The benefits of culture shock
by Lily Hoy
Culture shock refers to the feelings of uncertainty, confusion, or anxiety that people may experience when moving to a new country or experiencing new cultural surroundings (Segel, 2010).
I, myself, am an international student, originating from England, and I have experienced culture shock whilst studying abroad. I decided to study abroad between the second and final year of my undergraduate degree in Forensic Psychology, to experience a new education system.
Culture shock will affect almost everybody who moves somewhere new; I’m sure you have heard about this once or twice.
Culture shock is usually always portrayed in a negative light; however, it can have a positive impact on study abroad students. It equips them with the understanding of the progressive stages, and the knowledge of how to overcome mental challenges. Similarly, in terms of personal identity, culture shock can also help you to better understand your values and understanding of the world.
So, in a refreshing new light, I have composed two of the main benefits that I have discovered whilst enduring the stages of culture shock.
1. Creating an understanding of the world.
The world expands past your line of sight. Yes, maybe this is an obscenely obvious fact to point out; but it isn’t well comprehended. Many students, myself included, come to these new cities with expectations and ideas, which have been formed from their interpretations. Studying abroad will never 100% reach your expectations, there are times when it is euphoric, it is romantic, but 90% of the time it is simply different to the way you imagined it to be.
Suddenly, you arrive in this country where you may not know the language, nobody is familiar, and you’re using public transport multiple times a day. At first, this may be exciting. But your mind catches up with you, and you realise that you are outside of your comfort zone. In non-psychological terms, your comfort zone is the environment in which you feel the least amount of anxiety, usually due to a routine. Culture shock is a stress mechanism in the brain, where it realises it is having to readapt to these changes.
A graph was developed by Gullahorn and Gullahorn, (1963) which explores the pattern of overcoming culture shock. The graph explains how you hit the ‘honeymoon’ phase, where the change feels euphoric, which then progresses to the stage of crisis. From crisis, you enter the adjustment phase, and this series of events averages between 3-6 months. The graph, however, is a generalization, some people may overcome culture shock quicker; or take even longer. But the process remains the same and it is never linear.
During the adjustment phase, your brain is going to be seeking for new habits and creating a sense of familiarity. My top tip during this phase? Stay busy.
During and after the shock stage, you begin to accept and adapt to the cultural differences. You build a routine; find familiar places and you make friends. These are all forms of comfort, which serves as the outcome of these adaptations. During this process, you begin to understand the new country and culture, and develop your personal identity. As said by Brown (2008), moving outside of your comfort zone will expand preconceived limits and by inference learn; and become a better person.
As I said before, stay busy. That means; have that wild social life, schedule in time to do work, explore your new home and stay in contact with family and friends. Winkelman, (1994) wrote that culture shock resolution is best achieved by a proactive cognitive orientation, meaning that staying busy, is vital in the adjustment stage. It is also important to note that whilst your brain is forming these new habits, place a larger emphasis on your work ethic- this will still be instilled when you return home.
2. Personal development
Being able to identify your strengths and weaknesses can assist you in challenging yourself in your present state, and your future state. An interesting paper I read by Themudo et al (2007), stated that individuals who studied abroad, were forced to confront their strengths, weaknesses, and idiosyncrasies.
As for myself, I knew that I had a good understanding of my degree at home, but I was easily distracted. Coming to Milan and having to juggle both studies from my home University, studies from Universitá Cattolica del Sacro Cuore and my online duties; I struggled to stay on task. During the adjustment stage of culture shock, I began to set aside particular blocks of my day, dedicated to my studies. It was difficult at first, but after I formed the new habits, I managed to overcome one of my weaknesses (and here I am, with all this free time, writing an article).
Becoming a resilient person is one of the major benefits of studying abroad. Enduring the hardship of culture shock and re-adaptation, to become a better version of yourself. These benefits have been proven; study abroad students show increased self-confidence, and a sense of well-being, (Kauffmann, 1984).
I cannot objectively attribute all these developments to culture shock, but I know that if I had not gone through the adjustment process, I would not have settled into a new normality.
To conclude, although culture shock may be difficult to navigate, Milan is an amazing city, and ultimately, you can create your own outcome.
Brown, M. (2008). Comfort zone: Model or metaphor? Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education, 12(1), 3-12. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf03401019
Gullahorn, J. T., & Gullahorn, J. E. (1963). An extension of the U-curve hypothesis. Journal of Social Issues, 19(3), 33-47. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4560.1963.tb00447.x
Kauffmann, L. N. (1984). The Impact of Study Abroad on Personal Development of College Students. , 31.
Themudo, D., Paige, D., & Benander, R. (2007). Student and Faculty Perceptions of the Impact of Study Abroad on Language Acquisition, Culture Shock, and Personal Growth, 13. https://aurco.org/journals/AURCO_JOUR_2007_entire_vol_13.pdf#page=83
Tilburg, M. V., & Vingerhoets, A. (2007). Psychological aspects of geographical moves: Homesickness and acculturation stress. Amsterdam University Press.
Winkelman, M. (1994). Cultural shock and adaptation. Journal of Counseling & Development, 73(2), 121-126. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.1556-6676.1994.tb01723.x
Xia, J. (2009). Analysis of impact of culture shock on individual psychology. International Journal of Psychological Studies, 1(2), 97. https://doi.org/10.5539/ijps.v1n2p97