358.895 international students are
matriculated in German universities.1
Some of them are facing hard times during their studies. They feel sick, are
frustrated and overchallenged. Many feel lonely and regret their decision to
come to Germany. This appearance is often called ‘culture shock’.
This paper deals with the description of
culture shock, the stages of culture shock and the mitigation of culture shock
among international students. In the end I want to summarise most important
knowledge and to give a statement on how culture shock can be prevented.
I am personally connected to the topic
culture shock, because I am studying International Business. In my studies
there are international students, who could all potentially be facing a culture
shock or have been gone through the culture shock already.
What is culture shock?
Culture shock is a terminology that often
appears in linguistic usage. Travellers who spend a lot of time in a foreign
country talk about their special experience of ‘culture shock’ and how they got
triggered by cultural differences. Anyone has a specific imagination when it
comes to culture shock. But what is culture shock on a scientific basis?
To answer this question, I would like to
briefly define culture first. Geert Hofstede, one of the most famous expert in
cultural studies, defines culture as follows: “Culture is the collective
programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one category of
people from another.”2
Moreover values, beliefs, traditions and language define our culture.
The immersion into a foreign country means
extraction of the familiar culture into a new unfamiliar environment. “Culture
shock can be defined as an emotional, psychological, and physiological reaction
to the loss of or an inability to experience his or her own culture.”3
This means that our mind, as well as our body, suffer due to the foreignness of
culture, such as a changed value system, an alien language and peculiar
This radical change in cultural setting
leads to a questioning of values and behaviour. Brockhaus, a German encyclopaedia, describes this process in the following
way: “Dabei wird angenommen, dass der Mensch Situationen, in denen er sich
einem kulturell codierten Koordinatensystem ausgesetzt sieht, für das seine
bisherigen kulturellen Kompetenzen keine Geltung mehr haben, als eine Art
Zusammenbruch seiner Wertmuster und Verhaltensmöglichkeiten sieht (Anomie)” 4
The degree of culture shock differs
depending on how big cultural differences are. Europeans might not be shocked
by German culture, while Asians have more difficulties, because cultures are
too distant. An example for this is an Italian man who is thirty minutes late
for a business meeting with a German. In terms of punctuality Germans and
Italians have different understandings which leads to problems between the
German and the Italian. Whereas an Italian and a French could achieve an
arrangement, because their cultures have a similar understanding of
Moreover, culture shock seems to be an
important part of cultural adaption. Internations gives the following
statement: “However, it’s an essential part of the transition process: A
willingness to work through it is the first step towards integration.”6 In
other words this means that you must get to know cultural differences to enable
Phases of a culture shock
The occurrence of culture shock is mainly
divided into four phases. These phases are segmented by the general mood and
the attitude towards the foreign culture of the traveller who is experiencing
culture shock. The four phases are7 8:
“The first stage of culture shock is often
overwhelmingly positive during which travellers become infatuated with the
language, people and food in their new surroundings”9. That means that the first
phase is characterised by euphoria and fascination. Everything seems to be
interesting and causes a desire to explore all new things.
The second stage is the true culture shock.
The emotions in this phase are mainly: helplessness, uncertainty, frustration
and anxiety due the confrontation of major differences of the new culture e.g.
completely changed value systems. Many quit their foreign experience in this
stage because of high emotional pressure.10
If you get through the culture
shock/frustration phase you finally “begin to feel more familiar and
comfortable with the cultures, people, food and languages of new environments”11.
Often this relates to better language skills, learning of gestures and a better
understanding of social conventions. Your mindset changes towards a more
In the end you accept the new culture and
you feel accepted as well. “Acceptance doesn’t mean that new cultures or
environments are completely understood, rather it signifies realization that
complete understanding isn’t necessary to function and thrive in the new
surroundings”12. Your emotional status
increases further, and you can find things that awaken your attention again.
When leaving your now embosomed country, you feel glad that you got such
experience and become happy that you endured the crisis.
How can culture shock be
alleviated among students?
International students face several
intercultural problems while studying abroad. The first upcoming problem is
language. If your studies are in a language which is neither your mother tongue
nor the language of your host country, you do not face the difficulty in class,
but in daily life you are suffering. Students are overwhelmed when it comes to
public transportation, shopping or any kind of social event.
“Culture shock is not a myth, but a
Symptoms of culture shock can be prevented
or at least weakened if you prepare yourself and start to learn the language
and the culture of your host country in advance. Culture shock appears because
a person leaves his familiar context and gets into a new unfamiliar setting.
Students should try to make the new environment familiar before arriving in the
host country. A strong form of culture shock is mostly the result of a lack of
skills of foreign culture. Language is the most important and useful skill,
because it is the cornerstone for creating social relationships and for voicing
wishes and needs. 14 15
More important is a general mindset which
is more in-depth than just learning culture. As an international student you must
be open-minded, patient, tolerant against frustration and passionate about
experiencing the new. With these character traits any student will be
successful in studying abroad and defeating a possibly upcoming culture shock.
Another important point is the choice of
the right destination that fits to you. As a young restless person, you should
study in bigger cities and should avoid rural areas which disbalance your
rhythm of life. Anastajia Belostocka, a young Latvian student who came to
Germany to study, describes her feelings when moving from Fulda towards Berlin
as follows: “Es war kein Moment der Gewohnheit und das fand ich hervorragend. (..) Die Straßen sind breit, der schnelle Rhythmus
ist mir bekannt, mein Gang ist so schnell wie bei den anderen, er ist normal.
Die Stadt ist in Bewegung, rund um die Uhr, was mir ein sicheres Gefühl gab.”16
Culture shock is caused by a permanent
confrontation of an alien culture, which makes international students feel
uncomfortable and frustrated. To avoid an ongoing unsatisfying state and to
ensure skipping the second phase of culture shock, international students
should be well prepared in advance. Students have to be concerned about topics
like language, cultural taboos and customs before leaving.
I appeal to every student who wants to
spend time abroad to inform themselves well about the culture of the country. Try
to learn cultural awareness and create a general mindset towards a new culture
which includes patience, capacity for enthusiasm and tolerance.
Students should try to find other
international students, who could have same daily problems, which makes solving
them easier. People who have same problems become friends easier, which makes
communicating needs and wishes much easier. Having someone to talk to is helpful
to ensure a great experience abroad and to overcome frustration.
Moreover, the university should take care
of international students for example offering consulting hours or organising
social events to include internationals. Classes like Intercultural
Communication as it is taught at my university is very useful in my opinion.
The analysis of foreign cultures with other students in groupwork creates a
better understanding of cultural diversity and alleviates culture shock,
because cultural misunderstandings get clarified.