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What it is and how to cope with it

It’s December, snow has fallen, stores are filled with shoppers, trees are decorated with lights and your fellow students are looking forward to going home to spend Christmas with their families. You wish they’d catch the next flight out and stop annoying you with all their merriment. All you want to do is sleep.

Maybe you are angry or sad that you cannot go home too. Or perhaps you are suffering from culture shock.

Though you may have already been in Canada for months, the shock of being here has taken time to manifest itself. Don’t worry, it happens to the best of us.

Although sometimes you miss your family, your friends, your home, in other words your previous life, studying abroad one year is always a wonderful experience for everyone to learn a lot. I will do it again.

Laura from Spain
at University of Ottawa

If we spend extended periods of time in a culture that is different from our own we will almost always experience culture shock. It happens when our own culturally determined behaviours, some of which we may not even be aware of, don’t get us the results we expect; this produces a sense of psychological disorientation.

But culture shock does not occur as immediately, as the term might suggest. No one single event or even a series of events will result in this condition. It takes time.

When you arrived in Canada, you brought your own cultural touchstones that reflect the way you see things, think and solve problems. Since then, you have inevitably encountered different ways of doing, perceiving or valuing things which don’t quite jive with the way you have become accustomed to seeing the world. Things appear less predictable to you. Rules of behaviour seem unclear.

More discomforting, perhaps, is when your own core beliefs and values are questioned or challenged. The shock you feel is compounded by the fact that you not only have to cope within a social context but also function with maximum skill at an academic level within a limited period of time. It’s enough to make you panic, and some people do.

More commonly, though, culture shock manifests itself in less dramatic ways.

Possible signs that you are experiencing culture shock:

If you are experiencing it, you may become irritable or frustrated, or have difficulty concentrating. You may get bored easily, or withdraw, or want to sleep, drink or eat a lot.
Culture shock could affect your relationships, leading to marital stress, or tension and conflict with other family members and friends. You could become hostile or unfairly stereotype Canadians around you. The high level of discomfort that culture shock often brings could make you physically ill.
But while you cannot avoid experiencing a very human reaction, you can manage the effects of culture shock.

Get to know Canada, its people and places. Learn and discover as much as you can about the culture of the community in which you will be living. Remain open to new ideas and experiences without compromising your own beliefs and attitudes.
When in doubt, ask questions. Talk to Canadians about their country. Talk to other international students about their experiences in Canada.
Most importantly, use the support services available to you at your school, college or university. Talk with your International Student Adviser (ISA), teachers and professors, other counselors and administrators. Don’t feel that it’s not important enough to discuss with them, and don’t be embarrassed about seeking help. With timely and caring advice, you will soon be ready to enjoy your Canadian experience completely!