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Cultural Adjustment for International Students

Moving to a New Culture

Remember that it is a learning experience!

You are coming to the United States to further your education, to learn more in a particular academic field. Certainly you will be learning many other things, too, things relating to the way people of another culture live and the way they view the world and their own lives.

There is valuable learning in experiencing and understanding a way of life different from yours. It may surprise you to discover that you will learn things about your own culture that you may not have thought about before. It is a rare opportunity not only to broaden your viewpoint but also to mature personally and to realize and establish your values.

The best way to find out about something you need to know or want to understand is to ask questions. Do not hesitate to ask questions, even if the question may seem trivial or you think your English is not good enough. People here are generally helpful, but they can't always guess what it is you need to know. Don’t hesitate to ask questions.

If you are interested in learning more about culture shock and American culture, please click to read more.

Everyday-Life Skills to Apply in a New Culture

Observation

Watch very carefully how people behave in specific situations.

Self-reflection

Reflect on your own behaviors in cross-cultural interaction; how do your cultural customs and values affect who, why and how you interact with others.

Basic transactions

Through practice & observation refine and adapt your behavior to be appropriate in daily transactions (using the bus or the bank; buying groceries; keeping appointments, etc.)

Idioms and common expressions

Pay attention to common expressions and seek their real meanings and implications (don't always take things literally).

Ask, ask, ask!

This may be the most important skill of all. When your contact with American people and culture makes you have strong reactions, or feel confused or when you simply don't understand something, ask Americans and others who understand the culture to help you understand. In America, asking questions is a well-respected behavior, so you should practice it! Also, don't hesitate to ask people to repeat what they said if you didn't hear or understand.

Discuss and validate

Even when things seem to go well, discuss your daily interactions with someone who knows the culture to see if your actions and perceptions are accurate and appropriate.

Saying no

It is culturally acceptable (as well as common practice) to say "no" in the U.S. in situations where it is not common or acceptable in some cultures. If you don't understand someone or don't want to do something, it is proper to say so: "No, I'm sorry, I don't understand" or "No, I really don't want to do that". Observe Americans & practice saying no in different situations. It's considered less rude to say "no" than to give the impression that you understand or agree when you really don't.

Dealing with ambiguity

You may find yourself in situations where American culture dictates that you behave in a way that is different or contrary to your own culture's values. These can be difficult moments. You need to choose which value & behavior is personally appropriate & effective for you.

Initiate conversations

You have to practice your communication/interaction skills to improve them, so you often will have to make the first step.

Take risks, experiment

Attempt to overcome your fear of trying new behaviors and experiences: go places & participate in activities so that you can observe & try out culturally appropriate behaviors.

Coping Strategies That Will Help You in a New Culture

Relax; enjoy yourself; see this as a life & growth experience (including the struggles & blunders). You may want to withdraw from the outside environment temporarily to avoid overload and fatigue. Get plenty of sleep, eat on a regular schedule, and read or take time in your room or in a natural setting.

It can be helpful to keep some kind of contact with your home and culture (letters, reading about home, reading in native language, contact with fellow nationals, etc.).

Suspend judgment: There are three ways to deal with the observations you make about Americans and American culture. Think in terms of "D", "I", "E":

  1. Description: describe the "facts" that you see or experience
  2. Interpretation: what you think or interpret about what you experience
  3. Evaluation: how you feel and what value you attach to your experience

You will naturally be inclined to judge (interpret or evaluate) what you see. However, it can be more helpful and effective to suspend judgment by focusing on descriptions and to separate your descriptions from your interpretations and evaluations. Ask Americans for their point of view and talk with friends before making strong interpretations or evaluations.

Work hard on your English (listening and speaking especially).

Developing friendships is important: precisely because you are away from family, friends and community, you need to build a new "social support system" (including persons with past or current cross-cultural experience).

Prepared by Mark Schneider, Office of Int'I Ed., University of Minnesota, 8/88 ("Everyday Life Skill" adapted from James A. McCaffrey's article in Int'I Journal of Intercultural Relations, 12(2), 1986).