Dr. Linda Seward
Speech and Theatre Department
Middle Tennessee State University 37132

Study Abroad


Culture Shock

When you sign up for study abroad it may not occur to you that exciting times will be mixed in with difficult times.  Living in another culture is exciting but also challenging.  Suddenly the simplest act requires conscious thought as you try to figure out how things work.  Ordering food, getting directions, and learning to negotiate mass transportantion (trains, bussess, subways) are just some of the tasks that take extra time and effort.  You may even find yourself  in a country where you are, suddenly, inarticulate and illiterate!  At first it's an adventure, but after awhile the adventure becomes tiring.  As one student aptly put it:

"Every day is a test.  Will I understand what they say to me?.  Will they understand what I say to them?  Will I be able to get from point A to point B?"

Even something familiar can prove to be a challange.  Notice, for example, the French keyboard below.  The "a", "q" and "w" are in a different place than what we have in the U.S. - which creates problems for those who type without looking at the keyboard!


Traveling abroad always combines good and bad moments but it is the accumulation of daily challenges that result in the phenomenon known as Culture Shock.  Living in temperatures that reach 100 degrees (with no access to air conditioning), being served strange foods, becoming illiterate, not knowing where to find simple necessities - all take their toll.  You begin to feel tired, your brain hurts and before you know it you can find yourself in a depressed state known as Culture Shock. 

The good news: it is temporary and there are things that you and your family can do to help you through this process. 

Before talking about that, however, let me point out some common symptoms:

Common Symptoms of Culture Shock

  • sadness, often described as homesickness
  • sleeping in the afternoon even though you had a full night of sleep
  • inability to make simple decisions or to concentrate, particularly when trying to do homework
  • crying for no apparent reason
  • listless feeling; apathy - sometimes mistaken for a mild case of the flu
  • becoming very critical of the host country

Note: for those who study abroad for longer periods of time (a year, for example), it is common to experience two difficult periods.  The first often occurs about 3-4 weeks into the program and the second occurs about 5-6 months into the experience. 

The symptoms and depth of depression will vary with each person.  The most difficult part of culture shock is that, similar to a person who has been in an automobile accident, you may not realize that you are experiencing it.  Knowing about culture shock, however, does help you identify and understand what is happening when it occurs.  I've also listed some specific steps that you and your parents can take to ease your journey through the difficult patches.

Smart car in France - solves parking problems!

                   How to Cope

  •  keep a journal where you freely express what you really feel about the difficult challenges of being in another country.  Being able to express your feelings helps you to cope with them.
  •  visit a restaurant that serves food from your culture  (Yes, it is actually ok to go to a McDonalds to get familiar food!)
  • watch a movie from home - it will be great to see familiar sights and hear a language where you understand everything that is said!
  • talk to friends about your home and family; show them pictures and if you're talking to people in the host culture, explain your holidays. 
  •  ask a friend from the host culture to take you someplace new and "be in charge".  It is important that you have some occasions where you do not have to think about what to say and do.
  • take a nap
  • try to understand why people in the your host culture do things differently than people in your country; are there historical, religious, or technological explanations for the behavior/custom?  What are the benefits of the behavior/custom?
  • go somewhere new - a new city, a new part of town.  This works because it puts you back at the beginning of the process to a stage of excitement.
  • call/email home. 

Note: if you will be overseas during a national holiday or special personal event (like a birthday), it's important to consciously consider what you will do on that day or time of year to keep from getting depressed.  Some people try to recreate what they would do at home while others prefer to develop new traditions or to do something entirely unrelated.  Either way, make sure you have thought it out in advance in order to avoid - or at least decrease - the depression that can occur during special times of the year.

Oman meal

Refreshments in rural Oman

How your parents can help you cope with Culture Shock

  1. Understand that occasional depressions are a normal process of coping with the challenges of living overseas.
  2. Keep in touch!             
  • If the internet is available in their host country, send emails - you can even send one the day they leave.  That way, the first time they log on, they'll have a "touch of home" to brighten their day.
  • For longer stays, don't overlook old fashioned "snail mail".  Cards, letters, photos (of pets as well as of family and friends) and packages always make someone's day.

    what to write?

    When your child is overseas, some parents think they have nothing to write about because they are just going about very routine lives.  But it is that very "routineness" that students miss.  Was a movie a big hit at the box office - or a flop? What is the big local news?  Was traffic a mess on the way to work?  Is the weather unusually hot?  Was their an interesting article in the paper or on the news about their favorite sports team or musician?  Did their pet dog roll over 3 times and then beg for food from the table?  Did their niece learn a new word or say something cute?  Did a new restaurant open - or close?  Is there a new commercial on t.v. that is funny, cute or strange?  All the little daily happenings are things that we lose when we are overseas.

    Tip: When I joined the Air Force, my mother instinctively knew that mail would be crucial during basic training.  To increase the amount of mail I received, she bought a group of postcards, put my address on them and then passed them out to friends and asked them to write me a note.  It was absolutely wonderful receiving cards from a wide variety of people - and no one minded doing it because they didn't have to write long notes.  It was easy for them and a real treat for me. 
  1. Remind them of the steps listed under "How to Cope". 
  2. Understand that while they will experience down times, overall, their positive experiences will outweigh the difficulties.

Students at D-Day celebration

D-Day at Normandy