What is culture shock?
Share this post
In this section we talk about one of the biggest and most common challenges anyone moving to a new country might face – experiencing culture shock.
The phrase ‘culture shock’ describes the feelings of disorientation we can experience when we move to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes. It can affect anyone and is often experienced when we travel abroad for holidays, or to live, work, or study. It includes the shock of a new environment, meeting lots of new people and learning how things work in a different country. It also includes the shock of being separated from the important people in your life such as family, friends, colleagues, or teachers. Especially people who you would normally talk to at times of uncertainty, or people who give you support and guidance. When familiar sights, sounds, smells, or tastes are no longer there, you can miss them very much. If you are tired and jet-lagged, for example, you might find you react to small things that wouldn’t usually bother you.
Understanding what to expect is one part of helping you cope with culture shock.
Want to keep
British Council online course,
Managing Your Wellbeing When Studying in the UK
Below we outline the four stages people commonly experience when moving abroad to live for a long period of time.
Stage 1 – honeymoon
At first, cultural differences between your home culture and the culture you are moving to seem positive. For example, you might like hearing the new accents, love the new food, the pace of life, or the atmosphere. You might also find it exciting reaching a personal goal, especially after all of the preparations you have made. During the first few weeks, most people are fascinated by the new culture.
Stage 2 – distress
After a while, cultural differences may create frustration or anxiety. Your initial feelings of excitement might reduce, and you may start to feel some negative emotions, like frustration, anger or sadness. This might be due to aspects of the new culture that seem new, strange, or odd. Things such as language barriers, traffic safety, the cost of items, and not being able to get your favourite foods easily.
There are also practical difficulties you may experience. Your stomach can take time to adjust to the different food and water, which can feel uncomfortable at times. Your body clock can also take time to adjust to the new time-zone, day-length and light levels. You might feel sleepy during the day or have trouble sleeping through the night.
One of the most important changes in this stage is communication. Being in a different environment can put pressure on your language and communication skills, even if you are very fluent in English already. Local accents and variations, as well as slang can sometimes be difficult to understand. It is common to feel homesick or lonely when adjusting to a new culture, but as you get used to the new culture and meet new people, this will become less over time.
Here are some top tips for coping with this stage:
- ask people for help whenever you need it, most people in the UK are friendly and happy to try and help you and – if they can’t help – they might know someone who can
- try to get up at the same time each day, this makes it easier for your body-clock to adjust to the new time zone (and is more effective than trying to go to bed at the same time each night)
- find a shop or supermarket that stocks food from your home country. For example, most of the bigger cities have Asian or Indian supermarkets. These are often cheaper and sell in larger amounts than the main UK supermarkets. If you are unable to find something, you’ll be able to order food from your home country online from bigger cities within the UK
- find a restaurant or takeaway that serves your favourite food and treat yourself to a meal there
- don’t worry about saying everything correctly, just have a go and let yourself make mistakes
- if anyone struggles to understand what you say, you can use gestures and pointing or find pictures or maps on your phone to help you explain what you are trying to say. People in the UK are used to hearing English spoken in a wide number of different accents and will usually be willing to try and understand you
- see if a friend or family member can send you a care package of some of your favourite things
- speak to your friends or family, if that would be helpful for you
- bring meaningful or familiar items with you, like your favourite mug, the cutlery you like using, or anything that reminds you of the comforts of home
- think about your goal for coming to study in the UK and how it will feel when you achieve it – things that are worth achieving usually involve some challenges first
- drink plenty of water to help your stomach adjust to the new food – water directly from the tap is safe to drink in the UK, but if you don’t like the taste, try different brands of bottled water until you adjust
- if you have an upset stomach, ask at a pharmacy if there is anything that might be able to help. There are lots of products you can buy to help with stomach pain, bloating, difficulty going to the toilet or going to the toilet too much
- stay hopeful – things will get better and will feel more familiar in time. How you feel is temporary and will change.
Stage 3 – adjustment
After some time, you will begin to feel more comfortable in your new surroundings. Your new home will start to feel more familiar, and you’ll be more likely to know what to expect in different situations. Things will begin to feel more ‘normal’. You will hopefully start to make friendships and will also start to develop problem-solving skills for dealing with the new culture and you may even begin to accept some aspects of British culture, with fewer feelings of frustration or negative reactions.
Stage 4 – adaptation
In this final stage you might feel more used to your new culture and will feel more comfortable in your new surroundings. You might even find yourself adopting aspects of British culture that your friends and family in your home country might comment on, for example changing your accent, using local slang or things related to your sense of humour.
In this section we’ve learned that culture shock is not one thing – it’s a series of stages. We also learned that it is very common – most people experience some degree of culture shock even if they were prepared for and looking forward to moving abroad. It’s also not all negative – some of the stages of culture shock involve strong positive feelings towards your new country.
So, what does this mean for you? It is important to be aware that your feelings might change, there might be some really positive feelings and also some really negative feelings. Although these might be difficult to deal with, they usually only last a short while.
The international students we spoke to who came to the UK in September to start their courses said that the hardest time for them was in November or December, as that was when the days were shorter, there was more course work to do, and the ‘honeymoon period’ of culture shock was starting to wear off. So you might find yourself feeling worse around this time too – you might feel more negative or emotional, which is something to be prepared for. But they also saw that things felt much better after the New Year, especially after having a break over Christmas (maybe even getting the chance to go back home) and once the end of semester exams and assessments were finished in January.
We’d love to hear from you in the discussion forum and hear how you’re feeling about your move. Have you ever experienced culture shock before? Why and what was it like? Did you experience any of these stages mentioned above? How did that feel for you, and do you have any advice for anyone who might be going through anything similar?
Share this post
Managing Your Wellbeing When Studying in the UK
Reach your personal and professional goals
Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.
Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.