Adjusting to a New Culture
Stresses and strains are inherent to most living situations and the cross-cultural living experience is no exception. It is widely agreed that exchange students go through cyclical periods of emotional highs and lows after entering the new, and often very different, environment of their host community and host family members often feel similar highs and lows.
Our past experience, substantiated by Peace Corps studies, has shown that a general cycle of emotional stages tends to occur when an individual embarks upon living in a new and different culture. These stages are known as the “Cultural Adjustment Cycle” or “Cultural Adjustment Curve.” While there are individual variations of these cycles, general observations are useful in understanding a newcomer’s reaction to an unfamiliar environment.
It is important to remember that this chart merely provides a general outline and not specific boundaries. Some participants may experience the cycle as it is depicted. Some stages may last longer or be more noticeable while others may be shorter or more subtle. The strength and duration of stages that each person experiences is unique and also impacted by other factors, such as personality, level of social connection and engagement, cultural values, language skills, communication styles, behaviors and environment.
Common Phases of Cultural Adjustment
The “Cultural Adjustment Cycle” chart depicts the general adjustment cycle that many AFS Participants commonly experience.
High and Low Phases of Student Adjustment
At each of the predicted "low points" in the pictorial of "High's and Low's", AFS has pre-scheduled orientations. These are:
- "Culture Shock" in Mid September -- Post-Arrival Orientation
- "Mental Isolation" in Mid January -- Mid-Stay Orientation
- "Return Jitters" in May -- End-of-Stay Orientation
Patterns of Stages to Student Adjustment
Cultural adjustment phases tend to follow a certain pattern. As Dr. Bettina Hansel, long time AFS staff member writes in her book, "The Exchange Student Survival Kit", the stages of cultural adjustment can be categorized in the following way:
- Arrival Fatigue: Each student will have a mixture of powerful feelings upon arrival in the host country. There will be excitement, anxiety, nervousness, and hopefulness. The combination of these emotions, jet lag, and the intense concentration it takes to assimilate new surroundings (and often a new language) is incredibly exhausting. Soon after their arrival students may feel very tired.
- Homesickness: Bouts of homesickness are completely normal for students, especially soon after arrival. It's understandable that, in an unfamiliar environment, one would think of home, friends and family. Homesickness does not necessarily indicate a serious problem. Complications arise when a student begins to romanticize home, and believe that everything is better in their native country.
Communicating with family and friends a lot during this period generally makes participants' feelings of homesickness worse, not better. A reminder that "It's not right... it's not wrong... just different" can help to refocus. One AFSer also said that after a good night's sleep she felt much better!
- Settling In: This period is often called the "honeymoon" phase. As their fatigue begins to wear off, AFSers often begin to discover the new and exciting things they like about their host culture. They might begin making friends and becoming more comfortable in their new home. The participants' confidence in being able to adapt can be strong, and they can feel exhilarated by the accomplishments that they have already made.
- Deepening the Relationship: At this point in the cultural adjustment period, students begin to change from being a house guest to a member of the family. With this change comes increased comfort and also increased responsibility. A student will need to be accountable for their host family’s governing values and rules. Like any parent/child or sibling relationship, as the relationship deepens, sometimes conflicts can arise. This is not a bad sign, it usually just means that the student is becoming more a part of their new family.
- Culture Shock: Even the most even-keeled individuals will probably experience culture shock on some level during their AFS program. Issues surrounding culture shock warrant a separate section, and we will talk more about the causes and effects of culture shock later on. For now, suffice it to say that at this stage of cultural adjustment, the "honeymoon" is over, and real life begins again. Some of the novelty of the host community has worn off, and many participants tend to long for things familiar. Also, awareness of the cultural differences on the deeper level come to the surface.
- The Holidays: During the familiar holidays, students may enjoy the celebrations of their new host families, but will likely also feel a little sad and lonely. Major holidays tend to remind students of home, and it is especially hard for kids when they know that their family and friends are getting together and celebrating without them.
- Culture Learning: After surviving culture shock and weathering the holidays, the student's newly found confidence will help them face new challenges. Although participants can feel frustrated and lonely at times, the hardest part has generally passed. Relationships in the host country are getting stronger, and participants know how to respond appropriately to the social cues of their host culture. Grounded in their community and home life, AFSers become increasingly confident in trying new things and forging their own path.
- Pre-Departure: In the weeks before the student returns home, feelings are almost always mixed. While AFSers are excited about the prospect of seeing their own families and friends again, they are sad to leave their new family and friends in the host country. In addition, many participants are suddenly inundated by invitations to parties and special activities scheduled for the end of the school year.
It is worth noting that although we can generally predict the aforementioned stages of the cultural adjustment process, each participant will experience these stages at varying levels of intensity and duration. In addition, some may skip stages, go back and forth between stages or "get stuck" in a particular phase.
The following chart offers a general picture of the host family adjustment cycle:
A host family will also go through an adjustment process as they integrate their new "child" into the family. The stages of the host family adjustment cycle frequently correspond to those of the exchange student. In fact, the student's adjustment and the host family's adjustment typically affect one another. Just as the student is adjusting to a new family and a new culture, the family is adjusting to a new family member who has a different cultural background.
The family's previous experience with making adjustments and their overall flexibility can help prepare them for the highs and lows, but will not eliminate the fluctuations inherent in the host family experience. As with students, host families will also have individualized patterns of adjustment.
Social Cues and Cultural Fatigue
Social cues are acquired by all people in childhood development and throughout life. Social cues include:
- Body Language
- Facial expressions
- Behaviors or social norms
- Idioms and phrases
Social cues are as much a part of our culture as the language we speak or the beliefs we hold. Most of us are not consciously aware of the hundreds of “hints” we depend on every day to function normally. These cues include the many ways we orient ourselves to the situations of daily life, such as:
- When to shake hands
- What to say when meeting people
- When and how to give tips (or if they should be given at all)
- When to accept and refuse invitations
- When to take statements seriously (and when NOT to)
When a hosted participant enters an unfamiliar host culture, the social cues could be similar to or different from their home culture(s). Hosted participants often feel like a “fish out of water.” No matter how broad-minded or well prepared a hosted participant is, they still must try to adapt to and learn new social cues and norms. This experience often causes cultural fatigue. Cultural fatigue is brought on by the amount of effort an individual must exert while attempting to adapt to a new culture and learn a new language, as well as by the anxiety that results from losing all familiar cues of social interaction. Cultural fatigue often includes feelings of frustration, anxiety, exhaustion, and may even lower resistance to illness.
Homesickness can be exacerbated if hosted participants communicate too frequently with family and friends back home. During “voice-to-voice” or “face-to-face” interaction (via the internet or phone), participants are powerfully reminded of their home culture, language, customs, and home activities at a time when they are feeling especially vulnerable in an unfamiliar environment. This contact with a loved one can cause sadness for hours or days since participants are constantly reminded of the distance and the differences around them. This sadness adds to the difficulties of adaptation, as participants are distracted from integrating into their host community. If your hosted participant seems to be experiencing homesickness, it may help to remind them this is a normal part of the adjustment process and these feelings will come and go throughout the experience. In the meantime, encourage them to participate in family or school activities to connect with others and ease their loneliness.
Understanding and Respecting the “Personal Space Bubble”
Boundaries of personal space and “normal” signs of affection vary greatly across cultures. Respect for boundaries is important because the host family and hosted participant will be accustomed to different cultural norms. Be aware of the hosted participant’s cultural background and acceptable forms of physical contact. Be sure to ask your hosted participant what is appropriate for them and what they are most comfortable with.
AFS Participants and host family members should communicate, understand and respect each other’s preferences for personal space and privacy. For example, host families should make sure that hosted participants are given ample privacy for bathroom use, showering, and sleeping.
It is important to recognize that certain signs of affection or physical contact that may be typical for your family might make a hosted participant from another country and culture uncomfortable. For example, it is common for a hosted participant from France to greet someone with a kiss on each cheek. In contrast, a hosted participant from Japan, who may typically greet someone with a slight bow, may be uncomfortable with or misinterpret such physical contact. It is important to keep these cultural differences, and your hosted participant’s comfort level, in mind while integrating them into your family.
Be sure that physical contact is appropriate and is based on the hosted participants’ needs; DON’T hug or touch a hosted participant to satisfy your own needs. Don’t assume that a hug will help a hosted participant who is sad or homesick. While a hug can be helpful in some situations for some students, sometimes physical contact could also make a hosted participant feel uncomfortable.
Furthermore, while your family members may feel comfortable with a foot, back or shoulder massage after a long day at work, tough football or dance practice, etc., host parents and siblings should NOT request or give any type of massage to their hosted participant in order to avoid any possible misunderstanding and/or discomfort on the part of the hosted participant.
Examples of the ‘Personal Space Bubble” Across Cultures:
Gestures Across Cultures
The meanings of common gestures vary across cultures. Some gestures that are acceptable in one culture can have a very different meaning in another culture. The following chart illustrates some of these examples. When interacting with and gesturing to your hosted participant, always check that they understand your meaning. If your gestures elicit a negative response, please talk with your participant and find out what that gesture means in their culture.