Center for Global Experiences

Cultural Adaptation

The customary beliefs, social norms, shared attitudes, values, conventions, goals, practices and behaviors that characterize a shared people or institution is one way to define culture.

But culture has been aptly compared to an iceberg. Just as an iceberg has a visible section above the waterline, and a larger, invisible section below the water line, culture has some aspects that are observable and others that can only be suspected, imagined, or intuited. Also like an iceberg, that part of culture that is visible (observable behavior) is only a small part of a much bigger whole.

Things to consider:

  1. Food- Flavors and spices often are the defining expression of culture and reveal much about the regional history and geography.  Here are some INSIGHTS.
  2. Hand gestures- Here's a handy GUIDE.
  3. Importance of time- For some students, nothing can be more frustrating than discovering the different values that other cultures place on time. Some cultures are very concerned with whether things run on time, and others are not.  Learn more about Culture Shock: Punctuality
  4. Personal Space- Having the luxury of lots of land allows for those of us living in the United States to carve out large amounts of personal space for ourselves. For many students abroad, confronting just how jarring it can be to lose your personal space is a big challenge. Knowing what to expect can help.
  5. Religious Beliefs- it's a good idea to gain some insight into the place you'll be studying: Global Religious Landscape
  6. Dress- In some locations, it is not appropriate for students to wear shorts, cropped tops and flip flops.  You need to follow your Faculty Leader's advice on the most appropriate clothing to wear for the activities that you plan to do.  For example, you may not be allowed to wear shorts inside of a cathedral or you may not be allowed to wear ripped jeans to attend business site visits.


    Cultural Adaptation

    Because every student brings their own  unique  experience  and  perspective  to  the  issue of  cultural adjustment, there is not a blanket description of the adjustment that each student  goes  through.  Many  students experience highs and lows as they progress through their study abroad experience, just remember that this is perfectly normal. Here are a few strategies for helping to adapt to those highs and lows.


  1. Manage Your Expectations -This can have a remarkable impact on your attitude and perception abroad.  Just knowing that things may not always be great will help you to understand that there is value in the challenges you may face.
  2. A Sense of Humor -This will go a long way toward making some of those awkward moments into amusing memories.
  3. Flexibility - Flexibility will help you to adapt to the ever-present changes that you encounter.
  4. A Willingness to Make Mistakes - Perhaps no skill is more important than your willingness to make mistakes, particularly if you are a language student. Give yourself the freedom to learn from your mistakes.
  5. Learn by Observing- Take a moment to watch how others are behaving and you'll fee a lot more confident.
  6. Wide Categorization- Just about anything that you can think of has a wider category of inclusion than you might immediately realize. Consider that a piece of fruit includes hundreds of options that you probably don't see every day, but are equally valid. Apply this to all categories and you'll have a better experience!

Some tips to ease the transition:

  • Realize that what you are going through is normal. Be patient and give yourself time to work through the process.
  • Take care of yourself. Eat well, exercise, and get enough sleep.
  • Talk to someone. Find friends who are going though similar process.
  • Have fun and relax!



    It's important to consider your own personal stereotypes before studying abroad so that you can begin to break down the preconceived ideas and see people more objectively with an open mind.



It is also important to consider how other international people view U.S. Americans. Prepare yourself ahead of time so that you can hopefully break down some of those stereotypes while you are abroad.



Note for women: Unfortunately, the stereotype of the “easy and liberated” American woman is prevalent in many cultures. As a result of this perception, you may unwittingly find yourself the object of unwanted attention. If possible, do research or ask women from the host country about gender relations.


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