Adjusting to a New Culture

Most new international students go through “culture shock”. It is neither as shocking nor as sudden as most people expect, but rather simply part of the process of adjusting to a new culture. You have probably already started along this process even if you haven’t left your home country yet.  Click on the links below to learn more about adjusting to U.S. culture.

Adjustment Process

Right now, you are preparing for this new adventure. You are busy saying goodbye to friends and family, anticipating what studying at Loyola and living in the U.S. will be like.

Surprises await you when you arrive. People may walk and talk more quickly (or more slowly), traffic patterns may be confusing, and buildings may look different than expected. The housing arrangements, the manner in which classes are taught, registration for courses, and other procedures may seem strange. Such differences are easy to see and generally are quickly learned.

At first, although the new situation is a bit confusing, most students also find it to be exciting. With so much to learn and absorb in the new culture, the initial period of settling in often seems like an adventure. During this time, you will tend to look for and identify similarities between your home culture and the U.S. You will find that people really are friendly and helpful. The procedures are different, but there are patterns, things that you can learn and depend on. You may classify other aspects of the culture that seem unusual or even unattractive as curious, interesting, or “quaint.”

Gradually, as you become more involved in activities and get to know the people around you, differences rather than similarities will become increasingly apparent to you. Those differences may begin to seem irritating rather than interesting or quaint. Small incidents and difficulties may make you anxious and concerned. This anxiety, irritation, that grows little by little as you interact with other students, faculty, and people in the community is part of the process of cultural adjustment. Some feelings that you may experience are:

  • Extreme homesickness
  • Desire to avoid social settings which seem threatening or unpleasant
  • Physical complaints and sleep disturbances
  • Depression and feelings of helplessness
  • Difficulty with coursework and concentration
  • Loss of your sense of humor
  • Boredom or fatigue
  • Hostility towards the host culture

Students are sometimes unaware of the fact that they are experiencing these feelings because of cultural differences. It is important to remember that this is a very normal process that nearly everyone goes through.

To help you through the adjustment process, we've provided some coping strategies which can be found by clicking on the link at the top of the page.

Coping Strategies

Living and studying in another country, can be quite stressful at times. For the most part, this stress is the result of the myriad adjustments you have to make, from the trivial to the profound, as you do the following:

  • Learn to live in a new culture
  • Learn new ways of doing things;
  • Learn to do things you’ve never done before;
  • Stop doing things you can no longer do;
  • Adjust to an entirely new set of people;
  • Learn to live and work in an environment where you speak a foreign language;
  • Get used to various new and unusual phenomena;
  • Learn to live without all kinds of familiar phenomena.

Everyone has experienced stress before and has developed strategies for coping with it. Listed below are ideas from people who have transitioned to living in new cultures:

Things You Can Remind Yourself Of

  • This will pass.
  • It’s not the end of the world.
  • I came here to experience a challenge.
  • I’ve been through worse than this.
  • It’s natural to feel down from time to time.
  • It’s not just me.
  • Things didn’t always go well back home either.
  • I have taken on a lot; I should expect to feel overwhelmed from time to time.

One of the most effective ways to adjust to a cultural difference is to step back from a given event that has bothered you, assess it, and search for an appropriate explanation and response.

Try the following:

  • Observe how others are acting in the same situation
  • Describe the situation, what it means to you, and your response to it
  • Ask a local resident or someone with extensive experience how they would have handled the situation and what it means in the host culture
  • Plan how you might act in this or similar situations in the future
  • Test the new behavior and evaluate how well it works
  • Decide how you can apply what you have learned the next time you find yourself in a similar situation.

Use Cultural Informants
One way to continue learning about a new culture is to identify people who understand it and can explain it to you. In general, you look for information of three kinds:

  1. Important facts or textbook information about the culture;
  2. Ways to behave and not behave in various situations; and
  3. Reasons for people’s behavior or reactions.

You might assume that people who live in the new culture will always be your best resources, but this may not necessarily be true. They may know the do’s and don’ts of host country behavior, but not all may know many facts about their culture, nor why people behave the way they do. For this information, you may be better off asking foreigners.

Get Involved
Perhaps the most natural way of learning about the culture around you is to actively participate in it, to become involved in the life of your community and its people. Much of this involvement happens automatically as you go about living and studying in New Orleans, but you can also make a conscious effort to become involved in school and community activities outside the classroom and meet people you ordinarily would not. The easiest way to become involved is through a friend or community member who is already engaged in an activity that might interest you.

Take Care of Yourself
Throughout the period of cultural adaptation, take good care of yourself. Read a book or rent a video in your home language, take a short trip if possible, exercise and get plenty rest, write a letter or telephone home, eat good food, and do things you enjoy with friends. Take special notice of things you enjoy about living in the host culture.

Continue to Learn About U.S. Culture
Although it can be disconcerting and a little scary, you gradually adjust as you begin to understand the new culture. It is useful to realize that often the reactions and perceptions of others toward you — and you toward them — are not personal evaluations but are based on a clash of cultural values. The more skilled you become in recognizing how and when cultural values and behaviors are likely to come in conflict, the easier it becomes to make adjustments that can help you avoid difficulties.

Counseling
International students often hesitate to consult a professional about mental health problems. It is not uncommon in the U.S., however, for people with emotional problems to seek professional help. As you are far from home and lacking the usual support system of family and friends, you may find it helpful to consult a mental health professional when dealing with issues of adjustment, depression, strain or stress. The process will be completely confidential.  Students may consult a professional at Counseling Services.

What U.S.  Americans are Like

It's important for you to remove preconceived ideas about U.S. Americans and NOT assume that everyone is exactly the same. However, there are some "trends" or "generalizations" about U.S. culture that may help you better understand the behavior you will see and observe.

Individualism Informality Dating
Privacy Achievement, Action & Work Avoiding Problems That May Occur in Relationships
Time Orientation Women's Roles Families
Directness & Assertiveness Friendliness Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Communities
Equality Friendships & Relationships Religions
Diversity Relationships With Roommates or Floormates Alcohol, Drugs & Smoking
Prejudice & Discrimination    

INDIVIDUALISM
Probably the most important thing to understand about U.S. Americans is their devotion to "individualism." Since childhood, U.S. Americans are encouraged to see themselves as individuals responsible for their own destiny, not as a member of any collective group.

  • Many U.S. Americans believe that the ideal person is an autonomous, self-reliant individual. They generally dislike being dependent on other people or having others dependent on them. 
  • U.S. Americans have a desire for personal success, both social and economic, and many do not consider social and cultural factors as insurmountable barriers to their ability to get ahead. One result of this attitude is the competitiveness of U.S. American society.
  • Achievement is a dominant motivation in U.S. American life and this can lead to not-so-friendly competition. However, U.S. Americans also have a good sense of teamwork, cooperating with others toward a common goal. In the school setting, this team spirit is perhaps best exemplified by the popularity of "study groups" whereby students work together on a project or exam preparation.
  • In an academic setting, individualism is evidenced by students working independently on exams, papers, and projects strictly differentiating between information that has been taken from other sources and original thoughts and ideas.

PRIVACY
Closely associated with the value that U.S. Americans place on individualism is the importance they assign to privacy. U.S. Americans assume that people "need some time to themselves" or "some time alone" to think about things or recover their energy. Some U.S. Americans have difficulty understanding those who always want to be with others or those who dislike being alone.

TIME ORIENTATION
U.S. Americans tend to organize their activities by means of schedules. As a result, they may seem hurried, running from one thing to the next, unable to relax and enjoy themselves. The pace of life may seem very rushed at first.

 U.S. Americans also place considerable value on punctuality. Different types of activities have different conventions.

  • You should arrive at the exact time specified for meals or appointments with professors, doctors, and other professionals.
  • You can arrive anytime between the hours specified for parties, receptions, and cocktail parties.
  • Plan to arrive a few minutes before the specified time for public meetings, plays, concerts, movies, sports events, classes, church services, and weddings.
  • If you are unable to keep an appointment, you should call the person to advise him or her that you will be late or unable to arrive.
  • On-campus, classes begin and should end on time. Coming late may be frowned upon or even prohibited.

DIRECTNESS & ASSERTIVENESS
U.S. Americans are not taught, as in some other countries, to mask their emotional responses. They do not think it is improper to display their feelings, at least within limits. They generally consider themselves to be frank, open, and direct in their dealings with other people.

They often speak openly and directly to others about things they dislike. They will try to do so in a manner they call "constructive," that is, a manner which the other person will not find offensive or unacceptable. If they do not speak openly about what is on their minds, they will often convey their reactions in nonverbal ways like facial expressions, body position, and gestures.

On-campus, many services and resources are available to help students and staff. Students and staff are expected to take initiative in expressing their needs and seeking assistance.

EQUALITY
Although there are many differences in social, economic, and educational levels in the U.S., there is a theme of equality that runs through social relationships. In part because U.S. Americans do not accept a fixed position in society and believe that they can achieve and succeed in life, they tend not to recognize social differences in dealing with people.

One implication of this is that U.S. Americans do not often show deference to people of greater wealth, age, or higher social status. International visitors who hold high social positions sometimes feel that U.S. Americans do not treat them with proper respect and deference. On the other hand, U.S. Americans find it very confusing to be treated differently because of their status when they visit other countries.

This is not to say that U.S. Americans make no distinctions among themselves as a result of such factors as sex, age, wealth, or social position; they do. But the distinctions are acknowledged in subtle ways: tone of voice, order of speaking, choice of words, or seating arrangement.

DIVERSITY
Diversity is highly valued in the United States. Of course, there are still problems at times just as there are in most every country where people of different races, religions and lifestyles live together.

To successfully achieve diversity, there must be tolerance and respect for others. If you have a different religion, different clothing or different lifestyle choices than the local culture, other students should respect and tolerate those differences. And you, likewise, are expected to tolerate the differences in others. If a situation does arise where your choices are not respected or where you have trouble respecting the choices of others, you should feel free to seek assistance from the Center for International Education.

INFORMALITY
The notion of equality leads U.S. Americans to be quite informal in their general behaviors and relationships with others. The informality of U.S. American speech, especially the common use of the first name, dress, and posture can be quite shocking to some international students.

Many international students and staff comment on informal dress on U.S. American campuses and the informal, egalitarian relationships they may have with professors.

ACHIEVEMENT, ACTION & WORK
Achievers, people whose lives are centered around efforts to accomplish some physical, measurable thing, receive respect and admiration from many  U.S. Americans. Generally, U.S. Americans like "action," and devote significant energy to their jobs, other daily responsibilities, and even recreation.

U.S. Americans also tend to believe they should be doing something most of the time. You will often hear U.S. Americans talk about how busy they are, which often is true, but also is simply expected. To not be busy, since everyone is busy, may be considered rather strange. This need to be busy results in a wide variety of campus activities and organizations.

WOMEN'S ROLES
Since the 70's there has been an active feminist movement, or women's liberation movement in the U.S., which aims to insure that women have equal responsibilities and opportunities to those of men. Although there are still aspects of society in which women have not yet achieved equality, women play a public and visible role in the political, economic, cultural, and social affairs of this country. Nonetheless, some people may find that U.S. American society is more sexist than their own in certain respects.

Men and women in the U.S. may associate more freely with members of the opposite sex at work and in social situations than in many other countries. You may also find that the dress and behavior of women in social situations here are quite different from those of your country. While in your country it may be the man's responsibility to ask a woman out for a date, here it is acceptable for a woman to ask a man out for a date. Whether the man or woman offers the invitation, often both share the expenses.

As U.S. American Universities are often politically progressive, you will find women in leadership roles all the way up to the President of the University.

Some international students and scholars have difficulty adjusting to situations in which a woman is in a position of authority because of their experiences in their own countries. U.S. American women may appear too assertive or aggressive if judged in another cultural context. In the U.S., such traits are considered by many to be positive.

For more information on women's roles in the U.S., contact:
Women’s Resource Center
Mercy Hall, Room 103
Tel: 504-864-7880

FRIENDLINESS
When people visit the U.S., they usually notice immediately the friendliness and openness of U.S. Americans and the extreme ease of social relationships. This casual friendliness should not be mistaken for deep or intimate friendships, which are developed over a long period of time.

In the U.S., people often say, "Hi, how are you?" or "How are you doing?" and then do not wait for a response. This is a polite phrase, not really a question. The normal response is "Hi," or "Fine, thanks."

A U.S. American may also say, "Drop by anytime" or "Let's get together soon." These are friendly expressions, but they may not be meant literally. While they may be sincere, people are busy and do not always follow through on the invitation. It is polite to call someone on the telephone before visiting, unless you live in a dormitory where things are more casual. It is also acceptable to call a new acquaintance to see if she or he would like to go to a campus or community activity with you.

Casual social life is especially evident in college and universities, because everyone is there for a relatively short period of time to pursue studies or research. The ease of casual relations are sometimes troubling to some international students and scholars who have left their own friends and family at home and are learning to live in a new place. They naturally are looking for new friends and may sometimes find it very difficult to develop close relationships with U.S. Americans because they cannot seem to get beyond a very superficial acquaintance.

FRIENDSHIPS & RELATIONSHIPS
To U.S. Americans the word , "friend", can be used to refer to anyone from an acquaintance to a person they have known for a long time. U.S. Americans often have friendships that revolve around school, work, or sport activities. U.S. Americans also tend to move frequently, and may appear to be unable to form deep friendships or are able to give them up more easily and with less stress.

The key to developing friendships is to participate fully in the activities you enjoy. If you are uneasy about your English, do not let it keep you from seeking out friendships. Be flexible, and above all, don't be discouraged by a few disappointing experiences you may have. With some effort, you will meet  U.S. Americans, including those who have lived abroad, with some understanding of what you are experiencing, as well as individuals who share your interests, academic and otherwise.

RELATIONSHIPS WITH YOUR ROOMMATE OR FLOORMATE
For many students there is no better place to make friends than in a college residence hall. Be prepared for very open discussions with a floor or unit of students with different accents, different musical tastes, and different standards of behavior.

Most relationships developed in the residence halls are very positive. However, occasional roommate or floormate difficulties occur. While you may or may not become friends with your roommate and others, you should try to develop a good relationship.

If necessary, your resident advisor may be able to offer guidance and advice to help you. These residence hall staff members have extensive training and experience in creating and maintaining a positive and harmonious living environment on campus.

DATING
You may be surprised by the informality of relations among men and women in the U.S. Couples go out alone in the evening to attend a movie, concert, lecture, or party; students may get together for a "study date."

Although there may be fewer formal restrictions on relationships in the U.S. than in many other countries, the casual, informal interchange that is observed between friends and colleagues should not be misinterpreted.

Some relationships do progress from casual acquaintances to close friendships or intimate romantic relationships, but this can never be assumed. This type of relationship is most likely to develop over time and by mutual consent and desire on the part of both parties.

AVOIDING PROBLEMS THAT MAY OCCUR IN RELATIONSHIPS
Relationships can be very confusing in a cross-cultural context. As your friendship develops beyond a casual acquaintance, you may not always understand what your partner expects of you. Whatever the relationship, the best policy is honesty and frankness.

Although sometimes embarrassing, it is best to express your feelings and intentions so you can avoid misunderstandings. If your date appears interested in a sexual relationship and you are not, it is very important that you say no clearly. And if someone seems to be saying no to you, listen.

Unwanted sexual attention is a very serious and legal matter in the U.S. Do not interpret the acceptance of a date as anything more than an agreement to meet at a certain time and place and to spend some time together.

FAMILIES
It can be very difficult to be specific about the U.S. American family because of the diversity in the U.S. population. There are several different combinations that make up an "immediate" family unit, generally referring to those members within one's household. This can mean mother, father, and children. But other families you meet may be composed of a single parent with biological or adopted children, gay couple with children, or an adult who lives alone and has close friends that share special events and activities.

LESBIAN, GAY, BISEXUAL & TRANSGENDER COMMUNITIES
The lesbian, gay, and bisexual and transgender communities are becoming increasingly visible in the U.S., as neighbors, friends, and colleagues, as well as in the news, movies, and television programs. Although U.S. immigration laws do not recognize the legitimacy of same-sex marriages or partnerships, other laws are being challenged by both individuals and organizations in an attempt to establish equality in employment, housing, insurance, marriage or partnership, adoption, and more.

While much progress has been achieved, there is still a great deal of prejudice and discrimination. In New Orleans and other U.S. cities and cosmopolitan areas, the lesbian, gay, and bisexual population may be more visible and more socially accepted than in many other countries.

It is important to realize not all LGBT people are "out," meaning the knowledge of one's sexual or gender identity is not a secret. One is generally assumed to be straight by society unless otherwise informed. While a person may be "out" to some friends or family, he or she may not be "out" to others.

If people tell you that they are a member of the LGBT community, they may be expressing something deeply personal and hoping you will respect that and continue to treat them in the same manner. You may inquire how "out" the person is and respect his or her wish regarding telling others. If you are a member of the same sex, do not assume an LGBT person is expressing attraction or desire for an intimate relationship.

The Loyola University New Orleans student code of conduct prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

For more information, visit the website for Etcetera at Loyola, or email: etc@loyno.edu.

RELIGIONS
The U.S. is a multicultural society founded on the need for religious tolerance and respect. You should not hesitate to seek out opportunities to practice your religious beliefs. Organized religious groups of many faiths and denominations can be found at Loyola and in the greater New Orleans area. If practice of your religions beliefs interferes occasionally with your class or exam schedules please be sure to bring the matter up to your professor as far in advance as possible.

Although The United States has never had an official state church, about 90 percent of the population professes some religious belief. Most U.S. Americans (roughly 80 percent) are Christians. Between 40 and 45 percent of U.S. Americans attend religious services weekly.

Although the U.S. has a higher rate of Christian church attendance than most other western societies, many U.S. Americans are uncomfortable discussing religion. Some may shy away from the topic altogether, while others will want to share their religious views with you. Most people are sincere and straightforward, but some may try to take advantage of you or convert you to their religious beliefs by offering you their friendship. If you begin to feel uncomfortable in such a situation, politely but firmly explain that you are not interested.

ALCOHOL, DRUGS & SMOKING
U.S. laws concerning the sale and consumption of alcohol may seem liberal or restrictive, depending on your national or cultural background. State laws, not federal laws, govern the sale and consumption of alcohol, and not all states have the same regulations.

In Louisiana, it is illegal to purchase, possess, transport, or consume alcohol, including beer and wine, until you reach the age of 21. In addition to the state laws, Loyola has specific guidelines on the use of alcohol (and drugs, and smoking) on campus. Familiarize yourself with the University Alcohol and Drug Policy. The consequences of not following Loyola's alcohol and drug policy can include expulsion from the University.

While in the U.S., you will likely attend parties where alcohol is served, or even where illegal drugs are being used. If you are encouraged to drink or take drugs against your will, politely, but firmly, decline. You should also be aware that conviction of offences involving illegal drugs can lead to your deportation and permanent exclusion from the U.S..

In many parts of the U.S., all public buildings are designated "smoke free," meaning that you cannot smoke in any part of the building. Other buildings may have spaces designated for smokers. Restaurants may have smoking and nonsmoking sections. If you are a guest in someone's home, room, or apartment, always ask permission before you smoke. Even if you are in your own room or apartment, it is polite to ask your guests if anyone objects to your smoking before you reach for a cigarette. Be prepared to see "No Smoking" signs in most offices, classrooms, and stores and to step outside to smoke.

PREJUDICE & DISCRIMINATION
Although people in the U.S. are seen as having equal rights, equal social obligations, and equal opportunities to develop their own potential, in reality things are not so equal. This may come as a surprise to some international visitors who perceive the U.S. as a land of opportunity.

Just as you may have preconceived notions about certain people, customs, or food, some U.S. Americans have negative attitudes toward things which are foreign to them, whether it is religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, or sexual preference. Discrimination occurs in many subtle and blatant forms. Even though you may have read about race relations in the U.S., you may be dismayed upon experiencing it first-hand.

If you see or experience an incident of prejudice or discrimination on or off-campus, you can email or call (504-864-7550) someone in the CIE office or the Center for Intercultural Understanding. 

 

SOURCES

American Ways: A Guide for Foreigners in the United States. Gary Althen. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press

NAFSA's International Student Handbook: The Essential Guide to University Study in the USA. 1998. Educational Testing Service, Princeton, N.J.

CultureGrams (World Edition 2008)

Culture Matters: The Peace Corps Cross-Cultural Workbook

EducationUSA: Living in the U.S.