Studying Abroad: How to Survive Culture Shock

Studying Abroad: How to Survive Culture Shock

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Updated January 14, 2021 Updated January 14

Sponsored by ESCP Europe Business School

We’ve all heard of how moving to a new country can result in culture shock - but how can you overcome it? Exposure to a new environment and culture for the very first time affects everyone differently. After the initial excitement of being in a new place and discovering a new culture, some people start to have mixed feelings about having left their comfort zone.

When it hits, it’s easy to feel homesick or unsure of your surroundings, but with the right thinking it’s possible to overcome this shock and focus on the benefits of studying abroad. From widening your horizons to developing your language skills and giving you access to a much wider network of contacts and opportunities, the personal benefits of studying abroad are many. Research even points to several cognitive benefits, including boosting your creativity and enhancing your brain power.

If you’re worried about making the move, read our top tips for a rewarding study abroad experience.

You’re not alone

Keshav Sarda, 25, from India, moved to France to enroll on the master’s in management course at ESCP Europe. Keshav experienced culture shock despite immersing himself completely in the new culture by staying with a French family, but his sense of humor and compassion made the transition smoother.

“You begin to realize fairly quickly that things are quite different from what you were living before. The easiest way to deal with that is to start taking action. Reach out to people. Be lighthearted about talking to others and don’t take everything so seriously.”

Keshav’s advice to students suffering from culture shock is to realize that you’re not alone: “Remember, you’re not the only one far from home, other students are too. You can laugh about your strange new experiences together.”

Vittoria Ludergnani is a veteran study abroad student from Italy who has studied in Ireland, France and the United States.

The key to a fulfilling semester abroad, she said, is to open up to people. “If you’re alone and don’t know what to do, realize that there are other people who are feeling the same way.

“They will feel grateful if you reach out. People will like that.”

Learn to work with people from different cultures

Charis Sauer

Countries around the world will often espouse very different attitudes to work and work-life balance, which means that working closely with students from multicultural backgrounds can come with its fair share of challenges. However, learning to deal with these differences effectively can also be incredibly rewarding - and vital for international business.

Charis Sauer, from Germany, recently graduated from the two-year Master’s in Management program at ESCP Europe, which took her to London, Paris, Berlin, and then to Tel Aviv for a final year internship.

Charis loved her business school's multicultural mix of students, but she struggled to adapt to other students’ diverse work ethics and habits, particularly during group projects. Realizing the benefits of working as part of a diverse team is partly what helped her settle in.

Charis said: “At first, it can be challenging to work with so many cultural differences but you learn how to leverage the strengths of each individual. You understand that your mentality may not always be the best and discover that a group effort is always stronger than a single individual’s output.”

“At the end of the day, the world is just a little village and thanks to the program, I have friends all over the globe.”

Explore your host country through the lens of fiction

Immersing yourself in novels and films about your host country is a great way to build appreciation for its history and culture but also to learn to cherish the things we all have in common.

In his book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Christopher Booker argued that anything ever written - from the Bible to Hollywood films - usually falls within seven basic plots: tragedy, rebirth, rags to riches, comedy, overcoming the monster, the quest or voyage and return. So, no matter where you end up studying, you’ll be able to find something familiar yet different in the stories told by that culture.

Always favor work from local artists over films and books merely set in your host country. If you’ve recently moved to Japan and are in the throes of culture shock, don’t fall into the trap of just watching Lost In Translation.

Identify any unspoken rules

Karl Rafael Kubisch

By the time he started his master’s at ESCP Europe, Karl Rafael Kubisch, had already studied abroad in Bogota and Kiev. His experiences abroad opened his eyes to the world.

Karl, who now works in the banking industry in Frankfurt, said: “I discovered that I was a bit ethnocentric when I first began my studies abroad. I believed that others should adapt to my culture by being punctual and doing things in a very specific way. Living in different countries has allowed me to see that I can enjoy adapting to their way of doing things.

“For example, in Russia, if you shout and take a strong stand on something, you will not get very far but if you use charm and friendliness, you can reach your goal much faster.”

Karl also recommends you try to pick up some foreign words while studying abroad. He said: “To get the most out of your time in your host country, make the effort to learn at least the basics of their language. It is a sign of respect. Every culture appreciates people who try to adapt to their way of doing things.”

Forget about home for a while and learn to become curious again

As we get older, our capacity for wonder and curiosity naturally tends to erode because it’s easier to fall back on what we already know than brave the unfamiliar.

As an adult, we’re no longer eating, touching and questioning everything quite to the same extent we once were as toddlers. Learning to become insatiably curious could make the difference between a happy study abroad and a melancholy one.

How can you learn to become more curious? To start with, stop comparing everything new to something similar from back home. Start asking questions too. Bombard your teachers and friends with open-ended questions to create a safe space for exchange and learning.   

For more info about studying abroad and culture shock, download ESCP Europe’s Survival Tips for International Students eBook #3: Surviving Multicultural Living. ... 

This article was originally published in May 2018 . It was last updated in January 2020

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