Culture shock describes the impact of moving from a familiar culture to one which is unfamiliar. When familiar sights, sounds, smells or tastes are no longer there you can miss them very much. If you are tired and jet-lagged when you arrive small things can be upsetting and out of all proportion to their real significance.
Many students find that the British climate affects them a lot. You may be used to a much warmer climate, or you may just find the greyness and dampness, especially during the winter months, difficult to get used to.
You may find British food strange. It may taste different, or be cooked differently, or it may seem bland or heavy compared to what you are used to. If you are in self-catering accommodation and unused to cooking for yourself, you may find yourself relying on “fast” food instead of your usual diet. Try to find a supplier of familiar food, and eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.
Constantly listening and speaking in a foreign language is tiring. If English is not your first language, you may find that you miss your familiar language which at home would have been part of your everyday environment. Even if you are a fluent English speaker it is possible that the regional accents you discover when you arrive in the UK will make the language harder to understand. People may also speak quickly and you may feel embarrassed to ask them to repeat what they have said.
If you come from a warm climate, you may find it uncomfortable to wear heavy winter clothing. Not all students will find the British style of dress different but, for some, it may seem immodest, unattractive, comical or simply drab.
Social behaviours may confuse, surprise or offend you. For example you may find people appear cold and distant or always in a hurry. This may be particularly likely in the centre of large cities. Or you may be surprised to see couples holding hands and kissing in public. You may find the relationships between men and women more formal or less formal than you are used to, as well as differences in same sex social contact and relationships.
What to expect
Some of the symptoms of culture shock can be worrying themselves.
You may find your health is affected and you may get headaches or stomach aches or you may start worrying about your health more than previously. You may find it difficult to concentrate and as a result find it harder to focus on your course work. Some people find they become more irritable or tearful and generally their emotions seem more changeable.
All of these effects can in themselves increase your anxiety.
How to help yourself
- Simply understanding that this is a normal experience may in itself be helpful.
- Keep in touch with home.
- Have familiar things around you that have personal meaning, such as photographs or ornaments.
- Find a supplier of familiar food if you can. Your student adviser or a student society may be able to help. Eat a healthy and balanced diet.
- Take regular exercise. As well as being good for your health it can be a way of meeting people.
- Make friends with international students, whether from your own culture or from others, as they will understand what you’re feeling and, if possible, make friends with the local students so you can learn more about each other’s culture. Be prepared to take the first step and find activities which will give you a common interest with UK students e.g. sports, music or volunteering.
- Take advantage of all the help that is offered by your institution. In particular, the orientation programme offered by most colleges and universities can be a valuable way of meeting people and finding out about things that can help you.
- Use the university or college services, where there will be professional and experienced staff. For example the health service, the counselling service, the International Office or hall wardens will provide a friendly, listening ear.
- For some students linking with a faith community will put you in touch with a familiar setting, whether it is a church, mosque, synagogue or temple. Many universities have a chaplaincy in which several faiths may be represented. There may also be religious student societies. Many chaplaincies welcome students of all faiths for pastoral or social activities.
- Investigate the Students’ Union and its societies. There may be an opportunity to learn a new sport or activity or continue an interest from home. A further advantage is that these societies bring together students from different courses and countries with a shared interest. There are often national societies that will celebrate significant occasions such as Chinese New Year or Thanksgiving. For UK students, student societies can be one of the many ways of making new friends.
- Above all find someone to talk to who will listen uncritically and with understanding, rather than isolating yourself.