How to Adjust to Different Cultures When Studying Abroad

Summer in the Southern Hemisphere, winter in the Northern one – it is the beginning of the year, and students and parents in many countries are researching study abroad programs. Professionals of all ages are also researching – looking for the best options of graduate programs outside of their country of residence, aspiring to acquire not only academic credentials, but cultural experiences also.

1- Avoid stereotypes

For those who have never left the country or are used to travel for tourism only, the first tip to adjust to the destination country is to get rid of stereotypes and preconceptions: we should not think that “our” way of doing things is right, and that “theirs” is wrong. In the beginning, a feeling of weirdness is normal – but keeping an open mind will greatly help in accepting local customs – which always have a raison d’être, whether rooted in climate, history or religion.

Furthermore, remember that being in a multicultural environment means that a lot of other people are going through the same process of adjusting: the occasional discomfort and awkwardness are not yours alone – others may also be feeling homesick or struggling to understand the new settings, even if they don’t share your same customs or beliefs. Having empathy and avoiding rushed judgments will accelerate the sense of community that accelerates adaptation.

2- Do your homework

Before going, one should read as much as possible about global events and the reality and culture of the place. Researching not only the country, but the city the student is moving to, and seeking to know more about academic and social life at the university are ways to facilitate adaptation. A country like Norway, for example, has a more homogeneous culture, with fewer variations in the behavior of people across several cities; in the United States, on the contrary, the dimensions and diversity of the country represent a greater challenge, for traveling through the South, Midwest or West Coast will reveal quite different customs and mentalities. Trying to connect with the school’s office for international students or with alumni from your country are also good ways of obtaining information and learn what to expect.

3- Try not to get offended

Universities which welcome international students do their best to accommodate different ethnicities and customs, and faculty members are usually quite adept at managing diverse classrooms. However, especially when it comes to very large universities, one must not rely only on the often-generic orientation materials provided by the school: adaptation tips can be too broad, without taking into account the characteristics and mindsets of all cultures. I have had an interesting personal experience in that sense: when I first started attending a university program in the United States, I was already very familiar with American culture. But upon receiving a flyer from the school that said something like: “Americans bathe every day, and it is advisable to do the same,” I was surprised. The intention as to explain hygiene standards in the local culture. But in my case, coming from Brazil, where it is common to take more than one bath a day, reading that was almost offensive! I see to this day, after having lived abroad for a long time, that this habit of mine still surprises some. But say, for instance, there are limited water resources where someone comes from – people in that area may have developed different bathing habits and adjusted to them until they became the norm.

4- Communication is key

Without a doubt, being able to speak the local language – or be prepared to learn, if you do not already know – is essential to settle into the new country. Language and culture cannot be dissociated: one informs the other at all times. Therefore, the greater the language skill, the greater will be the ability to deal with all situations; the level of self-confidence which is required to achieve academic and personal goals, and the acceptance as someone who has something to contribute to the new settings.

But beyond language, one of the dimensions of culture that most impacts adaptation is the style of communication of each society. And countries with the same language may employ very different communication styles (Americans and Australians, for instance, differ considerably in that aspect). Some cultures use direct communication, that is, the message is very clear, and the responsibility to be understood lies on the speaker: there is not much room for interpretation. This may help, but it may also mean that subtleties are left out. “I do not like cauliflower” is different from “oh, not now, thank you,” and even more different from the simple gesture of passing the cauliflower platter forward without helping oneself. It is important, therefore, that the student identifies and adjusts to these nuances in order not to offend (and not feel offended) when there was no such intention. Americans usually employ direct communication relative to most South Americans, but Germans, for instance, tend to be even more direct. The Japanese use a more indirect communication style, and the knowledge of the context in which the conversation takes place will help decipher the message.

There are many other dimensions of culture that may impact cultural adaptation – understanding how the local society behaves, without judgment, is the most effective way of achieving a sense of belonging.

5- Give yourself time

Research indicates that the average time it takes to adjust to a new culture is approximately two years. During this period, several phases alternate and sometimes overlap: a lot has been said about in the four (or five, depending on the study) phases of cultural shock, which describe what many expatriates go through. But sometimes they happen in a less defined way, and feelings of joy and frustration may alternate. And yes, there is a period of “honeymoon”, of enchantment with the new culture, in which everything that is part of the new seems attractive, fascinating. This phase usually coincides with the beginning of something positive: there is much enthusiasm for this new life – being admitted to an undergraduate or postgraduate program abroad has a taste of victory.

New friends and new environs seem most interesting, and a quick familiarity is even built. However, after this initial phase, the reality of everyday life presents challenges and difficulties, and it is common to see an irritation and rejection of the new culture. One misses the smells, flavors and sounds from home, and everything seems odd. Usually, this irritability passes, and a gradual understanding of the differences develops; the sense of comfort increases, until one reaches biculturalism.

6- Enjoy the results

Overcoming culture shock and adapting to a new culture to the point of feeling comfortable proves to be a highly valuable skill. Our brain becomes capable of identifying the differences in climate, customs, how emotions, desires and dissatisfaction are expressed, and adjusts more quickly to what each situation demands. An international student not only has exposure to the local culture, but also to the culture of other international classmates, further enriching the experience and the cultural knowledge acquired. These skills will be very useful throughout one’s career: the different styles of communication and management will be easily recognized; human interactions will become more natural, and projects can achieve greater efficiency when those involved understand each other’s expectations and visions.

The global professional moves easily across boundaries to achieve results, manage conflict and promote the well-being of teams, clients and investors. But the best of all is to feel good in different environments – at ease, competent, accomplished: to feel like a global citizen.

I was recently interviewed about this topic by – for the full article (in Portuguese), please click here.

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By Viviane Vicente