Adjusting to U.S. Culture

Culture Shock

Whether they want to admit it or not, anyone who moves to a place where people’s language, behavior, ideas, and ways of thinking are different will experience some degree of “culture shock.”  Culture shock can be understood as a set of feelings a person has when faced with a very new living situation. The feelings include:

  • Confusion
  • Excitement and stimulation
  • Tiredness (sometimes made worse by difficulty sleeping)
  • Homesickness
  • Depression (low energy, lack of motivation to do anything)
  • Anger and hostility toward the local people
  • Anxiety
  • Questioning whether they have made a mistake in going to the US

Some students/scholars are more affected by these feelings than others. The feelings last longer for some people than for others. Some people feel reasonably comfortable in their new setting within a few weeks; for most people the period is longer—several months, or a year or more.

The culture shock experience is not necessarily a bad thing. It can make you more focused and curious, and give you motivation to learn more about your new surroundings.   It can encourage you to be more flexible as you look for new ways of thinking and acting, so you have a better chance of success in the new culture. Culture shock is not an illness that requires medical treatment. Normally, it passes with time.   However, it is important to note that if you develop feelings of profound sadness or depression, you should seek professional assistance from the Princeton University Health and Wellness Services

Returning Home / Reverse culture shock - Many students report having “reverse culture shock” when they return to their country. Perhaps without realizing it, they have changed in significant ways while in the United States. In addition, things at home may have changed too. The result is that returning students have to make a reverse adjustment to their own culture and society and the changes that have occurred since they left home. 

Quick Adjustment Tips
  • Observe American Behavior. Gain an understanding of generally accepted behavior as well as behaviors that are considered Taboo.
  • The workload at Princeton is often intense and it is possible to fall into the rut of all work and no play which can have a negative effect on your happiness and productivity. Look for opportunities to reduce your stress by exercising, eating healthfully, practicing yoga or meditation, and having fun. Ask for help when you need it.  
  • Most U.S. classrooms are learner centered in which there are discussions, student presentations, critical analysis, interactions with the Instructor, different types of exams and assignments, and a chance to apply knowledge.   Classroom participation is generally valued by most U.S. instructors.  
  • Immerse yourself in the language and speak English as often as possible. Communicate clearly and directly.  
  • Plagiarism is considered a serious offense and may result in failing the class or even expulsion from school. Ask your professors if you have any questions about what is considered plagiarism or cheating.
  • Be Patient with yourself and with others. Try to adapt to your new setting. Keep an open mind. Try not to make negative judgments. Have a sense of humor.
Get Involved and Meet People

Actively developing a social group and getting involved will greatly help you adjust and feel more comfortable in your new life. Don’t wait for a social life to come to you. Make time each week to go out and attend events, take part in sports activities, invite a friend for a meal or a movie. Join a group or organization, attend or join a church, temple, or synagogue if you wish. Be active in building your social network. Don’t be afraid to begin conversations, extend invitations and if necessary, make the first move. Here are just some of the campus resources that may be helpful as you develop relationships: 

Getting Help with the Settling-In Process

Princeton University has a variety of resources to help you as you settle-in to your life in the U.S. It is common for students in U.S. universities to seek assistance that will help them solve problems and ease their adjustment. If you are facing challenges whether it is related to the classroom culture, making friends, English language skills, managing your finances, or feeling sad and homesick – we encourage you to reach out and ask for assistance. Here are just some of the campus resources that may be helpful.

Davis International Center can assist with some of your concerns or provide you with an appropriate referral that can help.                                                                                                       
Tel:      +1-609-258-5006 

Princeton University Health Services offers counseling services for students seeking assistance with challenges in their personal lives including the symptoms of culture shock and homesickness.  

Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding provides social and cultural programs and educational opportunities that help you in your adjustment in regard to issues of diversity and inclusiveness.

LGBT Center provides programs, advising, and consultation in support of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) people.

Friends of the Davis IC Community Connect & English Programs provide opportunities to share your culture with Americans while learning about the American culture at the same time. The Friends of the Davis IC also offers individual and group English classes for international scholars, graduate students, and their spouses.

The Office of Religious Life supports all religious traditions and encourages interfaith dialogue.

International Spouses and Partners at Princeton University (ISPPU) provide the spouses and partners of Princeton’s international scholars and graduate students with helpful information and opportunities to socialize and make friends.       

The McGraw Center for Teaching and Learninsupports graduate students as they begin their teaching practice and undergraduates as they develop as learners and scholars.    

The English Language Program in the McGraw Center assists non-native English speaking graduate students by providing ESL courses, tutoring, and conversation practice.

What to Expect
  • Expect that you will experience some sort of adjustment process that may last a full semester or more.
  • Expect that in your adjustment process, you may have negative feelings about Americans and American customs. This is common and it usually passes with time.

  • Expect that you may have difficulties with the English Language even if it is trying to understand the American use of slang, localisms, and Princeton's use of acronyms.

  • Expect that the classroom experience will be different than what you are used to.

  • Expect that there are people and University offices that can help you.

  • Expect that with time, it will get easier.

  • Expect that your adjustment will be smoother if you know what to expect.