Cultural Adjustment | MCISA | Webster University

Cultural Adjustment

Cycles of Cultural Adjustment

For most sojourners, adjustment to a new culture takes place over time and with varying high and low points. It is useful to understand that cultural adjustment is a dynamic PROCESS that every international student in the United States will experience during their studies at University.

While some scholars describe cultural adjustment in stages, it may be more useful to think of adaptation and adjustment in cycles based on new experiences and growth.

Some scholars identify four key aspects of cultural adjustment, though each lasts a different length of time for every individual who experiences it.

  • Honeymoon = Excitement! During the first stage, foreign visitors often feel excited. The new country is interesting, the people are friendly and helpful, and the future looks promising. The first stage is also called the “honeymoon phase.”  Everything around you is new and different. As a foreigner you will probably experience a lot of attention form the people around you.
  • Hostility = Problems! School, language, shopping, dealing with the climate – everything is difficult. Things that were simple back home require more effort in the new country.  It seems hard to make friends, and at this point, foreign visitors may begin to believe that the local people are unfriendly.  Homesickness begins, and along with it complaints about the new country. This is the stage we hear referred to as “culture shock.” At this stage, you can experience severe depression. It is important to talk about it and approach the situation positively.
  • Humor = Recovery! The foreign visitor begins to use the language more fluently, so communication with locals becomes easier. Customs and traditions become clearer, and slowly the situation passes from impossible to hopeful; you start to feel more comfortable in the new environment. Minor misunderstandings that were stressful in Stage 2 become manageable. Make sure you set goals for your stay in the United States, to make your experience an enriching one.
  • Home = Stability! Eventually foreign visitors begin to feel more at home in the new country. Those things they do not like about their new country no longer make them so dissatisfied and unhappy. Life has settled down, and they are now able to find humor in the situations in which they find themselves.
Returning Home by La Brack, B.


Image credit: La Brack, B. (2003). Returning Home. Chapter 2.2.1 Retrieved from

Experiencing a New Culture

Hear from Webster University international students about their experience with cultural adjustment cycles.

The First Few Days

During the first few days, begin exploring your new environment!  Attend orientation and visit the Multicultural Center and International Student Affairs office (536 Garden Avenue).

Explore the area immediately surrounding your accommodations. Visit the nearest post office, bank, supermarket, etc. which you will need to use in the future. To avoid getting lost, look for landmarks such as churches, stores, etc., which will help you retrace your steps. Of course, ALWAYS take a map or use your smart phone GPS!

Culture Shock

Living in a foreign country is very challenging.  In the first year, almost everyone experiences “culture shock” to some degree. Culture shock is that feeling of dislocation that affects people who move to a new place or country.  Many who experience it do not even realize that they are suffering from it – all they know is that everything is very difficult in their new home.

When living in a culture that is so much different from our own, it is natural to be overwhelmed at times. Let’s explore culture shock for a moment.

Although culture adjustment takes place every time a person moves to another country, with each move the shock usually lessens.  It is important to realize that your stay in the United States will probably be accompanied by a degree of personal growth.  Try to be aware of these changes in your personality as you return to your home culture, and expect your feelings toward your culture to have changed as well.  People often do not fully understand culture shock until they return home to their country, when they are surprised to see their own country with new eyes.  Remember you are now an international traveler, and you will see everything a little differently from now on.

Sometimes students worry about “losing their culture” if they become too well adapted to their host culture.  Don’t worry: it is virtually impossible to lose the culture in which you were raised.  In fact, learning about another culture often increases your appreciation for and understanding of your own culture. Don’t resist the opportunity to become bicultural – able to function competently in two cultural environments.

Just as culture shock comes from a series of cultural clashes, a series of small successes can lead to more effective interactions within the new culture. As you increase your abilities to manage and understand the new social system, practices that recently seemed so strange will become less puzzling.  Eventually you will adapt enough to do your best in your studies and in your social life to relax and fully enjoy the experience.

How can you know if someone is experiencing culture shock?
People who are experiencing culture shock worry and complain about all aspects of life – the food, the weather, the people, etc.  They worry about minor ailments and pains.  They often become frustrated and angry over minor problems, and some even refuse to learn the new language.  Overall, they feel helpless and homesick, and want to go home to see relatives and to talk with people that “make sense.”

What causes culture shock?
Culture shock is caused by unfamiliarity with the new country, by not being able to speak the language fluently or understand the many new idioms, and by not knowing how to behave in an unfamiliar culture.  Not only is the language different, but gestures, facial expressions, and traditions are also different.  Newcomers can sometimes feel like children because they cannot understand all these new things at once.

This film clip from the documentary film The Dialogue follows Mercedes, a US college student, during her experience living abroad in Hong Kong from speaking confidently about her intentions, getting highly excited about being treated like a superstar and being in tears in the midst of confusing feelings of culture shock.

Watch the video at

What Helps?

  • Try to establish routines that incorporate both the difficult and enjoyable tasks.
  • Keep yourself healthy through regular exercise and eating habits.
  • Accept invitations to activities that will allow you to see areas of the host culture outside the university and meet new people.
  • Above all try to maintain your sense of humor.

Important Values

In the way they dress, act, talk—there can be no mistaking that individuality is important to Americans.  This can be a little unnerving to visitors who come from cultures where conservative values, “conforming to the group,” and maintaining harmony and order are important.

While you are certainly not expected to change your values, you may experience difficulties in the classroom if you come from a culture such as the one mentioned above.  Independent thinking is expected of students in American classrooms.  Interpretation, analysis, critical thinking, and even challenging the professor may be expected of you in your classes.  You may even be graded on your classroom participation.  It takes practice and time to become accustomed to doing these things, but most students eventually succeed.  (Visiting faculty members will also have to become accustomed to these qualities in American students.)

Personal Space
A person who comes from South America or the Middle East, places where people typically stand very close together during conversation, may find that Americans like to stand several feet away.  Some may think that Americans are unfriendly or uninterested.  This is not true.  In general, Americans like to keep about 2 – 3 feet between them and the person they are talking to, unless the person is a close friend, relative, or spouse.

In the United States, it is customary to shake hands when you meet someone, and tell them your first name.  This does not always occur, so at times there may be a moment of hesitation on your or their part.  It is usually sufficient to just say your name or “nice to meet you” even if you don’t shake hands.

If you’d like to discuss different kinds of greetings that may be more comfortable for you, please come talk to the International Student Advisor.

Americans do not usually embrace in public, except with members of their family or very close friends.  Men usually shake hands the first time they meet.  Women generally do not do so in a social situation, but do in a business atmosphere.  “How do you do?”  “Good morning” and “Good afternoon” are formal greetings.  Most people will use the more informal greeting of “Hello,” or “Hi.”

One thing that often confuses international students is the common greeting, "How are you?" or "How's it going?" This is not used as a question, but more of a statement of greeting that is commonly used in passing or as another way to say "Hello." Don't be surprised if someone greets you in this way and continues walking without stopping to hear you answer. Common responses to this question are, "Good, and you?" or "Great, thanks." The way you answer is more of an acknowledgement of the greeting rather than an exchange of information.

In America, if you don’t know a person well, in general, you place a title in front of their name.  This is out of respect.  If it is a man, you may call him ‘mister,’ and if it is a woman, you may call her ‘miss,’ ‘missus (Mrs.),’ or ‘miz (Ms.).’  These titles go in front of a person’s last name, for example, Mr. Smith, or Ms. Polovina.  If you do not know the person’s last name, you may call a man ‘sir,’ and a woman ‘ma’am.’

You will probably notice what appears to be great informality between student and professor, employee and boss, etc.  Calling professors, new acquaintances, and employers by their first name should not be taken as a lack of respect.  It is often just “the American way.”

Age Differences and Respect
Respect for elders by younger people is expected in the U.S., but not to the degree found in many other countries.  You will find that most people in the U.S. expect to treat you as an equal.  For example, if you have a roommate who is ten years older than you, your roommate will not expect any special privileges.  Simply remember to use common courtesy in your dealings with others and you will not offend them.

It is customary to say “excuse me” if you: want to get someone’s attention, bump into someone, or want to get by.  You should also knock before entering a room where the door is fully or partially closed.

Prejudice and Discrimination
Prejudice beliefs and discrimination take many forms – from things said, to mimicking and joking about others, to poor service or attitude.  As an international visitor, you may experience some form of discrimination or prejudice while you are here.  If you feel that you have been discriminated against and would like to talk about the experience, please feel free to come and talk to the International Student Advisor.

It may seem to you that Americans’ conversational questions are both too numerous and too personal.  People in the mobile society are used to meeting new people and quickly feeling at ease with them.  Their way of getting to know someone is to ask all sorts of questions about that person’s job, his/her background, and family.  Such questions are out of interest, not an invasion of privacy.  If you are uncomfortable with some of these questions, you need not answer them.  You can freely admit that you are not used to a particular question, that such a question would not be asked in your culture.  Your honesty in this regard will be appreciated.

If you enjoy this exchange of information, by all means ask Americans about their families and themselves.  Be aware though, that despite all of our openness and our straightforward approach, we too are uncomfortable with certain questions. These include questions about a person’s age, weight, religion, politics, salary, and the cost of his/her belongings.  Married couples are especially sensitive to being asked why they have no (or only one or two) children.

Americans place great importance on being punctual.  It is very important to honor appointments without being late.  You may also notice what you might consider to be an unusual concern with time and efficiency.  Americans are often looking for a faster and more efficient way of doing things.  A common sentiment is the more that is accomplished each day, the better.

Have you ever heard of the sayings "time is money," "don't waste time," "time is of the essence"? There are many more sayings like this in US culture.

Be aware that even if you are used to being more flexible about time, in academic and professional settings in the United States, being on time or early is considered respectful and professional. If class starts at 5:30 PM, you should arrive by 5:25 PM and be ready to begin when the professor starts at 5:30 PM. Arriving late is considered rude and will likely be interpreted negatively.

In addition, if you schedule a meeting or an appointment with an advisor or professor, arriving on time or slightly early demonstrates your preparedness and respect. If you need to reschedule or will arrive late, it is customary to notify the person in advance (if possible) and make apologies for the inconvenience.

Although it may be common in many places around the world to just show up at a department or faculty office to meet with a professor or advisor, in most settings at Webster University you may be asked to make an appointment or leave a message for the person you are interested in meeting. If an advisor is available for walk in meetings (no appointment needed), they will notify you of the days and times they are available.