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Are you planning to study in the UK

Are you planning to study in the UK? Are you looking forward to an exciting time, with high expectations of life in Britain?

If you have been to the UK already, then you will roughly know what to expect. If it is your first time in the country - and perhaps your first time abroad - you may find that settling in is not an automatic process but that it requires a bit of effort.

You may be surprised by this, and at some stage you will probably use the term culture shock to explain your reactions. But what exactly is culture shock? What does it feel like? Can you prevent it?

Probably not but you can minimise its effect. Read on and find out how. You may settle in more easily if you know in advance how you are likely to feel after your arrival.

Research into culture shock

For over thirty years, culture shock has been a bona fide field of research for European and American anthropologists and psychologists.

They have studied the reactions and experiences during the first few months in a new country of travellers and diplomats, business people and international students.

The anthropologist Dr. Kalvero Oberg was the first to use the term. Others have since experimented with ‘culture fatigue’ and ‘role shock’ but these have not made it into everyday usage.

Culture shock is snappy and somehow we all know what it means to us, although if asked, we may find it as difficult to define as ‘jet lag’ or ‘homesickness’.

Some researchers describe five stages; others believe it is a six or even seven stage process. Not everyone experiences the exact stages but most travellers will go through the highs and lows, the positive as well as the negative aspects of living in a new culture. The different stages roughly are as follows:

At first you are excited by the new environment and a few frustrations do not spoil your enthusiasm. When experiencing some difficulties with simple things like, for instance, making telephone calls, or using public transport, you tend to down-play negative emotions.

Then follows a period in which cultural differences in behaviour and values become more obvious. What previously seemed exciting, new and challenging is now merely frustrating.

You may feel isolated and become withdrawn from life around you. You seek security in the familiar. Food from home, possibly even what you never particularly enjoyed, becomes a focus, maybe an obsession.

In the next stage you may reject what is around you, perhaps becoming opinionated and negative. You may feel that everyone is against you and that nobody understands you.

Limpet-like you cling to other students from your home country, hoping to have your negative stereotypes of the British and life in Britain reinforced. However, you are beginning to re-assert yourself.

Based on your successes in negotiating a variety of social situations and, maybe, increased language skills, your self-esteem grows. You can accept the negative differences and tolerate them.

Knowing that you cannot change your surroundings you now enjoy certain aspects of British culture and feel relieved and strengthened from having overcome the difficulties. You may even feel a sense of belonging.

The symptoms

Just as everyone’s experience of culture shock is unique, the symptoms associated with it vary, too. They can range from the physical - headaches, lethargy, sleep problems, loss of appetite and digestive irregularities - to the psychological, irritability and anger over minor frustrations, confusion about morals and values. Suffering from culture shock often leaves people feeling moody, isolated and insecure.

Researchers believe that the beginning of the negative phases happen most often within two to six months of living in a new culture but many travellers experience the full gambit of emotions associated with culture shock in a much narrower time span.

Not everyone experiences culture shock

But what about all those many people who immediately feel at home at Britain? Who embrace everything wholeheartedly and enthusiastically? Who experience no problems in settling in?

Research has shown that the more well-travelled and practised at absorbing, accepting and adapting you are, the more easily you overcome culture shock.

If you are confident from speaking the language and possess a thorough knowledge of your new home, you can feel settled after a relatively short period.

If you have adjusted well to your new environment, you perform competently the roles that each social context requires and thus avoid the frustrations resulting from inappropriate behaviour.

Some individuals do not seek cultural adjustment, either because they do not agree with the values and behaviour prevalent in the new country, or because they fear to loose too much of their own cultural identity. Living in a cultural vacuum may not be easy and can lead to feeling, and being treated, like an outsider.

Others deny or even reject their own culture and unquestioningly embrace everything new. Whilst living in Britain, this may seem a viable course of action but on returning home can lead to re-integration problems.

Those who neither completely reject their own culture nor that of the new country tend to be most successful at overcoming culture shock. They will attempt to mix and merge aspects of both cultures and thus become bicultural.

Preparing for culture shock

What strategies can you use to minimise, and cope with, culture shock? Research has shown that our expectations affect how we react to a new country. Therefore, thorough pre-departure preparations are necessary;

  • Read the very useful booklet ‘How to live in Britain’ (from the British Council)
  • Perhaps you know someone who has lived in the UK, or - better still - studied at the university or college you are going to. Talk to them but beware, they may indulge in some nostalgia when looking back on their student days. Ask them what problems and disappointments they have experienced. To contact former students, find out whether the institution you are going to supports an alumni group in your country.
  • Read all the pre-departure literature sent to you by your university or college. Write to the International Welfare Officer for information if you are unsure about anything.
  • Before leaving home, try and find out some social survival skills:
  • how to address people in different social groups

    how gender roles affect social relationships

    what constitutes acceptable behaviour in a range of everyday situations

    how gestures and body language differ from your country’s

Do not rely on TV or cinema films to provide you cultural pointers. British soap operas and films only give you a stereotypical and often idolised view.

How to overcome culture shock

After arriving at your new university or college, the following suggestions may assist you in reducing the strain of culture shock:

  • Be aware of the signs, including the physical symptoms.
  • Soon after arriving, explore you immediate environment. Having taken advice on personal safety, walk around and get to know your neighbourhood. Create a mental map of your surroundings.
  • Be courageous and introduce yourself to you neighbours. If you live in university accommodation, these are likely to be other students who feel just the way you do.
  • Locate useful places such as the post office, the doctor’s surgery and the university welfare office so that you know where they are when you need them.
  • Read a local newspaper and find out what the topical issues are. If you are well informed, you can hold conversations with British people without always feeling the outsider.
  • If you are unsure of your English, boost your confidence by remembering that most British people do not speak a foreign language. Make an effort at improving your language skills by watching TV and listening to the radio. You institution may run free courses for international students.
  • Take a break from studying and take part in social activities. Enquire about things like etiquette and dress code if you are at all unsure.
  • Ask questions about social customs from people with whom you feel comfortable. You will always find someone who will assist you in finding out about life in Britain. This can be a two-way exchange, with you telling people about life in your home country.
  • Keep in touch with your own culture. The university’s International Welfare Officer should know, for instance, where the nearest temples and mosques are and where you can buy the cookery ingredients that you are used to from home.
  • Avoid mixing only with compatriots or other international students. Contact with British people allows you to adapt more quickly. By asking questions you have a point of contact when trying to make friends.
  • A good way of meeting British people is to take part in a hosting scheme where British families invite international students into their homes for a meal, or a weekend stay. Ask the International Welfare Officer about this.
  • Ask yourself which situations irritate or confuse you the most. Are you sure that you have always understood people’s reactions to you, or could it be that you misinterpreting their behaviour?
  • Avoid comparing them and us, good and bad. Establishing why people behave the way they do and placing their behaviour in a social or economic context is more helpful.
  • Help to reduce stress on your body by keeping fit physically.
  • If you are feeling very low, talk to someone about it. This could be your fellow students, your landlord, or university staff such as the International Welfare Officer or Student Counsellor.
  • Write down things you like and do not like. Can you change them? If not, perhaps you can find a way of living with them.
  • And finally, remember that other students probably go through the same experiences as you do. Even British students have to adjust to living away from home.

Adapting to a different climate, different social conventions and different cultural values can be a complex and sometimes painful process, but coming out at the other end is rewarding, enriching and definitely worth the effort!

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