each other of certain kinds of information. U.S. Americans, for the most part, are very direct. U.S. Americans look for honesty and usually do not trust those who are evasive.

12. Practicality/efficiency

Our concept of what is practical and what is efficient relies largely upon the importance given to time and money. What is considered practical and efficient is generally what will save us the most time and money.

13. Materialism

We feel that the possessions that we own are the "natural benefits" of hard work. The material acquisitions of wealth in the U.S. stand for hard work and self-determination, two values that we live by. With this perspective, we view much of the world as also wanting to possess many things.

This list is presented to you in the hopes that if you understand something about the U.S. American value system, you will be better equipped to deal with your reactions to a different value system. Understanding your own perspective and how this affects your reactions to certain values of the host culture is half the battle of understanding that culture.

Coping with Culture Shock

The most effective way to combat culture shock is to step back from a given event that has bothered you, assess it, and search for an appropriate explanation and response. Try the following:

  • Observe how others are acting in the same situation.
  • Think about the situation, what it means to you, and your response to it.
  • Ask a local resident or someone with extensive experience how they would have handled the situation and what it means in the host culture.
  • Decide how you can apply what you have learned the next time you find yourself in a similar situation.
  • Be open-minded and flexible.

Throughout the period of cultural adaptation, take good care of yourself. Read a book or rent a video in your home language, take a short trip if possible, exercise and get plenty of rest, write a letter or telephone home, eat good food, and do things you enjoy with friends. Take special notice of things you enjoy about living in the host culture.

Although it can be disconcerting and a little scary, the "shock" gradually eases as you begin to understand and adapt to your new surroundings. It is useful to realize that often the reactions and perceptions of others toward you - and you toward them - are not personal evaluations but are based on a clash of cultural values.

The more you know about your personal values and how they are derived from your culture, the better prepared you will be to see and understand the cultural differences you will encounter abroad.

There are many additional resources on the Web that you may find helpful.

What's Up with Culture?

Maximizing studying abroad.

Plato (Project for Learning Abroad, Training, and Outreach)