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The best part of travelling is, of course, the opportunity to visit so many different countries and explore their cultures and way of life. However, this comes with its own obstacles. Trying to navigate a new city, their transport systems, their restaurants and cafes, their streets and different cultural behaviours, can be stressful and a little overwhelming. Culture shock can be severe, depending on the country you are in, as many countries are very different to ours.

Culture shock is termed in the dictionary as “the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes”. It is that slight feeling of unease when you arrive somewhere unknown, and suddenly feel very alienated by the different language, the strange houses and the unrecognisable people on the street. It can be made even more potent due to the fatigue of a long journey, which in itself is often slightly stressful.

When travelling to multiple countries, you are likely to want to do so cheaply, which can often involve multiple plane/bus/train journeys from strange places in the middle of the night, arriving at some ungodly hour. Beginning your experience in a country at night time is even more daunting, as everything seems alien and unfamiliar…The streetlamps cast curious shadows upon the mysterious streets as you rattle along the cobbled roads in a questionable taxi, hoping that this won’t turn into some travel-horror story. Your hostel appears closed when you arrive and you spend 15 minutes working out how to open the door, before it swings open all by itself without any visible sign of human life inside…

Undoubtedly, culture shock is felt even more acutely in a country whose language you don’t speak. Attempting to conduct daily life in a place where you are not understood will be tricky, frustrating, and probably unnerving. Even with the help of a travel phrase book or some basic GCSE language skills, when off the beaten track you are unlikely to find any English speakers.

If you are travelling somewhere with a uniform language, such as Latin America, it would be invaluable to brush up on some Spanish before you go, or attempt to learn some of a country’s language if you are staying only one country. Don’t rely on people speaking English, because the chances are that you’ll end up feeling more alienated and alone than before. If you try, the locals will be kind and willing to help you out.

Add on a few hours of jet lag and before you know it, all these little things have surmounted into a mini-breakdown. And that’s normal.

Culture shock is a serious and completely normal phenomenon. Anywhere away from home feels odd and uncomfortable to begin with – even places in the same country. According to Harzing.com, almost everyone experiences culture shock in one way or another. Some may feel it more acutely, and others may not feel for some weeks or even months after they arrive in a new place.

Regardless, the antidote is the same: be kind to yourself, but don’t wallow too much; get out exploring the city and you’ll soon get a hold of your bearings and maybe discover some hidden gems down a winding alley with beautiful architecture…

Culture shock is a natural barrier that comes from living abroad. But it is a barrier that can allow us to learn about different ways of life and perhaps even appreciate them more, as to us they seem so different. 

If you find yourself really struggling with homesickness and loneliness, always reach out. Your University will have many good resources for counselling and support for those on a semester or Year Abroad.


Exeter University Student, studying English Literature and Spanish Athlete and Foodie (see @what.katie.does98 on Instagram) The future Kate Addie...
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