Stages of Cultural Adjustment

The majority of people studying, working, or living in a new and different culture undergo cultural adjustment. Most students spend the first few days in the United States settling into apartments and "getting adjusted"; however, adjustment is not accomplished in a few days or even a few weeks. Adjustment is an on-going process demanded by one situation and then another.

Gregory Trivonovitch, a Researcher and Associate Director of the Culture Learning Institute at the East-West Center in Hawaii has identified four stages of cultural adjustment which are normal and to be expected of human beings adjusting to a new and different culture. As Trivonovitch notes, "these four stages are cyclic in nature, not linear, and a person will encounter periods of adjustment continuously as he or she moves from one situation to another."

The Honeymoon Stage


The honeymoon stage is characterized by exhilaration, anticipation, and excitement. Often recently arrived international students are fascinated with everything new. Most of them are embarking on a "dream come true," an education at a U.S. university.

A student in the honeymoon stage will demonstrate an eagerness to please, a spirit of cooperation, and an active interest when others speak. Students in this stage are delightful to work with and to work for, BUT in their enthusiasm to please they frequently nod or smile to indicate understanding when in fact they have not understood. When their misunderstandings mount up, they are likely to experience the second stage of cultural adjustment.


The Hostility Stage


The hostility stage is characterized by frustration, anger, anxiety, judgmentalism, fear, and sometimes depression. Following the initial anticipation is confusion and frustration with university bureaucracy and the weariness of speaking and listening to English everyday. It can be very upsetting that although students have studied textbook English, at times they feel like they donít understand anybody, or worse still, others donít seem to understand them.

Sleep patterns may be disrupted. The student may suffer from indigestion and may be unable to eat. International students probably react in one of two ways to their frustrations. One way is to reject the new environment which seems the source of intense personal discomfort. Internally the student may think, "If I feel this bad, itís because of them." The students blame the external environment for their pain. The other common reaction is for the students to internalize their pain and sit mute and inattentive in the classroom. (They might be thinking, "If I feel bad, itís because something is wrong with me.") Whether the student withdraws or displays hostility, his or her pain shows in fits of anger over seemingly minor frustrations, displays of excessive fear and mistrust of Americans, frequent absenteeism, lack of interest, lack of concentration, lack of motivation, and at worst, complete withdrawal. Academic problems will be magnified during this stage.

This is a painful, difficult stage, but it does not last. As each situation is "figured out," there is a sense of relief and accomplishment which leads students to the third stage.


The Integration/Acceptance Stage


The humor stage follows when the international student begins to feel comfortable and relaxed in the new environment. The student begins to smile or even laugh at minor mistakes and misunderstandings which previously would have caused major headaches during the hostility stage. The student feels more able to get needed information.

This more relaxed state is accomplished by making some friends, finding recreational outlets, understanding oneís studies, passing some tests, or finishing a research paper. The student is relieved once some progress has been made in managing the complexity of the U.S. university where organization of time, professorsí expectations, subject content, language, and rules of behavior are all different.


The Home Stage


The home stage occurs when the international student not only retains allegiance to his or her home culture, but also "feels at home" and functions quite well in the new U.S. culture. The student has successfully adjusted to the norms and standards of the university and should be commended for the ability to live successfully in both cultures.

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