Cultural Adjustments

 Cultural Adjustment

Culture is the sum total of the institutions, beliefs, customs, behaviors, artifacts, language and attitudes of a particular group of people. It is learned and transmitted from generation to generation. It is cumulative and ever changing. It is the way people think, act and speak as well as what they think about, why they act the way they do and what they say. Culture is the total way of life of a people.

Your culture affects everything you do, and it colors the way you view other cultures.

When the contact of cultures reveals extreme differences, or even contradictory views or customs, uneasiness — often referred to as "culture shock" — can occur. Dealing with this uneasiness is part of the valuable process of cross-cultural communication and understanding.

Successfully adapt to your host culture

  • Stay flexible and open-minded.
  • Keep your sense of humor.
  • Keep busy, and set concrete goals. Resist withdrawing into yourself or surrounding yourself with Americans.
  • Be friendly and outgoing. Make new friends in the host culture.
  • Discover the satisfaction of immersing yourself in a different way of life. Be more than a tourist.
  • Remember that you are a guest in the country. Do not expect special privileges.
  • Indulge in aspects of the host culture that you can’t easily experience at home, such as a tea ceremony in Japan.
  • Respect the customs and opinions of the people you meet overseas.
  • Keep in touch with family and friends at home.
  • Get plenty of sleep, exercise and eat healthy meals.
  • Acknowledge that culture shock is normal and will pass. If these feelings increase in severity, seek help from your Study Abroad Faculty Director. If you are not receiving the help you need, contact the Office of International Affairs right away.

Stereotypes and prejudices

Studying overseas includes dealing with your host culture’s stereotypes about you and coming to grips with your own stereotypes about the host culture. It is necessary to recognize that not everyone in your host country is going to behave like a character out of a comic book. For example, not all Australians dress like Crocodile Dundee, and not all Chinese know martial arts. Keep in mind some stereotypes of “typical” Americans:

  • Outgoing and friendly
  • Informal
  • Loud, rude, boastful
  • Immature
  • Hard working
  • Extravagant and wasteful
  • Racially prejudiced
  • Ignorant of other countries
  • Wealthy
  • Generous
  • Promiscuous
  • Always in a hurry


Some stereotypes can lead to prejudice against a group or nationality. Students may encounter overt hostility toward Americans while overseas. Verbal insults are the most common and least dangerous form. Students who find themselves in such situations should simply walk away.

Following are some questions and generalizations about the United States that you may hear in another country. If these or similar questions are posed to you while abroad, try not to become defensive. Address them by being patient, open-minded and gracious. Keep a sense of humor. Sometimes you can deflect them by asking about the host culture. Remember that you are there to learn about another culture, not to promote and become entrenched in your own.

  • We’ve heard about how easy your schools are. How can such a great nation have such a poor educational system?
  • Why do you put your old people in nursing homes? Don’t you care about your elderly?
  • Why are Americans so ignorant of the rest of the world?
  • How can such a rich country have so many poor people?
  • How can you talk so much about human rights when you have racial problems in the U.S.?
  • The U.S. is well known to us from TV and films. With the proliferation of sex and drugs in the U.S., you must be immoral.
  • Why are you always trying to force your form of government on everyone else?
  • Americans don’t respect marriage. Divorce for you is as simple as going to the grocery store.
  • Do you own a gun?

It is important to note specific areas in which cultural misunderstandings can occur. If you are aware of some key differences, you can avoid problems and cultural missteps.

Personal space

Every culture has a conception of what is considered appropriate personal space. Personal space is the area around you that you reserve for yourself and people with whom you are on intimate terms. Learn the etiquette of personal space in your host culture by observing other people. Do not be offended if someone invades “your” space by accident. Remember that in some cultures the American norm of wide personal space translates into aloofness and standoffish behavior. Your habits in regard to personal space could be telling other people something about you that is not really true.

Polite behavior

Every culture has an idea of what is considered “polite,” what is considered “informal” and what is considered “rude.” These fine shades of social behavior take years to learn, even for natives; don’t be discouraged if it takes you a while to adjust to these norms. Indeed, some people, even in their own cultures, never quite get the hang of these distinctions. Examples of things Americans do that may be considered rude in some other cultures are pointing, smiling at strangers, asking personal questions, teasing, shouting and calling people by their first names.


Sense of humor differs drastically from culture to culture. What may be funny to you is not always going to be funny to an Australian, for example. Conversely, what an Australian considers hilarious, you may find downright rude or offensive. Be careful about what you joke about overseas, and observe the joking behaviors of your friends. Learn from other people’s mistakes! If a joke about the Queen Mother gets a friend of yours a mouthful of teeth in a London pub, remember not to make the same kind of jokes. Again, it is best to err on the side of caution when it comes to humor.

Topics of conversation

Many cultures have taboo subjects that may or may not make any sense to most Americans — and vice versa. Try to find out what can be safely spoken about in polite conversation and what might be considered off-color or rude. Political discussions, especially, can become very heated. If you are not sure where you stand on an issue or are not willing to discuss it, simply back out of the discussion. The last thing most people want to hear is an ill-informed American talking loudly about cultural or local issues about which he or she knows nothing.