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358.895 international students are matriculated in German universities. Some of them are facing hard times during their studies. They feel sick, are frustrated and overchallenged. Many feel lonely and regret their decision to come to Germany. This appearance is often called ‘culture shock’. This paper deals with the description of culture shock, the stages of culture shock and the mitigation of culture shock among international students. In the end I want to summarise most important knowledge and to give a statement on how culture shock can be prevented. I am personally connected to the topic culture shock, because I am studying International Business. In my studies there are international students, who could all potentially be facing a culture shock or have been gone through the culture shock already.
Culture shock is a terminology that often appears in linguistic usage. Travellers who spend a lot of time in a foreign country talk about their special experience of ‘culture shock’ and how they got triggered by cultural differences. Anyone has a specific imagination when it comes to culture shock. But what is culture shock on a scientific basis? To answer this question, I would like to briefly define culture first. Geert Hofstede, one of the most famous expert in cultural studies, defines culture as follows: “Culture is the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one category of people from another.” Moreover values, beliefs, traditions and language define our culture. The immersion into a foreign country means extraction of the familiar culture into a new unfamiliar environment. “Culture shock can be defined as an emotional, psychological, and physiological reaction to the loss of or an inability to experience his or her own culture.” This means that our mind, as well as our body, suffer due to the foreignness of culture, such as a changed value system, an alien language and peculiar traditions. This radical change in cultural setting leads to a questioning of values and behaviour. Brockhaus, a German encyclopaedia, describes this process in the following way: “Dabei wird angenommen, dass der Mensch Situationen, in denen er sich einem kulturell codierten Koordinatensystem ausgesetzt sieht, für das seine bisherigen kulturellen Kompetenzen keine Geltung mehr haben, als eine Art Zusammenbruch seiner Wertmuster und Verhaltensmöglichkeiten sieht”.
The degree of culture shock differs depending on how big cultural differences are. Europeans might not be shocked by German culture, while Asians have more difficulties, because cultures are too distant. An example for this is an Italian man who is thirty minutes late for a business meeting with a German. In terms of punctuality Germans and Italians have different understandings which leads to problems between the German and the Italian. Whereas an Italian and a French could achieve an arrangement, because their cultures have a similar understanding of punctuality. Moreover, culture shock seems to be an important part of cultural adaption. Internations gives the following statement: “However, it’s an essential part of the transition process: A willingness to work through it is the first step towards integration.” In other words this means that you must get to know cultural differences to enable cultural learning.
The occurrence of culture shock is mainly divided into four phases. These phases are segmented by the general mood and the attitude towards the foreign culture of the traveller who is experiencing culture shock. The four phases are:
“The first stage of culture shock is often overwhelmingly positive during which travellers become infatuated with the language, people and food in their new surroundings”. That means that the first phase is characterised by euphoria and fascination. Everything seems to be interesting and causes a desire to explore all new things. The second stage is the true culture shock. The emotions in this phase are mainly: helplessness, uncertainty, frustration and anxiety due the confrontation of major differences of the new culture e.g. completely changed value systems. Many quit their foreign experience in this stage because of high emotional pressure.
If you get through the culture shock/frustration phase you finally “begin to feel more familiar and comfortable with the cultures, people, food and languages of new environments”. Often this relates to better language skills, learning of gestures and a better understanding of social conventions. Your mindset changes towards a more positive attitude. In the end you accept the new culture and you feel accepted as well. “Acceptance doesn’t mean that new cultures or environments are completely understood, rather it signifies realization that complete understanding isn’t necessary to function and thrive in the new surroundings”. Your emotional status increases further, and you can find things that awaken your attention again. When leaving your now embosomed country, you feel glad that you got such experience and become happy that you endured the crisis. How can culture shock be alleviated among students? International students face several intercultural problems while studying abroad. The first upcoming problem is language. If your studies are in a language which is neither your mother tongue nor the language of your host country, you do not face the difficulty in class, but in daily life you are suffering. Students are overwhelmed when it comes to public transportation, shopping or any kind of social event.
“Culture shock is not a myth, but a predictable phenomenon.” Symptoms of culture shock can be prevented or at least weakened if you prepare yourself and start to learn the language and the culture of your host country in advance. Culture shock appears because a person leaves his familiar context and gets into a new unfamiliar setting. Students should try to make the new environment familiar before arriving in the host country. A strong form of culture shock is mostly the result of a lack of skills of foreign culture. Language is the most important and useful skill, because it is the cornerstone for creating social relationships and for voicing wishes and needs. More important is a general mindset which is more in-depth than just learning culture. As an international student you must be open-minded, patient, tolerant against frustration and passionate about experiencing the new. With these character traits any student will be successful in studying abroad and defeating a possibly upcoming culture shock. Another important point is the choice of the right destination that fits to you. As a young restless person, you should study in bigger cities and should avoid rural areas which disbalance your rhythm of life. Anastajia Belostocka, a young Latvian student who came to Germany to study, describes her feelings when moving from Fulda towards Berlin as follows: “Es war kein Moment der Gewohnheit und das fand ich hervorragend. (..) Die Straßen sind breit, der schnelle Rhythmus ist mir bekannt, mein Gang ist so schnell wie bei den anderen, er ist normal. Die Stadt ist in Bewegung, rund um die Uhr, was mir ein sicheres Gefühl gab.”
Culture shock is caused by a permanent confrontation of an alien culture, which makes international students feel uncomfortable and frustrated. To avoid an ongoing unsatisfying state and to ensure skipping the second phase of culture shock, international students should be well prepared in advance. Students have to be concerned about topics like language, cultural taboos and customs before leaving.
I appeal to every student who wants to spend time abroad to inform themselves well about the culture of the country. Try to learn cultural awareness and create a general mindset towards a new culture which includes patience, capacity for enthusiasm and tolerance. Students should try to find other international students, who could have same daily problems, which makes solving them easier. People who have same problems become friends easier, which makes communicating needs and wishes much easier. Having someone to talk to is helpful to ensure a great experience abroad and to overcome frustration. Moreover, the university should take care of international students for example offering consulting hours or organising social events to include internationals. Classes like Intercultural Communication as it is taught at my university are very useful in my opinion. The analysis of foreign cultures with other students in groupwork creates a better understanding of cultural diversity and alleviates culture shock, because cultural misunderstandings get clarified.
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