How to Help Participants Navigate Culture Shock

By Joy Lo

Cultural exchange is at the core of Exchange Visitor Programs, and with that comes culture shock. All exchange participants will experience culture shock to some degree; it’s completely normal and isn’t a bad thing.

Lucas and Friends

Lucas from Brazil (third from the left) was able to fully embrace his time in the U.S. Image courtesy of Lucas

Culture shock is the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.

Common signs of culture shock include:

  • Being reluctant to speak English or meet new people
  • Oversleeping
  • Writing or calling home very frequently
  • Feeling homesick, resentful, anxious, or isolated
  • Being confused by the nuances of daily life
  • Crying a lot

Culture shock hits everyone differently, and you’ll likely have participants that don’t let on that they’re going through it. Still, as a host to these young adults in the U.S., you should help guide and navigate them through their experience with culture shock.

Explain things as they happen.

We usually don’t realize the unique parts of U.S. culture, since they’re entirely natural to us. As you work more and more with international students, you’ll notice the nuances that stick out to them most often. Explain cultural differences as they happen. For example, when ordering a Starbucks with a participant, you can share how Americans love supersizes and tons of ice in our beverages!

Encourage community.

Feeling isolated can make culture shock much worse. It’s crucial to facilitate a sense of community for your participants. Make sure they have time to embrace their new home, whether you organize outings or set up a buddy system with Americans.

Acknowledge their experience.

If you have the opportunity to talk with a participant about how they’re feeling, acknowledge their journey and remind them that culture shock is normal. Encourage them by sharing that these feelings won’t last forever. In the grand scheme of things, J-1 exchanges are short and should be lived to the fullest.

Have a sense of humor.

Our culture is admittedly eccentric at times. After all, we refuse to use the metric system along with only two other countries in the world: Liberia and Myanmar. When a participant expresses confusion over something they’ve seen, explain it to them while having a laugh. This will help you both feel more at ease.

Guiding students through culture shock enables us to learn about the world and ourselves. Enjoy and embrace the process!

Joy Lo By

Joy is a huge advocate for cultural exchange. She's lived across the U.S. and various countries around the world including the UK, Australia and Indonesia. She has a unique perspective on working and thriving in other cultures. She's been a contributing author on Au Pair USA program.

U.S. Department of State-Designated J-1 Visa Sponsor
Alliance for International Exchange
The International Coalition for Global Education and Exchange
European-American Chamber of Commerce New York
Global Ties U.S.
International Au Pair Association
WYSE Travel Confederation