Inbound students Study Abroad and Exchange at the University of Melbourne

Culture shock

Coping with culture shock

Culture shock is a type of homesickness. The term refers to the stresses and strains that accumulate from being forced to meet one's everyday needs (e.g. language, climate, food, cleanliness, companionship) in unfamiliar ways. Some symptoms of culture shock are:

  • frustration
  • mental fatigue
  • disorientation about how to work with and relate to others
  • boredom
  • lack of motivation
  • occasional physical discomfort

When you leave home and all the things that are familiar, you encounter many new and confusing situations. These situations can create stress; the reaction to this stress is called "culture shock."

Some of the differences between life at home and life in a new place are obvious:

  • language
  • climate
  • religion
  • food
  • educational system
  • absence of family and close ties

Other differences are not as obvious:

  • how students relate to teachers
  • how people make decisions
  • how people spend their leisure time
  • how people resolve conflicts
  • how people express feelings and emotions, meanings of hand, face and body movements

These differences can cause feelings of uncertainty and anxiety:

  • "Am I speaking properly or clearly?"
  • "Will I be a successful student?"
  • "Will I find friends?"
  • "Should I discuss my personal beliefs, religious beliefs or political opinions?"
  • "What does it mean when someone looks directly into my eyes?"
  • "Should I trust this friendly stranger?"

All of these uncertainties and more can be confusing. You may also feel that you don't know what to do in certain situations. Probably you did not think about these things at home because you knew what to do and what to expect. You also knew how other people acted and thought. In other words, you understood "the rules" and "the signs." Life was easier at home.

Your body and your mind may react in unusual ways to the stress and confusion of living in a new culture. Some of the reactions you experience may be:

  • feeling isolated or alone
  • sleeping too much or tiring easily
  • finding it difficult to sleep
  • suffering body pains, especially in the head, neck, back or stomach
  • wanting to return home
  • feeling angry towards local people

These reactions are normal. You are not ill. It is a temporary state experienced by people who are adjusting to life in a new environment, and can occur at any time during the life of a student. How can you adjust to your new environment? How can you make a successful transition to a new culture?

Before you leave home you prepare for your time abroad.

  • Speak to returned exchange students about their experience and visiting international students about their home country.
  • Make an appointment to speak with representatives from any local study centres (see the helpful links & addresses webpage).
  • Read widely on the culture and customs of the country to which you hope to go.
  • Use helpful websites such as the Wordwide Classroom.

Once you have arrived, however, consider the following strategies.

  • Understand that initially, there are likely to be uncertainties and confusion. Imagine how a local resident might react to living in your country.
  • Observe how people in your new environment act in situations that are confusing to you. Try to understand what they believe and why they behave as they do. Avoid judging things as either right or wrong; regard them as being merely different.
  • Remember the ways you have been able to reduce stress in difficult situations in the past and consider applying those methods in your present circumstances. For example, you might take a long walk, go to a cinema, or write a letter or chat to a close friend or relative. Try to see the humour in confusing situations that you encounter; laughter is often the best "medicine."
  • Accept the difficult challenge of learning to study and live in a new cultural setting. Believe that you can learn the skills to make a satisfactory transition. Gradually try to apply some of the skills you are learning.
  • Recognise the advantages of living in two different cultures. Meeting people whose cultural backgrounds are not the same as yours can enrich your life. Consider sharing your time with different people. Think about how you can help local students learn how people from your country believe and act.
  • Acknowledge your progress in adjusting to the new culture. Think of all that you have learned since the day you arrived. Recognise that, like other people who have lived in an unfamiliar country, you can and will make a successful adjustment to the other culture.

Mythbusters - Was it hard to be away from family and friends?


Other information



Coping with Culture Shock – International Student Services – University of Nebraska


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