Cultural Adjustment

Stages of Cultural Adjustment

Living in a foreign country is very challenging.  In the first year, almost everyone experiences “culture shock” to some degree.  Culture shock is that feeling of dislocation that affects people who move to a new place or country.  Many who experience it do not even realize that they are suffering from it – all they know is that everything is very difficult in their new home.

How can you know if someone is experiencing culture shock?

People who are experiencing culture shock worry and complain about all aspects of life – the food, the weather, the people, etc.  They worry about minor ailments and pains.  They often become frustrated and angry over minor problems, and some even refuse to learn the new language.  Overall, they feel helpless and homesick, and want to go home to see relatives and to talk with people that “make sense.”

What causes culture shock?

Culture shock is caused by unfamiliarity with the new country, by not being able to speak the language fluently or understand the many new idioms, and by not knowing how to behave in an unfamiliar culture.  Not only is the language different, but gestures, facial expressions, and traditions are also different.  Newcomers can sometimes feel like children because they cannot understand all these new things at once.

What are the stages of cultural adjustment?

There are four stages of culture adjustment, though each lasts a different length of time for every individual who experiences it.  In general, the stages are:

  • Stage 1: Excitement. During the first stage, foreign visitors often feel excited.  The new country is interesting, the people are friendly and helpful, and the future looks promising.  The first stage is also called the “honeymoon phase.”  Everything around you is new and different.  As a foreigner you will probably experience a lot of attention form the people around you.
  • Stage 2: Problems! School, language, shopping, dealing with the climate – everything is difficult.  Things that were simple back home require more effort in the new country.  It seems hard to make friends, and at this point, foreign visitors may begin to believe that the local people are unfriendly.  Homesickness begins, and along with it complaints about the new country.  This is the stage we hear referred to as “culture shock.”  At this stage, you can experience severe depression.  It is important to talk about it and approach the situation positively.
  • Stage 3: Recovery. The foreign visitor begins to use the language more fluently, so communication with locals becomes easier.  Customs and traditions become clearer, and slowly the situation passes from impossible to hopeful; you start to feel more comfortable in the new environment.  Minor misunderstandings that were stressful in Stage 2 become manageable.  Make sure you set goals for your stay in the United States, to make your experience an enriching one.
  • Stage 4: Stability. Eventually foreign visitors begin to feel more at home in the new country.  Those things they do not like about their new country no longer make them so dissatisfied and unhappy.  Life has settled down, and they are now able to find humor in the situations in which they find themselves.

Although culture adjustment takes place every time a person moves to another country, with each move the shock usually lessens.  It is important to realize that your stay in the United States will probably be accompanied by a degree of personal growth.  Try to be aware of these changes in your personality as you return to your home culture, and expect your feelings toward your culture to have changed as well.  People often do not fully understand culture shock until they return home to their country, when they are surprised to see their own country with new eyes.  Remember you are now an international traveler, and you will see everything a little differently from now on.

Sometimes students worry about “losing their culture” if they become too well adapted to their host culture.  Don’t worry: it is virtually impossible to lose the culture in which you were raised.  In fact, learning about another culture often increases your appreciation for and understanding of your own culture.  Don’t resist the opportunity to become bicultural – able to function competently in two cultural environments.

Just as culture shock comes from a series of cultural clashes, a series of small successes can lead to more effective interactions within the new culture.  As you increase your abilities to manage and understand the new social system, practices that recently seemed so strange will become less puzzling.  Eventually you will adapt enough to do your best in your studies and in your social life to relax and fully enjoy the experience.

Assumptions and Values

Members of a particular culture share certain unquestioned values and assumptions, that is, ideas about how the world operates, humankind’s place in the world, what is right and what is wrong, and what the purpose of living is supposed to be.

People from different cultures have different ways of putting information together to reach judgments and decisions.  What is “logical” to people from one place might not be logical to people from another.  Discussing differences in ways of thinking is difficult, because the subject is abstract.

The First Few Days

During the first few days, you may wish to begin exploring your new environment.  It also will be useful to come to orientation or visit the International Student Advisor (Loretto Hall 154).

Explore the area immediately surrounding your accommodations.  Visit the nearest post office, bank, supermarket, etc. which you will need to use in the future.  To avoid getting lost, look for landmarks such as churches, stores, etc., which will help you retrace your steps.  Of course, ALWAYS take a map!

Ways to Get Used to a New Country Quickly and Comfortably

Explore – get a sense for the physical environment.

  • Go on campus and St. Louis walking tours.
  • Talk to people in your department.
  • Try to find another student to show you around.
  • Find a friend and do your own walking tour.

Get a sense for norms of behavior.

  • Watch people’s behavior.  (You may want to keep a journal of what you observe.)
  • How do people greet other?
  • How do they line up for a bus, how do they seat themselves on a bus?  The bank?
  • How do people behave in offices?
  • How do people behave walking on the street?

Be slow to judge.

  • Observe first, then find a “cultural interpreter” (someone who knows the culture) and ask.  Be sure to ask “why” people do what they do.  Good sources of cultural interpretation are the people in the Multicultural Center and the International Recruitment and International Services Office.  They will be glad to answer any questions you have.
  • While you are observing behavior, you might think about what people would do in the same situation in your country.  That way you will learn about your own culture as well as have a basis of comparison.

Go to events where you can meet people over time.

  • Participate in sports on campus, SAC, MC, RA/CA Programs
  • Join student organizations.

Talk to everyone you meet.

  • Talk to Webster employees.
  • Visit with other students.
  • Start a conversation with anyone you can

Read, listen, and watch.

  • Try reading all local newspapers: The St. Louis Post-DispatchThe Riverfront Times, Suburban Journal, etc.
  • Check out books about American culture from the library.
  • Watch local television stations.

Relax, take it slowly, and keep your sense of humor!

Some Good Guidelines for Cross-Cultural Communication

  1. Make sure the persons to whom you are speaking understand your exact meaning.  Some people are not very good listeners, especially when you take the cultural variables into account.  Sometimes they will be preoccupied with how they come across, rather than carefully listening to you.
  2. Pay attention to facial expressions and body language.  Body language can be a good supplement to a conversation.
  3. If you do not understand exactly what someone is saying, ask them to repeat and clarify it.  Do not assume you understand.
  4. What you say is as important as how you say it.
  5. Choose your words carefully; avoid using slang and idioms until you are very comfortable with the language.
  6. Be aware of your own biases.  You may encounter some cultural peculiarities you might not agree with.  Remember to listen with a tolerant and open mind.
  7. Listen carefully and do not interrupt immediately when you hear something that you disagree with.
  8. Take time to form your responses and choose the types of words you are going to use.  Go slowly if you need to.

Always be sensitive to cross-cultural differences.  Always give the benefit of the doubt to the individual and be patient with yourself and your partner.



In the way they dress, act, talk—there can be no mistaking that individuality is important to Americans.  This can be a little unnerving to visitors who come from cultures where conservative values, “conforming to the group,” and maintaining harmony and order are important.

While you are certainly not expected to change your values, you may experience difficulties in the classroom if you come from a culture such as the one mentioned above.  Independent thinking is expected of students in American classrooms.  Interpretation, analysis, critical thinking, and even challenging the professor may be expected of you in your classes.  You may even be graded on your classroom participation.  It takes practice and time to become accustomed to doing these things, but most students eventually succeed.  (Visiting faculty members will also have to become accustomed to these qualities in American students.)

Personal Space

A person who comes from South America or the Middle East, places where people typically stand very close together during conversation, may find that Americans like to stand several feet away.  Some may think that Americans are unfriendly or uninterested.  This is not true.  In general, Americans like to keep about 2 – 3 feet between them and the person they are talking to, unless the person is a close friend, relative, or spouse.

In the United States, it is customary to shake hands when you meet someone, and tell them your first name.  This does not always occur, so at times there may be a moment of hesitation on your or their part.  It is usually sufficient to just say your name or “nice to meet you” even if you don’t shake hands.

If you’d like to discuss different kinds of greetings that may be more comfortable for you, please come talk to the International Student Advisor.


Americans do not usually embrace in public, except with members of their family or very close friends.  Men usually shake hands the first time they meet.  Women generally do not do so in a social situation, but do in a business atmosphere.  “How do you do?”  “Good morning” and “Good afternoon” are formal greetings.  Most people will use the more informal greeting of “Hello,” or “Hi.”


In America, if you don’t know a person well, in general, you place a title in front of their name.  This is out of respect.  If it is a man, you may call him ‘mister,’ and if it is a woman, you may call her ‘miss,’ ‘missus (Mrs.),’ or ‘miz (Ms.).’  These titles go in front of a person’s last name, for example, Mr. Woodard, or Ms. Hard.  If you do not know the person’s last name, you may call a man ‘sir,’ and a woman ‘ma’am.’


You will probably notice what appears to be great informality between student and professor, employee and boss, etc.  Calling professors, new acquaintances, and employers by their first name should not be taken as a lack of respect.  It is often just “the American way.”

Age Differences and Respect

Respect for elders by younger people is expected in the U.S., but not to the degree found in many other countries.  You will find that most people in the U.S. expect to treat you as an equal.  For example, if you have a roommate who is ten years older than you, your roommate will not expect any special privileges.  Simply remember to use common courtesy in your dealings with others and you will not offend them.


It is customary to say “excuse me” if you: want to get someone’s attention, bump into someone, or want to get by.  You should also knock before entering a room where the door is fully or partially closed.

Prejudice and Discrimination

Prejudice beliefs and discrimination take many forms – from things said, to mimicking and joking about others, to poor service or attitude.  As an international visitor, you may experience some form of discrimination or prejudice while you are here.  If you feel that you have been discriminated against and would like to talk about the experience, please feel free to come and talk to the International Student Advisor.


It may seem to you that Americans’ conversational questions are both too numerous and too personal.  People in the mobile society are used to meeting new people and quickly feeling at ease with them.  Their way of getting to know someone is to ask all sorts of questions about that person’s job, his/her background, and family.  Such questions are out of interest, not an invasion of privacy.  If you are uncomfortable with some of these questions, you need not answer them.  You can freely admit that you are not used to a particular question, that such a question would not be asked in your culture.  Your honesty in this regard will be appreciated.

If you enjoy this exchange of information, by all means ask Americans about their families and themselves.  Be aware though, that despite all of our openness and our straightforward approach, we too are uncomfortable with certain questions. These include questions about a person’s age, weight, religion, politics, salary, and the cost of his/her belongings.  Married couples are especially sensitive to being asked why they have no (or only one or two) children.


Americans place great importance on being punctual.  It is very important to honor appointments without being late.  You may also notice what you might consider to be an unusual concern with time and efficiency.  Americans are often looking for a faster and more efficient way of doing things.  A common sentiment is the more that is accomplished each day, the better.

Socializing and Interacting

Some Social Customs

Although scholars have various ways of defining the term, “culture” usually refers to the ideas, ways of thinking, and customary behaviors that are shared by members of a given group.  Everyone agrees that cultures do differ, but explaining those differences in a way that is clear to everyone can be difficult.  While it is important for visitors to learn the main customs that prevail locally and to follow them – or at least not violate them – it is not possible to give a complete catalog of any culture’s customs.  Here are a few customs that Americans automatically know and might not think to tell you.

Social Invitations

Invitations should be accepted as soon as possible.  Appointments for social affairs are usually more flexible than those for business functions.  For example, if a party is to begin at 8 p.m., many of the guests will arrive at staggered hours, and some may come as late as 10 p.m.  This is not acceptable for a dinner invitation.  You should always arrive at the time stated if the invitation includes dinner.  Under normal circumstances, a person who invites you to dinner or to the theater takes care of the bill as well.  However if a student invites you, you should be prepared to pay for yourself, since students are often short of money.  If you are in doubt, ask.  You may want to suggest that each person pay for their own meal.  You may receive an invitation that asks you to a potluck dinner (a dinner where each guest brings a part of the meal) or asks you to bring your own beverage (BYOB).  Although it may seem strange, this is a perfectly acceptable way of entertaining in America.

Common Social Events

  • Parties range from the extremely informal gatherings of students to formal occasions requiring written invitations and fancy dress.  Usually there are snack-type foods and alcoholic beverages.  Some parties are “dances” and some are social mingling and conversation.
  • Cocktail parties are semi-casual late afternoon or early evening parties for conversation and meeting people.  Usually for special interest groups
  • Teas are semi-formal afternoon gatherings usually given by ladies groups.
  • Receptions are semi-public gatherings arranged as needed to provide acquaintance with special persons.  The nature of the reception depends upon those for whom it is given.


The most common form of individual/small group entertaining.  Certain rules of etiquette (courtesy) must be followed:

  1. Always be definite in accepting or declining the invitation.  If you accept but later find that you are unable at attend, inform the host as soon as possible.
  2. Arrive on time.
  3. It is polite to ask the host if you can bring something and to inform him/her of any dietary restrictions.
  4. Gifts are not expected, although bringing something small such as flowers or candy can be nice for special occasions.  Guests often bring a bottle of wine although this is certainly not expected of non-drinkers.
  5. It is polite to compliment the hostess on the food.  Sincerity is appreciated.  Thank the host as you leave.
  6. If your host does not smoke, ask if it is all right for you to smoke before you take your cigarettes.

Dinners range from informal to formal, but the most common are very casual, especially in a university environment.  Plan to spend the evening at the host’s home.  Other than eating, conversation is the main event at dinner.  It is impolite to “eat and run” unless you have a compelling reason to leave early.  It is generally expected that you stay and socialize for approximately an hour after the meal.

Going to a restaurant

When students go out together, they expect to pay their own meals individually.  Always be prepared to pay for yourself unless someone specifies that they wish to “take you out.”  Likewise, you may suggest going out without assuming the responsibility of paying for everyone.

Food and Table Manners

Americans usually eat three meals a day.  Breakfast may be eggs, bacon, cold cereal, and toast served with coffee, tea, milk or juice.  A light lunch of sandwiches, soups, or salads is common.  The main meal, supper, is eaten between 5 and 7 p.m. and usually consists of meat, vegetables, bread, salad, and dessert.  Low-calorie and “diet” meals are popular with Americans, as the country becomes more health-conscious.

Saying Thank You

It is considerate to send a thank you note to your host or hostess.  It is not necessary to take a gift, especially if you are invited only for dinner.  If you are invited to a birthday party or for Christmas, a small gift is appropriate.  It is never necessary to give an expensive gift; a small souvenir from your country would be happily received.  It is customary to say “thank you,” even for small favors done by a person who is only doing his/her job (such as a clerk in a store).  The response, “You’re welcome,” is also customary.


Most Americans have large numbers of friendly acquaintances, but just a few close friends.  Visitors from other countries often remark that Americans are very friendly, even at first meeting, but that it is difficult to get to know them very well.  Sometimes this is true, because though Americans are friendly to everyone, they are also private people and often have just a few intimate friends.

“I’ll be seeing you soon,” “We’ll have to get together soon,” and “Drop over sometime,” are usually just friendly ways of saying good-bye between new acquaintances, and should not be taken seriously as invitations.

If you would like to get to know someone better, it is a good idea for you to take the initiative and invite them to coffee, soda, etc.  By participating in as many social activities as you can, you will make many new friends.

Bathing and Hygiene

Most Americans bathe or shower daily, and use a deodorant and antiperspirant.  Americans therefore, find body odor and perspiration offensive.  For the time that they are here, some international visitors may need to adjust their bathing and hygiene routine in accordance with American norms.