You have stepped off the plane into a new cultural world. Initially you may experience a sense of overwhelming fascination and awe. Everything around you is new: a different language, different dress, or a confusing transit system. Slowly you begin to adapt. You learn some Italian and begin to notice certain cultural nuances. This process takes time.

Culture is "an integrated system of learned behavior patterns that are characteristic of the members of any given society. Culture refers to the total way of life of particular groups of people. It includes everything that a group of people thinks, says, does and makes -- its systems of attitudes and feelings. Culture is learned and transmitted from generation to generation." (L. Robert Kohls. Survival Kit for Overseas Living, Maine: Intercultural Press, Inc. 1996, Page 23.)






* You may have heard these words -- Culture Shock -- already and possibly within a negative context. Conflict in our lives, however, does not have to be negative or incapacitating. It can be used as a source of motivation, introspection, and change. Keep this in mind as you read on.

Culture shock is defined as a psychological disorientation that most people experience when living in a culture markedly different from one’s own. Culture shock occurs when our "...cultural clues, the signs and symbols which guide social interaction, are stripped away. ...A difficult part of this process for adults is the experience of feeling like children again, of not knowing instinctively the ‘right’ thing to do." (Piet-Pelon & Hornby, 1992, p.2)

Symptoms of culture shock include:
  • Homesickness
  • Boredom
  • Withdrawal
  • Excessive sleep
  • Compulsive eating/drinking
  • Irritability
  • Stereotyping host nationals
  • Hostility towards host nationals

Everyone experiences culture shock in different ways, at different times and to different degrees. Since you will be spending a lot of your time with other Americans, the culture shock you should expect would be minimal compared to someone who is going to live with a Swiss host family and attend a Swiss university without any other Americans around.
* Usually the cultural adjustment process follows a certain pattern. At first, you will be excited about going to Europe and starting a new adventure. When you first arrive, everything will appear new and exciting. However, after some time, you may start to feel homesick and question why the Swiss (or Italians or French) do things differently than Americans do. You may even become irritated with these differences. However, you will eventually get used to this new way of life. And before you know it, you will be getting excited about the return home to your family and friends.
* An orientation will be provided for you upon arrival to the Center. This orientation will include information regarding culture shock and how to cope with it. In addition, the Student Affairs Coordinator is available to assist students with the cultural adjustment process.

Hopefully, while you are in Europe, you will take the time to talk with some of the locals. Even though you may find that many people speak English, patterns of communication often differ. Be patient and listen to the meaning, not the words. Remember that body language (such as gestures, facial expressions, body motions, eye contact and voice inflections) convey meaning in communication, as well. Be aware and pay attention.

People from different cultures have different values. You may find your own values questioned, just as you are questioning those of the Swiss (or Italians, Germans, French, Hungarians, etc.). For example, a visitor from India to the US observed: "Americans seem to be in a perpetual hurry. Just watch the way they walk down the street. They never allow themselves the leisure to enjoy life; there are too many things to do." Do you think this observation is accurate or just? How would you explain the trait in question? What underlying values of American culture might this exemplify?

Sometimes our values and beliefs will conflict and sometimes they will converge with the cultures we visit. The better you are able to adjust to the differences, the greater the ability you will have in empathizing and communicating with those with whom you come in contact. The result will be a better understanding of your own values and the values of the people you will encounter in Europe.



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