Culture Shock and Homesickness

Moving overseas can be a thrilling experience. You can expect to find yourself exploring unfamiliar territory, meeting new people, and trying different things. However, it can be a difficult and overwhelming time, particularly if you’re a first-time international student who has never lived abroad before.

What is culture shock?

Do you find it difficult to adjust the social environment, climate, or culture of the new place? Are you constantly frustrated? Does homesickness bother you frequently? 

Culture shock is normal and happens to most of us when travelling or moving abroad. It is not a sign that anything is wrong. On the contrary, it is an essential stage of the adaptation process to a new place and culture.

Culture shock is the personal disorientation a person may feel when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life due to immigration or a visit to a new country, a move between social environments, or simply travel to another type of life.

This page provides information for international students and doctoral researchers at the University of Oulu about culture shock. 

Symptoms of culture shock

Moving to a new place, culture or social environment may throw you a little off balance. The symptoms of a culture shock can take various forms and can appear to you either just after your arrival or even months later. While some are able to overcome culture shock in a few days, others may have to deal with it for a few months.

At first, you may notice confusion and changes in your mood. You may feel sad, melancholic or lonely and the homesickness just does not seem to ease. Little things may start to irritate or anger you, and you may even lose your temper. Anxiety, stress, boredom or fatigue may affect your life, studies or your willingness to participate in social activities. You may feel lost or overlooked, or have self-doubt, a lack of confidence or a loss of identity. You may even regret your decision to take the step of studying abroad. 

You may also notice some physical symptoms, like problems with eating or sleeping. Even have aches, pains and allergies have been associated with culture shock. In some cases, culture shock may generate depression-like symptoms. If you feel that this may be the case with you, remember to ask for help.

Factors behind the culture shock

Multiple factors affect the degree to which you might be affected, such as your pre-departure expectations, coping skills, and past experiences of living abroad. The following factors have been linked to culture shock, but you may also be able to identify other factors.  

Stages of culture shock

Although not everyone experiences culture shock in the same way, there are generally four stages that individuals go through when migrating or travelling to a foreign land. You may not have to go through all the stages, and the length of each stage will vary individually. Note, that the stages can overlap, and you may experience the characteristics of different stages simultaneously.

The graph below with emojis illustrates mood changes at different stages of culture shock on a timeline that begins close to moving abroad.

How to deal with the culture shock?

Practical tips

  • Remember, that culture shock is normal.
  • Keep an open mind and welcome the surprising experiences.
  • Commit to saying ‘yes’ as much as possible: accept invitations and participate to social activities. However, be sure to use common sense and stay safe.
  • Socialize with others - friendly locals or fellow students.
  • Set yourself a project, big or small. Having a project will keep you busy with something new and exciting. It will reward you with a sense of achievement and distract you from culture shock. The project can be anything from learning how to prepare a local dish to memorising useful phrases in the local language. Use your imagination in setting up the project: are there some skills you would like to learn, or some new activities that excite you?
  • Try new things. Try to taste new things, winter sports, or hanging out at a campfire.
  • Find something you really love to do in your new home environment. It could be anything from wandering in a museum, to sipping coffee in a park, or hiking in nature. Include the nice activities in your new routine.
  • Offer to help out a new friend. Helping others will give you positive feelings and an opportunity to make friends.
  • Discover the activities available in the new place. Go to see a movie, a gig of a local band or find out about local sporting activities. Ask for tips from other students and locals.
  • Explore the new city. Invite a new friend and discover together interesting places in your new hometown. Ask a local to show you his or her favourite spot.
  • Acknowledge your problems and talk to someone about them.
  • Ask for help.

Positive things about culture shock

Even though it may not seem so, there are some good things about culture shock. While you might sometimes doubt yourself, overcoming the challenges will make you a stronger person. Culture shock builds your self-confidence and often has a positive impact on the rest of your life.

You will get an opportunity to make friends from all over the world, and expand your view of world. Culture shock keeps you interesting – it will give you a bunch of experiences to talk about, and expose you to new places, concepts, and ideas. This will influence your personality,  boost your creativity, and make you more worldly.

Culture shock breaks you out of your routine because other countries and cultures tend to work differently from yours. Living in a new country can show you a variety of alternative ways of doing and thinking. 

Remember that culture shock is temporary, and everything will click into place eventually. You’ve been given the opportunity to live in a different part of the world, and experience its culture and traditions. We will help you to make the most out of your unique experience.

Ask for help

Talk to someone about your problems. Do not stay alone.

You may feel alone, but you never are. Please talk to University Staff members, friends, family or your tutor about how you are feeling. 

The Career Centre welcomes you to drop-in sessions about culture shock, where you will get to talk about your situation with experts.

The drop-in sessions will start at the beginning 2023.  More detailed information will be announced on this page.

Other help available at the University of Oulu: