What Are Cultural Differences?
When we are in our native environment, we are relatively comfortable because of our familiarity with the culture. In general, we know what kinds of reactions to expect from people in a given situation. We know how to get what we need. The cues and symbols that we use to make these determinations are based on our culture. In a different culture, we suddenly lose cues and symbols that orient us to situations of daily life. The process of adjusting to another culture and of gaining an understanding of it often creates psychological discomfort, commonly referred to as culture shock. This is the reaction to differences and difficulties one encounters in a foreign culture and can consist of many phases.
Normal feelings encountered as a reaction to culture shock may include helplessness, hopelessness, loneliness, homesickness, slight depression, irritability and boredom. For most participants, going through culture shock means that they are truly making an effort to understand and adjust to their new environment. It can be a time of tremendous personal and academic growth.
Other reactions may also accompany culture shock:
- changes in sleeping habits and chronic fatigue
- disorientation about how to work with and relate to others
- language difficulties and mental fatigue from speaking and listening to a foreign language all day
- unexplained emotional surges, such as verbal outbursts or crying
- placing blame for difficulties on the program or host culture
- decline in inventiveness, spontaneity, or flexibility
- stereotyping of host country/culture
- increase in physical ailments or pain
- compulsive eating or lack of appetite
- inability to work effectively
Often students cannot explain why they are feeling this way, only that these strong feelings exist. This process of discovering cultural differences and experiencing culture shock is a powerful learning tool. As students work through the challenges and emotions of cultural adjustment, the result can be a high degree of understanding both about themselves and about the culture in which they are living. Past student participants have stated that study abroad can be an invaluable education about what it means to be from the US and to gain first-hand knowledge about the diversity of lifestyles and beliefs in the world.
During these challenging times it is easy for students to stick together because it is more comfortable for them to be with people from their own culture. However, by doing so, they may miss many of the enriching experiences the host country has to offer. It often takes a lot of effort to develop relationships across cultures, but the rewards can be considerable.
Practical Advice While in the Host Country
The important thing to remember is to be supportive, patient, and a good listener. Here are some additional suggestions for the time that your student is abroad:
- Be prepared to receive phone calls and letters from participants expressing either great excitement or complaints and frustration about the host country. Take these feelings seriously; show support for the new experience and empathy for the difficult challenges. Keep in mind that students may not call home immediately as it may be too inconvenient, complex or difficult. Also remember that there is a tendency for students abroad to call or write home when things are not going well and not to call or write when things are going fine.
- Encourage your student to consider which program activities can support their future career goals.
- Working with a team on a targeted project or presentation abroad
- Visiting work environments
- Gaining professional experience through interning or volunteering
- Improving language skills
- Gaining independence and travel skills
- Living and studying with a diverse group of students
- Engaging in research
- Making connections and building a professional network
- Documenting and sharing your experience with others
- During a stressful telephone call, constructive advice can emphasize adaptability, a sense of humor and a lot of common sense. Encourage students to allow time to become accustomed to the cultural differences. It may help to remind them about the cultural adjustment curve to validate their feelings, while at the same time encouraging them to think about the positive things they have learned about the new culture
- Encourage your student to write down experiences and feelings in a journal. Keeping a journal has major benefits: 1) writing about the experience can help the student understand what is happening and the feelings taking place and 2) past journal entries provide a means of documenting experiences as well as an interesting way to identify what has been learned.
- Save correspondence from students. Messages, letters, posts, and postcards also function as documentation of experiences and students may want to look back on them upon returning home.
- Students should also consider their 'personal brand' and how they are developing their own online identity. Future employers will be interested in their facebook, twitter, instagram and pinterest presence.
The encouragement and support of family at home is a powerful tool in the adjustment process. Of course, remember to take students’ needs and concerns seriously and be on the lookout for problems that may indicate that a student is experiencing more than culture shock such as severe depression, drastic changes in eating habits, excessive drinking, self-isolation, etc. If you are concerned about the safety and well-being of a student, please contact the Learning Abroad Center. The following University of Minnesota online resources may also be of assistance to you: www.mentalhealth.umn.edu, www.bhs.umn.edu/services/mentalhealth and www.uccs.umn.edu.