Culture Shock

So what is it?

The feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.”

What to look for:

Symptoms of culture shock can range from mild (disappearing in a week or so) to severe symptoms that don’t improve over time. Guests may be distrustful, unusually quiet, or appear to be in a bad mood. Symptoms include behaviors that may be reasonable in a new and unknown place, but are taken to excess, they include:

  • Excessive hand washing
  • Excessive concern over drinking water and eating food
  • Excessive fear of being cheated or robbed

Sometimes culture shock manifests physically:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Sleep disorders (including sleeping too much)

More severely:

  • Depression
  • Panic attacks
  • Anxiety
  • Withdrawal
  • Fear
  • Extreme homesickness

There can also be temper tantrums over minor frustrations and a refusal to learn the new language.

How can you help?

Culture shock is often overcome by networking, encourage your student to make new friends and meet people.


  • Spend time with students
  • Help them to set things up (bank accounts, phones etc)
  • Communication is key:
    • Explain things slowly
    • Don’t get frustrated / expect them to know everything straight away
  • Ask to questions / let them ask questions
  • Include students where possible


  • Be aware of their traditions (sandwiches are a new concept for most students)
  • Ask them what they like
  • Take them to the grocery store with you
  • Ask them to help you cook
  • Make a meal from their culture every now and then

Severe symptoms of culture shock can include: 

  • Depression
  • Panic attacks
  • Anxiety
  • Withdrawal
  • Fear
  • And perhaps worst of all, extreme homesickness

Culture shock is real, and it’s serious!

The diagram below shows one model of how international guests might go through identifiable stages as they adjust to living in a foreign country and then readjusting to living in their home country. While this model can be helpful in understanding how guests may feel and behave, it doesn’t actually predict any particular guest’s experience – there’s just too much variability. Your guest may not pass through any or all of the stages, or may not pass through them in the order shown. Keeping in mind the limitations of this model, it still may be helpful to paint a picture of each stage 

Image of the "W" curve culture adjustment model

Leaving home / arrival

Finally the time comes for the guest to realize his dream of studying overseas. The farewell parties and preparations are nearly over. Fees are paid and the ticket is bought. The day comes when the guest says goodbye to his friends and family to begin the journey. He is excited and happy but nervous, which is not uncommon, even when one is only going on vacation—and in the case of vacation, it is for a set period of time with a definite return date. This is often not the case for international guests, as they are often in America for a considerable period of time.

Arriving in a foreign country

Upon arrival, the guest is faced with Immigration and Customs and with stepping out into the arrival lounge at the airport. The guest encounters a sea of faces—different and very unfamiliar faces. The guest finds his name on a board and is whisked away by an unknown driver to an unknown destination. He is greeted by a smiling homestay host and welcomed into the host’s home—but the room looks different, the tea tastes strange (or there is no tea at all), and the snack may be very sweet. The guest can become confused. A phone call home to let his parents know the student has arrived safely is comforting, and the guest begins to settle. The guest will probably make mistakes—not on purpose, but because he has not understood properly or is overwhelmed with information.

Language culture shock

Then it’s off to a new class or lecture. For the guest, the differences are now overwhelming. Everyone looks different and sounds different—is this really the English the guest has studied for so long? The language is difficult to understand, so nodding and smiling agreement is often the best the guest can do. It does not mean the guest has understood and agreed, it just means that he has heard!  That is what “yes” means to a newly arrived guest (“No” is just about the same in any language!). The guest usually becomes very conscious of his own level of English and tries hard to understand different mannerisms. He may be confused but is generally still happy.

Culture shock and feelings of unhappiness

New food and a new cultural environment, plus the fact that the guest may not yet have made friends, make it easy for culture shock to set in. A guest may become very lonely, and loneliness is alien to some cultures, especially Asian cultures. It is not always easy to spot the withdrawn guest who does not want to come to the dinner table, or who prefers the silence of his own room away from the babble of conversation; they may just seem to be tired at first. If this behavior continues, however, it is best to assume that the guest is suffering a degree of culture shock.

Adjusting and completing studies

With help and support from the homestay host, such as quiet conversations and continual reassurance, most guests adapt to their new life very quickly. Support is always available from the guest’s education provider if the culture shock does not pass. Generally, the guest becomes confident, happy, and eager to learn, and the guest starts to enjoy his experience. The guest makes friends and begins to develop a social circle. The guest passes his courses and attends graduation. He prepares to go home.

Returning to home country, reverse culture shock and readjusting

Once again, the guest will leave friends and a life he has now become used to and return to a home country that now seems quite different. Friends and family have changed; or more likely, it’s the guest who has changed. He has become more confident and worldly, inclined to question his roles in life. The guest often begins to wonder if he was right to leave in the first place. But over time—although this is different for all guests—the guest will probably settle again, find employment, and perhaps marry and have his own family, happy with the memories of his international experience.

Culture shock and the homestay host

One thing is very certain: the guest’s relationship with you, the homestay host, can either make or break not just the memories of the homestay experience but also the guest’s enjoyment—and the success—of their entire stay. The guest’s homestay experience can cement relationships forever, or it can be remembered as a nightmarish experience. Many guests who have taken the plunge, graduated, and gained employment in their own countries have worked themselves to the top of their professions. Homestay hosts form part of the guest’s future achievement, and it is satisfying to know that as a homestay host, you have helped and supported a guest in reaching their potential and life dream.