Stages of Cultural Adjustment

Preliminary Stage:  The preliminary phase includes anticipation of and preparation for your journey.  It is characterized by a growing awareness of the host culture, preparation for the trip, and involvement in farewell activities.

Photo: Sean O'Carroll, Glencoe, Scotland, October 2016

Initial Euphoria:  The initial euphoric phase begins with your arrival in the new country.  Everything seems wonderful and exciting at first, and you’re struck by how similar people seem to be.

Irritability:  During the irritability phase, your focus turns from the similarities to the differences.  You will be acclimating to your setting and will likely become frustrated with elementary aspects of everyday life because things still appear so foreign to you.  Insignificant difficulties can seem like major problems.  One typical reaction during this stage is to associate mainly with other Americans -- but remember, you are going abroad to get to know your host country, its people, culture, and language.  If you avoid contact with others, you cheat yourself of valuable experiences and lengthen the process of adaptation. 

This phase is often called "culture shock."

Gradual Adjustment:  When you become more used to the new culture, you will slip into the gradual adjustment stage -- you may not even be aware that this is happening.  You will begin to orient yourself, to interpret subtle cultural clues, and to feel comfortable and familiar with the culture.

Adaptation and Biculturalism: Eventually, not only will you be more comfortable with the host culture, but you may also feel a part of it and even value aspects of it over your native culture.

Re-Entry Phase:  The re-entry phase occurs when you return home.  For some, this can be the most painful phase of all.  You will be excited about sharing your experiences, and you will realize that you have changed, although you may not be able to explain how.  You may find it difficult to communicate effectively with your family and friends because they have not shared your overseas experiences.  Moreover, your family may not adjust well to your new independence and changed values.  You and your friends may no longer be as close and you may miss the new friends you made while overseas.  Your may feel like you no longer fit into the campus culture -- or American culture in general.  Remember, though, that just as you found your equilibrium in your host country, so you will find it again at home.  Remember, too, that you will never be quite the same person you were before traveling.

(Adapted from the University of California–Irvine’s Center for International Education)

Read more about re-entry in the Post-Study Abroad section.