Skip to content

Transitioning to a New Culture

One of the most important things you can do before you leave is to research your host culture. For example, what are the cultural norms, expected behaviors, and taboo topics? You can ease the stress of making a cultural transition by learning as much as you can about your host culture before you go.

During the first few weeks, spend time observing how locals interact with each other – do they shake hands or kiss on the cheek? Do you notice them nodding, bowing, smiling, or saying something when they approach others? What is the dynamic between the men and women, between generations, different socioeconomic groups, teachers vs. students, and vendors and their customers? What seems to take precedence in your host culture – work, family, money, leisure, or religion?

As you start to understand more about your new environment, try to practice local behaviors. This will help you adjust and better navigate the social complexities of where you are living and learning.
The Davidson College E.H. Little Library has developed a study abroad guide with excellent resources to help you practice the local language, learn more about your host country, research local culture, and review tips for conducting research while abroad.
Check out additional resources below to start your research.

One of the main reasons you chose your program was for its academic offerings. Whether you will be in university classes with local students, center-based courses with other U.S. students, courses with a fieldwork component, or some other type of environment, you should familiarize yourself with what will be expected. Consider the following questions:
  • Will you attend large lectures with hundreds of other students? Smaller, discussion-based courses? A combination of the two as is popular in the United Kingdom?
  • Do your courses run throughout the entire semester, or will you take them in “blocks” with some finishing before starting others?
  • Are there fieldwork or service-learning components? How will this be different than traditional classroom learning?
  • Will you be expected to participate in academic excursions or projects on weekends, evenings, or breaks?
  • Does the host country or program focus heavily on group work? Are students expected to engage in independent learning (i.e., less assigned homework)? What is the grading structure (e.g., is the grade based on only an essay and final exam)?
  • If you are participating in a program or co-curricular experience that will expose you to health-related activities (e.g., clinical shadowing or an internship at a medical facility), you should carefully consider the ethical considerations of what you can and cannot do while assisting in those facilities. We strongly encourage you to take the Global Ambassadors for Patient Safety (GAPS) Workshop offered by the University of Minnesota, which is a free online tool to learn about these ethical standards.
Your education abroad experience will require you to adjust to new cultural, political, environmental, and academic settings. It is normal to experience different phases of highs and lows throughout your time abroad. Understanding and expecting these phases will enable you to address them and move more smoothly through your transition.

Many education abroad professionals refer to the emotional highs and lows that all students experience as the “Cultural Adjustment Curve.” We advise students to anticipate and recognize these swings as a normal part of transitioning to a different culture.

It is important to note that there is no one-size-fits-all model. You may skip certain stages, experience them in a different order or have a longer or shorter adjustment period than your peers. Initially, it is natural to have some difficulty adjusting. This is a gradual process during which you come to terms with your new surroundings. Some of these tips may help to reduce the stress of cultural adjustment:
  1. Process your thoughts and feelings by journaling or talking to peers, program staff, teachers, and family.
  2. Maintain a sense of humor.
  3. Find a trusted mentor from the local culture (like your program director or host family member). Ask questions if you do not understand certain behaviors or things you experience.
  4. Stay active with sports or other exercise, or spend time outside, listening to music, reading, or creating art.
  5. Make a plan ahead of time for handling stressors in ways that have helped you in the past.
  6. If you are struggling, make sure to let your program host know. Most programs have counseling services available. You may also contact staff in the Office of Education Abroad who can connect you to on campus services, if appropriate.
The 5 Rs
The 5 Rs of Culture Change is a more recent cultural adjustment model that identifies five key changes (routines, reactions, roles, relationships, and reflections about yourself) we face when we move across cultures. it helps us understand why it is normal to experience ups and down when moving across cultures and why stress is a part of the transition process.

Routines: When we first move across cultures many of our routines are disrupted: we eat different foods at different times of the day, we have to navigate a new environment, and we may be without a regular schedule for some time as we get settled. At the same time, even the most basic of routines, from turning on lights, to getting on a bus, to shopping at the grocery store - which we normally do on auto-pilot without much thinking, may suddenly require more (and in some cases our full) focus and energy.

Reactions: We do things we are accustomed to doing in our own culture-but we get a very different reaction than we expect in our new culture. While we recognize we probably acted out of the norm for the culture we are in, we don't have the "key" to unlock this situation and understand exactly why people reacted the way they did. At the same time, we experience a different way of working, interacting or engaging. We ourselves try to react appropriately but find ourselves lacking the appropriate skills to do so effectively, be it a command of the language or the ability to shift styles.

Roles: We often experience changes in our roles and responsibilities when we move across cultures. We may carry out the same role but in another culture. We may take on a new or expanded role. We may lose roles that are important to us. We find some roles do not change, but our ability to fulfill these roles does. Additionally, others may see us as playing a particular role, whether or not we define ourselves in this way (i.e., the role of "a foreigner” or as a representative of your home culture). We are likely to experience many forms of role changes, sometimes simultaneously.

Relationships: When we move to another culture we discover how to live out our relationships in a new environment and are often challenged not to let the stresses around us enter into these relationships. Our relationships with those we transition with may get stronger, deeper and more profound as a result of going through the change, but they also take work. At the same time, we find other relationships around us changing - we may drift apart from certain friendships back home, be surprised at the newfound sense of closeness and kinship we experience with others despite the distance, and be challenged to recreate relationships in our new environment so we have a sense of community and support.

Reflections about Yourself: As we experience culture change, we may start to notice that we ourselves change in some subtle and not so subtle ways: we may realize we actually really enjoy certain aspects of the lifestyle abroad that we didn't know we would; or, we realize just how important certain values are to us that we might not have articulated before. We may pick-up certain habits, gestures, and ways of being that are now natural to us, but also may surprise and disarm family and friends back home who start to wonder what else has changed about us. We are growing, evolving, and developing - trying to become more aware of who we are culturally and individually speaking - which brings many benefits, but often also some confusion and uncertainty.

Kate Berardo, “Framework: The 5Rs of Culture Change,” in Building Cultural Competence: Innovative Activities and Models, eds. K. Berardo and D. K. Deardorff (Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2012), 193-199.
Our colleagues at Carleton College and Diversity Abroad eloquently proposed tips for engaging ethically with your host culture. We join them in encouraging students to
  • “let go of stereotypes and expectations. Avoid exotifying or homogenizing local residents. Get out of the American bubble through community engagement. Be genuinely yourself but remain open to new experiences.
  • “move toward being an authentic ally. Don’t project your own world onto your host community. Listen well and try to understand where people are coming from. Recognize the work that’s already being done within the local community - aim for solidarity rather than charity.
  • “unpack your entitlement. Consider how your privilege and the historical relations of power reproduce global inequalities. Seek to understand how power relations, current and historical, play out in your new context and what you can do to advance equality. At the same time, understand that you’re a guest. Practice humility in interactions.
  • “practice deep reflection. Reflect throughout your experience (not only when returning). Create change in your own culture’s systems upon returning home.”
Additional Resources:
  • Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands by T. Morrison and W. Conaway
  • When in Rome or Rio or Riyadh… Cultural Q&As for Successful Business Behavior Around the World by G. Olofsson
  • Communicating Globally: Intercultural Communication and International Business by W. Schmidt, et al.
  • The Art of Crossing Cultures by C. Storti
  • Figuring Foreigners Out by C. Storti
  • The Big Guide to Living and Working Overseas by J. Hachey
  • Travel That Can Change Your Life: How to Create a Transformative Experience by J. Kottler
  • Understanding Global Cultures: Metaphorical Journeys through 29 Nations, Clusters of Nations, Continents, and Diversity by M. Gannon and R. Pillai
Travel Guides  
Travel Magazines