Cultural Adjustment

Cultural Adjustment

Most international scholars and students spend the first few days in Raleigh settling in and getting acquainted with their environment.  Adjustment to a new culture, however, takes longer than just a few days to accomplish.  Adjustment is an ongoing process that involves learning about a new culture and how to function successfully in it. Be aware that your expectations will greatly influence the way you experience American culture. If you find yourself in a surprising situation, it often helps to ask yourself what you had expected to go differently and why you expected this. This will help you in adjusting your view of Americans and their customs and will often allow you to integrate faster into your new living and work environment.

Professionals in the field of international education have identified four stages of cultural adjustment that foreigners usually experience upon coming to the United States. Below you will find a description of each stage. It is important to realize that not every person will go through every stage of cultural adjustment, however 99% of people will experience some form of culture shock when they start living in a different culture and society. (Culture shock can best be described as having feelings of disorientation, frustration and confusion when repeatedly confronted with unfamiliar people and situations).  

The honeymoon stage (or tourist stage) describes the early phase of a foreigner’s entry into the host country. It is characterized by feelings of excitement, anticipation, and euphoria. You are determined to make your time abroad a success. You will try to be friendly and cooperative to the new people you meet, although you may be confused. You may indicate to others that you understand a situation when you really don’t, and wish someone would explain it to you. If you want help, do not hesitate to ask for it. By not speaking up it is likely that your frustration and confusion will increase, and you will begin to experience the second stage of cultural adjustment.

As the newness and novelty of being in the United States wears off, the phase of culture shock will start to appear.  It is characterized by feelings of fatigue, frustration, confusion, anger and sometimes even depression.  You may become tired of listening and speaking in English every day.  It is frustrating to have to repeat yourself several times in order to be understood.  Also you may become very lonely or homesick for familiar surroundings. During this time, friendship from a colleague or friend as well as other social contacts can help you to get through this difficult stage. Try not to isolate yourself, but join cross-cultural programs or other events and clubs on campus or in the community.

Hopefully, in a short time the previous stage will give way to the third phase identified as the humor stage (gradual adjustment).  You will begin to laugh at minor mistakes and misunderstandings that had greatly frustrated you before.  This more comfortable phase develops after you have made some friends, can understand the complexity of adjusting to a new culture, and are more confident about the use of the English language.

The final stage of cultural adjustment is known as the home stage or bi-cultural adaptation.  It is characterized by a sense of loyalty to one’s own country yet a growing appreciation of the American environment, and being able to feel comfortable in America.  You have adjusted to the norms and standards of this new culture and feel you can function in it successfully.

  • Ask questions. Do not be shy in speaking to Americans and asking them to explain things that are unfamiliar to you. As we mentioned earlier, most Americans are more than happy to try and answer your inquiries and if you happen to find someone who isn’t, just try a different American.
  • Practice your English. NC State University offers many opportunities to improve your English language or get familiar with the local vernacular. A very popular way among visiting scholars and students is to attend our English Conversation Clubs
  • Take field trips or participate in one of NC State’s cross-cultural programs. The field trips will help you get acquainted with different areas of your living environment. The cross-cultural programs will help you get to know other international scholars and students as well as Americans, while engaging in fun activities together. Some of the programs will also help you become familiar with the local community, for instance by volunteering. 
  • Keep a journal to allow you to reflect on your experiences. Many foreign visitors have found that keeping a journal is very useful in their cultural adjustment. Writing down your experiences when they occur often allows you to better reflect on your responses and will show you the changes in the process of your cultural adjustment.

Do not be afraid to seek help if you think it would be useful. In American culture, it is not considered shameful in any way to ask for guidance when you are experiencing difficulties. In fact, it is encouraged and appreciated to use the help and resources available to you. Each campus or school in the U.S. has a counselor or counseling center to aide students and scholars in their learning process. If you are seeing signs of depression, increased anxiety or anger and you would like some professional advice, please either contact an advisor at OIS or talk to your departmental supervisor.