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Transitioning into Life Abroad: Understanding Culture Shock

A man and a woman standing together in a crowded place. The man is holding a phone up to take a selfie of them together.

Moving abroad is both an exciting and daunting endeavor. Whether it’s for school, work, or deployment, you are going to experience things like culture shock, learning or mastering a new language, and meeting new people who have different backgrounds and perspectives. How do you cope with the changes you’ll experience, and how do you find enjoyment and fulfillment out of being abroad?

Culture shock is inevitable, but it actually often starts out with feelings of positivity. You may experience any of these distinct stages of culture shock:

  • The honeymoon stage, where you are excited to experience the culture and may even be idealizing it
  • Irritability and hostility, where you are having trouble adjusting to what makes the culture different and dealing with the different ways in which people interact or the systems work
  • Gradual adjustment, where you begin to feel more connected to the culture you are in and can start to practice perspective-taking in your interactions with other people
  • Adaptation, where you finally feel a sense of belonging and understanding

While there are four distinct phases of culture shock, you will probably experience them in different ways, and maybe even multiple times. But the best way of dealing with culture shock is to throw yourself in and continue to challenge yourself.

One way is learning the language. Maybe you already speak the language of the country you’re moving to, or you are starting to learn it. Either way, you’ll have an adjustment period where you have to learn how to interact effectively despite the language barrier, no matter how big or small that barrier is. Maybe it’s learning the words and phrases for how to get around town or familiarizing yourself with the local slang. Language can give so much insight into a culture, and committing yourself to learning it will not only help you feel grounded in your new home, but will also give your new neighbors, coworkers, classmates, or peers more reason to respect and get to know you.

Language is also a factor in another way to reduce culture shock and feel connected: meeting new people. This sounds easy in theory, but it can be incredibly difficult to make new friends and acquaintances in a new place. It’s crucial to have people in your life who can help you better understand the culture you’re in, give advice, listen to you when you need it, and help you adjust. Having a variety of people you can talk to will help, like the neighbor who can help you navigate the transit system or the expat coworker who can give you advice on understanding communication differences that you didn’t expect. Try looking up groups to join where you can find people who like the same hobbies as you, or who are also trying to learn the language. Navigating a new place alone is daunting, and it might take time before a friendship sticks, but the best way to move past that phase of hostility is to have friends who can help you to better understand the other perspectives and structures surrounding you every day.

Don’t forget to maintain your support system back home, as well. These days, it’s so easy to stay in touch through social media and video conferencing. You’ll need the people who know you the best to help you when you’re struggling or feeling homesick.

Finally, don’t forget to explore. Don’t be afraid to be a tourist and visit iconic sites—take in all the things that made you excited to move to that country in the first place. Travel to other parts of the city or country to see all of the different facets of its society. But also look for places that help make you feel at home. Walk around your neighborhood and find the nearby parks, cafés, and gathering places where you can meet your neighbors and become a part of the community.

Townscape of Uchisar, Cappadocia, Turkey