Culture Shock
Culture Shock

Culture shock is the process of adjusting to a new country and a new culture, which may be dramatically different from your own. You no longer see the familiar signs and faces of home. Climate, food, and landscapes, as well as people and their ways all seem strange to you. Your English may not be as good as you expected. You may suffer, to an unexpected degree, from the pressures of U.S. academic life and the fast pace of life.

If you feel this way, do not panic. Culture shock is a normal reaction. As you become adjusted to U.S. culture and attitudes and begin to know your way around, you will start to adapt to and understand your new surroundings and way of life.

International students experience culture shock in varying degrees; some hardly notice it at all, while others find it terribly difficult to adapt. There are usually four stages of culture shock that you will experience.
The "Honeymoon" Stage

The first few weeks in your new home will be very exciting. Everything will be new and interesting, and you will likely be so busy getting settled and starting classes that you may hardly notice that you miss home.

Irritability and Hostility

As you begin to realize that you are not on vacation and that this is where you live, you might experience anger and hostility. Sometimes you may feel hostile toward Americans and their way of doing things, and even trivial irritations may cause hostility to flare.

Understanding and Adjustment

In time you will come to better understand your new environment and will find, maybe even unconsciously, that you are adjusting to your new home. You will experience less frequent feelings of hostility and irritability.

Integration and Acceptance

Finally, you will find that you have come to feel that, at least on some level, you consider your university or college and your new town, your home. You will have made friends and will feel that your community accepts you just as you have accepted it.

The length and intensity of each stage depends upon the individual, but no one escapes it completely. The important thing to remember is that you are not the only one experiencing these feelings. Many others before you have gone through it, and there are others all around you who are dealing with culture shock. Below are some of the common symptoms of culture shock and some suggestions to help you get over these hurdles.


You miss your homeland, your family, and your friends. You frequently think of home, call or write letters to your family and friends often, and maybe even cry a lot.

It is good to keep in contact with home, but do not let this get in the way of meeting new friends and enjoying your new home. Make an effort to meet new people, in your residence hall, in class, and through the international student center. You might also want to join a committee, interest group, or sports team on campus or in your city. Find one thing with which you are comfortable — for example, music, food, or an activity — and make this the starting point toward making yourself feel at home in America.


Minor irritations make you unusually angry, and you feel life in the United States is the cause of your problem. You feel your expectations have not been met.

It takes time to get used to life in a foreign country and many things need to be relearned. Be patient and ask questions when you feel you do not understand. Maybe your expectations were too high or too low, and you need to readjust your perception of what it means to live and study in the United States. Talk to your international student adviser and try to find ways around the problems that are angering you.


You become dependent on fellow nationals, friends, or your international student adviser and feel you cannot achieve anything by yourself. You are scared of doing things by yourself without somebody else's help or approval.

It is good to have people you can depend on for the first few days. However, at the same time, you should gradually take on the challenges and "do it yourself." It is all right to make mistakes and to learn from them. You should also try to make various types of friends, not just your fellow nationals, to fully take advantage of your American educational experience.

Loss of self-confidence

You feel everything you do is wrong, that nobody understands you, that you have trouble making friends. You start to question the way you dress and think because you are afraid not to fit in.

If you feel everything you do is wrong, ask for feedback from someone you can trust, such as a friend or your international student adviser. What may be wrong is not how others perceive you, but how you perceive yourself. You should not be worried about the way you look, act, or think. The United States is a very diverse country and Americans are used to people with different looks or ways of behaving. Most important, do not lose your sense of humor.

Values shock

You might find yourself facing situations that are not accepted in your culture and have trouble getting accustomed to them. For example, relationships between men and women, the informality of American life, political or religious attitudes, or the social behavior of Americans may seem amoral or unacceptable to you.

Look for information on the things that surprise you or make you feel uncomfortable, and try to remain flexible, respectful, and open-minded. This can be a great occasion to learn more about topics that might be less popular or taboo in your country. Try to enjoy the new cultural diversity and the various cultural points of view. It might be helpful to talk to someone from the same culture or religion who has been living in the United States for a while to discuss how this person has dealt with values shock.

Other strategies to cope with the stress of culture shock include:
  • Make sure you know what to expect before you arrive. Carefully read this guide and other books and magazines on the United States to find out more about American life and customs. It would be a good idea also to read up a bit on U.S. history to find out more about American people, their government, their national heroes, their holidays, and so on. This will help you orient yourself physically and mentally when you arrive in the United States.
  • Eat well, sleep well, and take good care of yourself.
  • Exercise is a great way to alleviate stress and tension. Join a sports club or pursue some outdoor activities.
  • Find some time to walk around your new neighborhood. This might help you develop a sense of home as you find the local stores, parks, activity centers, and so on. Try to carry a small map of the city with you so you will not get needlessly lost very often.
  • Keep in touch with family and friends to tell them about your experiences.
  • Take some time to relax. Listen to music, read a book not related to your studies, and go to bed early once in a while.
  • Do not lose your sense of humor. Laugh at your mistakes rather than getting depressed about them.
"I had a lot of trouble at first getting adapted to living in the USA. What frustrated me most was that I did not know how even the simplest things worked! For example, I had never used an American-style washing machine before and ended up ruining some of my best clothing. It took me a long time also to get used to the American bank system, since I had never used automated teller machines or personal checks. Other simple things like temperatures and measurements, for example, were difficult to understand because Americans do not use the metric system like in my country. Sometimes I felt like a real idiot, and that made me quite depressed. But after a while, I could do all these things without even thinking about it. I guess I just had to give myself a bit of time to learn."
— Diana, Bulgaria