Office of International Students and Scholars

Drop Shadow

Culture Shock and the Process of Adjustment

When you left home to study in the United States, you were beginning a new life. The new live involves the adjustment to a new culture and a new environment. This process takes time and the understanding of your feelings while going through the adaptation process.

People that enter a new culture will suffer from a feeling of disorientation. The cultural differences that must be dealt with, and the inability to understand them, cause an increased sense of great insecurity.  The effect of these feelings is called “culture shock”.

Knowing the causes of culture shock and the process of cross-cultural adjustment can help you understand that it is a normal reaction that ends sooner or later.

What causes culture shock?

There are three basic causal explanations: (1) the loss of familiar cues, (2) the breakdown of interpersonal communication, and (3) an identity crisis. All three occur in adjusting to any new social environment.

Loss of Cues or Reinforcers

Cues are signposts, which guide us through our daily activities in an acceptable way that is consistent with the total social environment.  These may include what to say when meeting with people for the first time, when and how to shake hands, how to eat, and so on.

The Breakdown of Communication

Communication involves both verbal and nonverbal messages that vary with each culture. Verbal communication involves the sending and receiving of messages orally. This includes direct vs. indirect forms of speech, taking turns, preferred topics, and so on.

Non-verbal communication involves facial expressions, how people use personal space, physical contact while speaking to another, etc.

An Identity Crisis

When we enter a new culture, the way we learned to do things no longer works effectively. The environment makes new demands and we don’t know how to react and how to solve problems. We feel overwhelmed and can no loner cope. This is the time in which we expand our cultural program and another more expanded and adequate system is born.

Coping with Cross-Cultural Adjustment Stress

By understanding the process of adjustment, we can anticipate stress and this, in and of itself, helps minimize the severity of our reactions. It helps to increase the communication with the host nationals, to learn the verbal and nonverbal language in the context of the culture, to develop a friendship with a host national and to associate with those who have gone through culture shock.

Some Strategies for Success

Maintain a sense of humor.

Keep a journal and record all of your experiences. Not only will this be a treasured keepsake, but it will also enable you to reread positive experiences when you are feeling down.

Tolerate differences, and remember that making observations about customs and cultures is different from making judgments.

Try new things! Experiment with new food, styles, daily rituals, magazines, movies, museums, etc.

Observe the customs around you and don’t do what people around you aren’t doing.

Get plenty of sleep. It is exhausting to speak a foreign language and navigate within a foreign culture.

Learn about the non-verbal language of the culture. What do the different hand gestures mean?

Ask local students for help with studying and try to find out what support services your university provides for international students and scholars.

Watch TV, listen to the radio, and read the local newspaper.

Before you know it, your new experiences in the United States will help you learn about American culture, and, ultimately, help you learn more about yourself.


“After all, human beings create culture, so the shocks caused by differences are not unbearable or without value”