U.S. Cultural Adjustment and Transition

Whether it is your first time away from home, your first time in the United States, or you have studied in the U.S. before coming to Wesleyan, there will be some cultural differences to adjust to, and it will take some time to transition to your new life.

  • The Stages of Culture Shock

    Culture Shock - What is it?
    Culture shock is a normal phenomenon most people experience while they are immersed in a new culture. Scholars have defined four “stages” but they do not necessarily happen in order, can repeat throughout your stay in the country, and will vary from person to person.

    The four stages of culture shock are:

    Cultural Euphoria: When you first come to a new country, the cultural differences will be fascinating! You will enjoy learning about them and may try some of the traditions yourself. You may experience cultural euphoria after being in the U.S. for a while if you learn something new about the culture or visit a new place.

    Cultural Confrontation: At some point, you may find yourself thinking something like “Why don’t they just do it the way we do it at home? It’s so much easier!”

    This stage comes with anger and frustration – and it is completely normal. It will pass and most people find a compromise between what they do at home and how it is done in their new country. 

    Cultural Adjustment: This is a period where you start finding compromises. You may find that you start preferring some U.S. cultural preferences and finding ways to adapt your own culture’s preferences in your life in the U.S.

    Cultural Adoption: You will likely reach a point where you consider yourself bilingual and bicultural. You know you are at this stage when you are able to see things through the lens of U.S. culture, switch to your own cultural preferences when you go home, and be mostly comfortable in both situations. 

    Read more about Cultural Adjustment

    What does culture adjustment look like?

    Cultural adjustment generally moves through stages, but like culture shock, not everyone experiences it in the same way and it may happen in a different order or return to a previous state. The stages fall into two categories: ethnocentric and ethnorelative.

    Denial (Ethnocentric): In this stage, people may not be aware of the cultural differences. They may blame cultural misunderstanding on the individual. For example, if you are not familiar with U.S. culture, you may think an individual is rude when that person says “thank you” after a compliment, rather than denying it being true.

    Defense (Ethnocentric): In this stage, the person acknowledges the differences, but views them through the lens of their own culture. The comparison will favor your home country and assume the other culture’s ideas are “wrong” or “weird.”

    Minimization (Ethnocentric): This stage takes the “people are people” approach and tries to avoid focusing on the cultural differences.

    Acceptance (Ethnorelative): Acknowledges the differences between cultures, but does not judge them as positive or negative. If you are in this stage, you will find that you are curious and want to learn more. 

    Adoption and Integration (Ethnorelative): Similar to the cultural adoption stage of culture shock, you will find that you are able to see the world through both cultural lenses and able to accommodate your behavior to fit the situation. 

  • How do I deal with the stress of cross-cultural differences?

    The first tip is to realize that the stress you are feeling is normal. Here are some tips to help with different types of stress.

    Balancing challenge and support: As a general rule, you need to learn your limits. You came to the U.S. to experience the culture (as well as study) so do not hide from it. Challenge yourself to experience new things and you may find that you like some of the differences that made you uncomfortable at first.

    On the other hand, find forms of support, too. There will be days you just need to complain about U.S. culture (a very normal reaction) and you will need some friends you can do that with. Try to find a balance of international and domestic friends so that you can experience the U.S. to the fullest. 

    Read more about the stress of cross-cultural differences

    Cultural fatigue: This occurs because adapting to a culture or speaking another language for a long period of time is exhausting! Give yourself a break. Spend an evening doing the things you did at home: try listening to your favorite music or watching movies from home. If you have friends at Wesleyan from your culture or are also international students, talk about your frustrations. A sympathetic ear can make you feel a lot better.

    Feeling isolated: Even when you are surrounded by people, you can feel very alone, especially if your culture is very different from those you are with. This can be intensified when you are struggling to understand people because they are using slang, cultural references, and collocations that you do not understand.

    If you feel that way, try to find some way to reconnect with your culture and yourself. Take some time to reconnect with culture: call or message your friends from home, hang out with other international students, watch a movie, or listen to music from home.

  • Expectations Versus Reality

    When you arrived in the U.S., you probably had certain ideas about what the U.S. would be like. If your experience does not match those ideas, it can be frustrating. You may also be surprised to find that when you return home you might have idealized your home and it will not meet your expectations, either. In either case, just take a deep breath and realize that your vision is not as important as the reality that exists.  Read more about expectations

    Feeling invisible: Sometimes the conversation may lead to cultural references and topics that you do not know or maybe there is no one you can talk about your culture that would understand. You may start feeling invisible.

    The best solution may be to just wait. You will be able to jump back into the conversation soon enough and will find friends to share your culture with in time. Be patient and know that Wesleyan will feel like a second home eventually.

    Being the object of curiosity: At the opposite end of the scale, you may get too much attention because of your culture. You may get singled out or asked to speak for your entire country.

    How you react is entirely up to you. You may choose to teach people about your culture or you might explain to them that you do not represent your culture and could not possibly give them the answer that they want.

    Loss of power and control: When you are surrounded by an unfamiliar culture, you will not be able to control situations the way you do at home because you cannot anticipate people’s reactions and you do not know all of the possible options available in that culture. If you are normally a leader or someone who is in control, this can be very difficult.

    Once you are a little more familiar with the culture, you will start to feel like you can lead again. Take some time to figure things out and know that eventually you can be a leader again. 

    There are some cultural values in the U.S. that might surprise you. Every culture has differences in its behaviors, and some aspects of your culture might match standard U.S. values. Do keep in mind that the U.S. is a culturally diverse country and not everyone in the U.S. conforms to these values.