How to overcome culture shock while abroad – an Oxford students’ perspective

Oxford University student Heather Needham, MSc Biodiversity, Conservation and Management, is a keen traveller and FCDO Travel Aware student ambassador. In this article, Heather explains culture shock and shares tips from her own experience of traveling abroad on how to best prepare in advance and what you can do to make the most of your international trips.

Most students will jump at the opportunity to travel abroad. However, living abroad to study or for an internship might not be as easy as it might seem. One tip I can recommend when preparing to travel anywhere is to check the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) Travel Advice website for specific country advice and to sign up for travel alerts. This will make sure that you are updated on any changes to your destinations travel advice that may affect you. It can be daunting and scary to arrive in a new country, whether you are a first-time traveller or a frequent flyer. Adjusting to a new environment can be challenging, especially one that is very different to your own and shortly after arriving, you can be hit with culture shock.

About culture shock

After a little time living in a new place, is it quite common to feel unsettled and disorientated, especially when moving to a location that has a new culture. More long-lasting physical symptoms such as headaches and homesickness, as well as physiological symptoms like feeling sad, anxious, or depression, can be signs of culture shock. Essentially, culture shock is a reaction to a culture and environment that is different from your own.

People deal and handle culture shock in different ways. Here are some of my tips on how to reduce the chances of experiencing culture shock before you travel and how to deal with it while abroad:

Research your destination

A good way to get familiar with your chosen study or internship destination is to learn as much as you can about the place before you set off on your travels. Reading about the local laws, customs and traditions pre-arrival will give you a greater understanding of the country and a better idea of what to expect. For instance, the UAE is a Muslim country and therefore in public you should dress respectfully and conservatively to respect the local culture.

The FCDO Travel Advice website is a handy platform where you can read about the cultural norms, values and laws of your study abroad or internship destination. You can also use the FCDO Travel Advice website to inform yourself about the political situation and any safety concerns in the country that you are about to visit. Overall, the more you know about the place where you will be living, studying, or working, the less culture shock you will face when you get there.

Learn the local language and try the local cuisine

As well as learning about the country you are planning to visit, it would be helpful to learn the basics of the local language. A language barrier might make communicating with others more difficult and challenging. Even learning a few basic phases can help combat culture shock, as you will be more familiar with the new language and surroundings. There are many apps that you could use a few months before travelling to practice speaking some of the language.

To feel more familiar in your new destination, it might be useful to taste some of the traditional foods and local cuisine at home before travelling out there. Trying new cuisines is one of my favourite aspects about being abroad. I found that tasting the food before visiting meant that the foods were more accessible and familiar when I arrived in Morocco. Moreover, you can take some familiar foods with you abroad. However you should read the FCDO Travel Advice website to understand what you are allowed to import and the restrictions to your new destination.

Familiar items of personal meaning can be comforting and help you deal with culture shock while you are abroad. When I was packing for a month in Colombia and a few weeks in Botswana, I took printed copies of photos of my friends and families. Particularly in Botswana, these really helped when I couldn’t contact my family for a week due to the remoteness and absence of mobile signal in the Okavango Delta.

Make new friends

Feeling alone in a new environment can be daunting, however, it is an opportunity to put yourself out there and to meet new people through joining societies and activities. Meeting new people abroad is another one of my favourite things about travelling. Talking to people with shared interests can help deal with culture shock and, if they are locals, they can help you seek out familiarity in your new environment. Get involved as much as possible. Following the university and student union social media platforms might be the best place to keep up to date with what events are happening if you’re heading abroad for study.

Communicate with family and friends back home

Speaking to family and friends regularly and keeping in touch with them can help reduce homesickness and make you feel less alone in your new destination. I always Facetime my parents frequently when I am abroad to show them where I am and what I am doing. Video call is one of the best ways to communicate with family and friends and express how you are feeling to better deal with culture shock.

Article by Heather Needham, MSc Biodiversity, Conservation and Management at the University of Oxford.

You can connect with Heather on LinkedIn or Instagram @navigatingneedham, and visit her blog.