Adjustment Process in a New Culture
From Beyond Language
By Deena R. Levine and Mara B. Adelman
The process of living in a culture different from our own can be an exciting and stimulating experience. It is also a tremendous challenge as we realize that our “normal” way of perceiving and behaving may not be appropriate in the new cultural setting. Each of us has been conditioned by our family, friends, and educational and religious institutions our culture to act, interpret, think, perceive, and feel in certain ways. These are based on certain core values of our culture, such as “be an individual,” “might is right,” or “time is money.” These values change from culture to culture and, therefore, the behaviors leading to success or happiness in that culture change also. Understanding those values, then, is a key to understanding the culture.
Based on these values we each create our own personal interpretation of our experiences, which is reinforced and shared by our friends and cultural institutions. This value orientation and way of behaving is rarely challenged, since it is accepted by our peers and helps us feel secure in our environment. It is only when we encounter someone different from us and choose to spend extended time with that person or in a different culture that our “normal” responses and the values that support them are called into question. This is especially true when our basic needs for friendship, respect, etc. can no longer be satisfied by our usual ways of behaving. What has been easy for us to do in our own culture is suddenly difficult and ineffective, or insulting, to those in the foreign culture. We become frustrated and irritated as we find our previously accepted ways to be in conflict with the lifestyle of those around us. We may feel anxious about the sudden loss or change in our familiar surroundings. There are no longer the thousands of non‐verbal cues we unconsciously rely on to tell us how to act and react. We realize that it is necessary to change, to adjust to the foreign culture, but how do we begin? We begin by relaxing and realizing that this experience of frustration is part of a normal reaction to the challenge of the cross‐cultural experience that is referred to as “culture shock.” It is a positive sign that you have, in fact, realized that you are living in a foreign culture and are no longer willing to be just a tourist. You want to be a participant in the life of the culture.
Understanding the cultural adjustment process can help you in coping with the often-intense feelings that you may experience as you begin your life in the US. Each stage in the process is characterized by “symptoms” or outward signs typifying certain kinds of behaviour.
- “Honeymoon” period: Initially, many people are fascinated and excited by everything new. The visitor is elated to be in a new culture.
- “Culture shock”: The individual is immersed in new problems: housing, transportation, shopping, and language. Mental fatigue results from continuous straining to comprehend the new language.
- Initial Adjustment: Everyday activities such as housing and shopping are no longer major problems. Although the visitor may not yet be fluent in the language spoken, basic ideas and feelings in the second language can be expressed.
- Mental Isolation: Individuals have been away from their family and good friends for a long period of time and may feel lonely. Many still feel they cannot express themselves as well as they can in their native language. Frustration and sometimes a loss of self-confidence result. Some individuals remain at this stage.
- Acceptance and Integration: A routine (e.g., work, business or school) has been established. The visitor has accepted the habits, customs, foods, and characteristics of the people in the new culture. The visitor feels comfortable with friends, associates and the language of the country.
This cycle may repeat itself throughout we stay in a new culture. And, these feelings are normal. Note also that upon returning home, we may experience some of the same feelings as we did when we first arrived in the new culture. This is called “reverse culture shock.”
1. Look for logical reasons for things in the host culture that seem different. Relax your grip on your own culture.
2. Resist “looking down on” or making jokes and comments about the host culture. Avoid others who take part in such derogatory remarks.
3. Talk about your feelings with a sympathetic and understanding friend or see a Foreign Student Advisor in the Office of International Services to talk about your feelings.
4. When you hear yourself making negative judgments or generalizations, stop and try to view the situation objectively - without value judgments.
5. Take care of your physical health. Eat nutritious foods, get enough sleep, and, most importantly, get some exercise every day (take a regular walk if nothing else)
The Re-entry Process
A similar process occurs when visitors return to their native countries, although the stages are usually shorter and less intense. The following "W" shaped diagram illustrates reactions and emotions experienced when a person leaves a foreign country and returns to his or her own country.
The "Re-entry" Adjustment Process
In the first diagram, each stage in the "re-entry" process is characterized by symptoms and feelings.
1. Acceptance and integration. See description given for the pre ceding diagram.
2. Return anxiety. There may be confusion and emotional pain about leaving because friendships will have to be disrupted. Many people realize how much they have changed because of their experiences and may be nervous about going home.
3. Return honeymoon. Immediately upon arrival in one's own country, there is generally a great deal of excitement. There are parties to welcome back the visitor and renewed friendships to look forward to.
4. Re-entry shock. Family and friends may not understand or appreciate what the traveller has experienced. The native country or city may have changed in the eyes of the former traveller.
5. Re-integration. The former traveller becomes fully involved with friends, family, and activities and feels once again integrated in the society. Many people at this stage realize the positive and negative aspects of both countries and have a more balanced perspective about their experiences.
Individuals experience the stages of adjustment and re-entry in different ways. When visitors have close relatives in the new culture or speak the foreign language fluently, they may not experience all the effects of culture shock or mental isolation. An exile or refugee would adjust differently from someone who voluntary travelled to a new country. Certain individuals have difficulties adapting to a new environment and perhaps never do; others seem to adjust well from the very beginning of their stay.
Day-to-day living in another culture is undoubtedly an educational experience. While travelling, and living abroad people learn second languages, observe different customs, and encounter new values. Many people who have lived in other countries feel that exposure to foreign cultures enable them to gain insight into their own society. When facing different values, beliefs, and behaviour, they develop a deeper understanding of themselves and of the society that helped to shape their characters. The striking contrasts of a second culture provide a mirror in which one's own culture is reflected.
The experience of cultural adjustment, or culture shock, takes place in stages that can be shortened depending upon your preparation, your understanding of the process, your willingness to take risks, and your acceptance of the necessity to modify your behaviour. The first stage is that of the “tourist” whose involvement in local traditions is minimal, whose knowledge of the culture is superficial, and who perceptually screens the surroundings and remains wrapped in the secure comfort of his or her own culture. After a month or two, the personal, social, and cultural differences intrude more and more into your life and you become frustrated with how difficult your life has become. You may try to avoid contact with the locals, complain a lot about the “stupid way they do things” there, hang out with others from your own country, and sleep a lot to cope with the assault on your personal comfort zone. You might even feel angry with the locals and become hostile toward them.
By contrast, you might just abandon your own cultural ways and “go native,” becoming more “local” than the locals. These ways of “coping” are, of course, maladjusted ways of responding to the new cultural environment, and result in making you inhibited from functioning with full effectiveness and from taking full advantage of the exciting opportunities available in the cross‐cultural experience. The alternative to these responses is to neither reject your own culture nor the ways of the new culture, but rather to adapt to the new situation by remaining open to learning and behavioural growth. It requires you to pay attention to those around you, refining and expanding your skills in interpersonal intercultural communication through being creatively flexible in your responses to the new situation. You must be willing to take risks and make mistakes as you ask questions and modify your behaviour and interpretations to coincide with those of the locals. In this way, your “personal reality” is altered by the culture in which you now live and you are ready to enjoy the rest of your experience: the third and fourth stages.
“The world is a book, of which those who stay in one place read only one page”
Deena R. Levine Mara B. Adelman. (1982) Beyond Language; Intercultural Communication for English as a Second Language. American Language Institute San Diego State University.
LeVine, R. (1984) Properties of culture: An ethnographic view. In Schweder, R. and LeVine, R., Eds. Culture Theory: Essays on Mind, Self, and Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1984), 67.
How to Prepare: Cultural Adjustment.” Center for International Education, University of California, Irvine. www.cie.uci.edu. Accessed on 25 October 2015.