Cultural Adaptation

The experience of going to a new country is rich with opportunities to learn about your new home and to reflect upon the US or your home country, but it is not without stress as you meet new people and learn new ways of living. Expect that things, both large and small, will be different; understanding why they are different can be a helpful way of learning about your new environment. Consider keeping a journal, which will not only prompt you to think about your experiences, but will be a welcome record of your time abroad in the years to come.

Mount Holyoke students typically are distributed among 35 to 40 countries each year, so this handbook cannot provide country-specific information on cultural values and social mores. You may receive some information from your university or program sponsor, and we urge you to seek other resources (including returned students and the travel resources listed above under “Other Travel Resources”). However, here are a few general suggestions to help you anticipate differences that you may encounter abroad.

  • Men and women may interact with each other in ways that are different from what you are used to. Body language and words themselves may have different meanings; standards of dress for women may be more conservative (especially in churches, museums, and other public places); what we perceive as sexual harassment (whistles, cat-calls, even touching) may be considered the ordinary and acceptable standard of behavior. Learn and observe how other women your age dress and behave, and follow those standards, at least until you can more comfortably understand how and when it is appropriate to be different.
  • People in some places may know the US only from movies, television, music videos, and other media, and may have stereotypical views of the US, including the belief that all American women are promiscuous. It may take some time for some people to understand that that stereotype does not apply to all women, nor to you personally.
  • In the US, despite problems that still exist, we tend to expect (and laws often require) that individuals are entitled to fair and equal treatment without regard to gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. In other countries, these expectations may not apply. (See the web sites listed under “Other Travel Resources” for more information.)
  • Depending on where you plan to study and travel, you may find that women are not accorded equality under the law, and/or in practice. Inform yourself about what to expect. You may learn more about the position of women by respecting and observing such differences than by arguing or intruding into places or activities considered inappropriate for women.
  • Persons of color may experience more or less overt discrimination or racism than they typically expect to encounter here.
  • Attitudes toward lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgendered people may be more or less tolerant than here or in your home community. NAFSA: The Association of International Educators supports a web site with an extensive bibliography of resources on travel, some of a general nature and some that is country/region specific. Several of the resources listed here also address issues relevant to women travelers in general.
  • Some feelings of discomfort are inherent in any experience abroad as you cross the boundaries between your own values and attitudes and those that you encounter in a new and different cultural context. However, if you feel unsafe or uncomfortable as a result of attitudes or actions that you think are directed at you because of your gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc., it is critical that you speak to your program sponsor or host, or that you contact the Center for Global Initiatives. Your program or host can help you understand what is happening, respond appropriately, and access local sources of support, as well as take any action that may be necessary to ensure your safety. But remember that no one can know what you are experiencing or how to help you if you don’t speak up.

Culture Shock

(This section is adapted from Participant's Handbook 1981-82 United States of America, published by ISEP, Georgetown University, Washington, DC, p. 34.)

If you are going abroad (or going to a particular country) for the first time, you probably will experience what is commonly referred to as culture shock. Dr. Kalervo Oberg, one of the first writers on culture shock as a phenomenon, has described culture shock as a series of stages which proceed from entry into the host culture to re-entry into the home culture. These stages will vary in length (the entire cycle may last for a few weeks or a few months) and may overlap with one another; many people will experience Stages 2 and 3 in repeated cycles as they adapt to their new environment. The process overall may result in up and down cycles and mood swings; it’s helpful to be aware of what to expect so that you will be better able to understand what is happening and why you are responding to certain situations in ways that may be unlike your customary behavior. It may also be helpful to remind yourself at such times that you chose to go abroad because you wanted to embrace difference, and that getting out and doing things will help you get through the adjustment and make the most of your time abroad.

  • Stage 1 is a period of incubation. You probably will be very positive about everything, since it is all a new experience.
  • Stage 2 is a period of crisis. In the settling-in process you may encounter genuine difficulties. Situations may arise which you did not expect. You may become critical or negative toward the host culture and even think that people are out to make life difficult.
  • Stage 3 is a period of recovery. You will begin to realize that different cultures have different ways of doing things. You will even begin at times to react to certain situations the way a person from your host country might. It is at this time that you will begin to laugh at your earlier fears.
  • Stage 4 will be the time that you begin to adjust more positively to your host country's way of life while objectively recognizing its inadequacies (relative to your home country). When you return, you probably will experience some culture shock in reverse, though not as severe as before.

Another view of culture shock is described by writer Peter Adler as "the very heart of the cross-cultural learning experience." The culture shock process forces you to reflect upon yourself and your own culture. The net result is a new understanding of your own values, beliefs, and behaviors.

One of the most important skills to be developed when traveling to a new culture is tolerance for the values, beliefs, and behaviors of others. You must know your own culture: the value system, artistic traditions, technological achievements, philosophical concepts, and communicative techniques used. If you are comfortable with who you are, you will be willing to accept others as they are; then living in another country will be a wonderful learning experience both for you and for those you meet.

Be conscious not to isolate. An honest conversation with someone who cares about you can make a world of difference and significantly deepen a relationship.