What It Is

"Culture shock" is the name given to a feeling of disorientation or confusion that often occurs when a person leaves a familiar place and moves to an unfamiliar one. Coming to Iowa City from another country, you will encounter a multitude of new things. Perhaps more importantly, culture shock is often defined as “the loss of things that are familiar,” such as family, friends, foods, customs and even values. Cultural adjustment is a normal process, despite the fact that the person experiencing it may feel their experiences and feelings are anything but normal.


Some people are more affected by culture shock than others. People experiencing culture shock tend to become nervous and unusually tired. They often become frustrated with themselves and others. Many people experiencing culture shock feel overwhelmed and confused. These feelings are almost always temporary and are simply one stage of the process of adjustment.

Coping With Culture Shock

Different people react differently to culture shock. Some become depressed, or even physically ill. It helps to maintain your perspective. Try to remember that thousands of people have come to Iowa City from other countries and have survived (even when they arrived in the cold of winter). In The Whole World Guide to Culture Learning (1994), J. Daniel Hess makes these suggestions for people who are experiencing the loneliness of culture shock.

  1. Find people to interact with. Give them a smile or a little gift. Ask them questions. As you take an interest in them, your feelings will have a focal point outside of yourself.
  2. Surround yourself with some familiar things--a favorite jacket, a photo, a cassette. Make your near environment pleasant and reinforcing.
  3. Slow down. Simplify your daily tasks. Relax. Let your emotions catch up with the newness all about you.
  4. Develop patterns. Follow the same routine each day so that you get a sense of returning to the familiar.
  5. Cry. Laugh. Sing. Pray. Draw a picture. Give expression to your feelings.
  6. Revise your goals to accommodate a detour instead of scolding yourself for failures.
  7. Give new energy to language study, and use it on simple occasions. It is amazing what language success can do for you.
  8. Find times and places to get physical exercise.
  9. Confide to friends, and even your host family, that you are sad. Their support will warm you.
  10. Make a few small decisions and carry them out. Again, your resolve in small things will pay big confidence dividends. Be assured that, however stressful, culture shock passes if you are willing to let the process of culture learning and cross-cultural adaptation take its course.

Here are some additional suggestions:

  1. Be patient. 
  2. Take care of yourself. 
  3. Talk with international students who have had similar experiences.
  4. Learn how to navigate the new cultural and academic system.
  5. Try to understand other people's situations. 
  6. Do what you think is appropriate, and explain if necessary.
  7. Evaluate your expectations. 
  8. Learn from the experience.
  9. Visit an advisor at the International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS).
  10. Attend the on-going orientation programs, Life in Iowa, offered by the International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS).
  11. Join student organizations on campus, departmental social functions, such as Organization for the Active Support of International Students (OASIS), Friends of International students, the International Women’s Club, or other organizations that interest you.
  12. Remember the positive outcome of going through this experience and of becoming bi-cultural.