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Culture Shock of Exchange Students


Marina Glushkova

24 October 2015

Culture Shock of Exchange Students

Thesis statement: Exchange students, living and studying in a different culture, living in the homes of host families, often experience significant culture shock, sometimes on a continuous basis, throughout their stay abroad.

  1. Exchange Students experience significant culture shock

  2. What is culture shock

  1. Definition

  2. Stages

  1. Culture shock of exchange students

  1. Reasons

  2. Stages

  3. How to cope up with it

IV. Conclusion

Culture Shock of Exchange Students.

Most of us are familiar with the term "culture shock". We may think of it as the temporary disorientation that comes from being exposed to a different language, different customs and food. It is weird for us to understand the way people in other countries view the world, the way they think and what they value. Tourists often experience culture shock at a superficial level. People who actually live in another culture can experience culture shock as an on-going reaction and adaptation to basic differences. Exchange Students, living and studying in a different culture, living in the homes of host families, often experience significant culture shock, sometimes on a continuous basis, throughout their stay abroad.

But what does the term “culture shock” refer to? According to H. D. Brown, ‘…culture shock refers to phenomena ranging from mild irritability to deep psychological panic and crisis.’ Ellis suggests that the second language learner suffering from culture shock experiences ‘…disorientation, stress, fear, etc. as a result of differences between his or her own culture and that of the target language community…’ In a nutshell culture shock can be described as the feelings one experiences after leaving their familiar, home culture to live in another cultural or social environment. Many people associate culture shock only with extreme changes of going from one country to another, but it can also be experienced closer to home, such as when traveling from one city to another within your own country. Even the most open-minded and culturally sensitive among us are not immune to culture shock.

Culture shock has different stages of its development. It has three to five phases, depending on factors such as how big the cultural difference is between your home and your new location, and how long one is away from home; a person may or may not experience all the phases.

The first stage people go through culture shock is called Excitement. This is a fun time. Everything is great, exciting, and new. You love the differences, meeting new people, tasting new foods, seeing different architecture, doing new things, working in your new job. This phase can last days, weeks, or months.

The second stage is called Withdrawal. During this phase, you're noticing differences, even slight differences, and typically not in a good way. You start to feel like a fish out of water. You don't like people's attitudes, their behavior seems deviant to you, you have had enough of the food and just want mom's cooking, you miss your TV programs, you don't like the water, it's too hot or cold, life is too fast or slow, things are so much "better" at home, they celebrate the wrong holidays, and so on. There's no set time when this begins — with some people, it can be within days, with others, months. During this phase, a person often feels anxious, angry, frustrated, sad or irritable.

The next stage can be called Adjustment. The individual now has a routine, feels more settled and is more confident in dealing with the new culture. They understand and accept the behavior of the people, feel less isolated and regain their sense of humor.

After the adjustment there comes Enthusiasm. Those who arrive at this phase feel more at home with the differences in the new culture. Depending on how big a change a person has experienced, the person may feel as if the culture isn't in fact new, or the person may not exactly feel part of the culture, but they're comfortable enough with it to enjoy the differences and challenges. Everything does not seem so freakish now. Negative feelings are minimized. The person doesn't have to be in love with the new country (as in the Excitement phase), but they can navigate it without anxiety, negativity, and criticism.

But what do exchange students feel while being abroad? Most exchange students in yearlong programs go through all the stages, although each student’s experience is unique. It should also be noted that while culture shock can be very uncomfortable, there is nothing wrong with it, or with the person experiencing it. And it is also quite common for students to have a very positive and rewarding experience, despite having on-going adjustment problems with culture shock. Dennis White, Ph.D describes four stages that exchange students experience. It is quite common for these stages to repeat themselves as the students become more and more successfully immersed in the host culture. He gives these stages the following names.

The first stage is called Excitements and Enthusiasm. This is the feeling of excitement and enthusiasm that accompanies travel to a new place, seeing and doing so many new and different things, and meeting new people. It is most prominent at the beginning of the exchange year, but can repeat itself as students continue to have new experiences, like changing host families, meeting new students, or continuing travel. Sometimes it can be the excitement that comes from developing a new skill or increased understanding of the host culture.

Then comes the stage of Irritability. This is the stage most associated with culture shock and occurs when the initial excitement wears off and real differences become evident. These are differences that go beyond food and language, and they are often indescribable to the person experiencing them. No matter how understanding and accepting the student may try to be, there will be many time when they just do not like the new culture’s idiosyncrasies and do not understand why their host culture is so weird, and they can not seem to make the feeling go away. Irritability can come at any time that a student is confronted with differences they may not have experiences or perceived previously.

Finally a student comes to Adaptation. This is the longest, most difficult and most rewarding stage. This is when students learn to accept that they will have to adapt if they are going to be successful in their host culture. They work at adapting to customs and habits that they may not understand, and may not like it. Sometimes even when they try very hard, they have difficulty, because so much of this adaptation depends on learning the native language. They know they are adjusting when they begin to think and speak using idiomatic expressions. They know they are adjusting when they notice that they are doing things without thinking, and these are the very things they never thought they could become comfortable with. An example would be when someone from a very formal culture becomes comfortable standing very close to other people, frequently touching them and being touched, during a conversation. Adaptation is a continuous process, but it requires more attention when some of these newly discovered differences become apparent to the student.

The last stage is called Biculturalism. This stage comes very near the end of the stay, or sometimes does not really emerge until the student returns to their native country. This is when they realize that they have become competent in another culture, and can see the world and function from another, very different point of view. When this stage emerges toward the end of the exchange year, it all seems very unfair to the student. Just as they are getting to experience the benefits of really knowing how to function well in their host culture, they have to go back home.

But are there any possibilities to smooth down the effects of culture shock? I think that it can be very helpful if exchange students and their parents understand that this is what many students are going through at this time. Teachers should be supportive of students first by acknowledging that it is normal and ok to be going through a low period at this time. Students need to be reassured that there is nothing wrong with them or the host country just because hey are feeling this way. It can be extremely helpful to a student in this stage to just have someone with whom they can express their feelings without fear of getting in trouble or offending anyone. It can also be helpful to point out to the student that this is probably the lowest point they will experience, and that things will begin to get better as they continue to work at adjusting.

To sum up, I can say that cultural shock is a phenomenon that can not be avoided. Every person has to deal with it experiencing a new culture. As for exchange programs, of coarse it won’t be easy, but it is worth it. The exchange experience can at times be compared to riding waves on a surfboard, with lots of ups and downs. If the student can hang on and stick with it, this longest of waves will crest at the top higher than they ever imagined possible.

Works Cited

1. Brown, H.D., ”Principles of language learning and teaching.” New Jersey: Prentice-Hall 1987. (p.128)

2. Garone, Elizabeth., “What is Culture Shock, and What Can I do to Avoid it?” BBC Capital 11 June 2013.

3. O’Sullivan, K., ”Understanding ways: Communicating between cultures.” Sydney: Hale & Iremonger 1994. (p. 252)

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