What is culture shock, and how do I 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.

Culture shock refers to the feeling when one experiences a cultural environment that is different than what they are used to.

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. 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 match 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.

Experiencing culture shock is completely normal. You have traveled a long way to arrive in Canada, leaving behind not only family and friends but also the culture you have grown up with. Culture shock is particularly common in the early part of your Canadian journey, and overtime you will come to be more comfortable with your life in Canada.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada offers a helpful outline of the common stages of culture shock that you may experience while studying in Canada. Whenever you are experiencing culture shock try to remember that a significant portion of the people you meet on the street every day and in your classes have at some point in their recent lives felt the same way.

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

Below you will find information on symptoms and coping strategies for culture shock, borrowed from the Canadian government’s travel guide


What are some of the symptoms of culture shock?

  • You feel angry, uncomfortable, confused, frustrated or irritable and lose your sense of humour.
  • You withdraw and spend excessive amounts of time alone, only with people of your own culture or other foreigners, and avoid contact with the local people.
  • You develop negative feelings about the people and culture of the host country.
  • You eat and drink compulsively or need an excessive amount of sleep.
  • You are bored, fatigued and unable to concentrate or work effectively.


What are the best coping strategies for culture shock?

  • Admit frankly that these impacts exist. It is not a sign of weakness to admit that you feel uncomfortable, tense or confused.
  • Learn the rules of living in your host country. Try to understand how and why the local people act the way they do. Their behaviour and customs, although they may be different from your own, are neither better nor worse than what you are used to.
  • Get involved in some aspect of the new culture. Whether you study art or music, or learn a new sport or martial art, being an interested student will make a world of difference.
  • Take time to learn the language. It always helps to understand as much as possible of what people are saying. They will appreciate your effort to communicate with them in their language, even if it is just a few simple phrases, and it will make your daily life much easier.
  • Take care of yourself. Eat well, exercise and take the time to sleep. Limit your alcohol consumption to moderate amounts.
  • Travel. Take the time to be a tourist and explore the country’s sights.
  • Make friends and develop relationships. Getting to know local people will help you overcome cultural differences and understand the country. It will also show you how to be more sensitive to cultural norms and expectations.
  • Maintain contact with friends and family back home. Writing home about your experiences and problems can help you sort through them. It is also a good idea to keep a journal of your feelings and thoughts.
  • Do something that reminds you of home. Listening to your favourite music or practising a familiar hobby can boost your spirits when you are feeling homesick.
  • Avoid idealizing life back home. Try to make the most of your stay and consciously adopt an open mind.


While you cannot avoid experiencing a very human reaction, you can manage the effects of culture shock. 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!


culture shock - First Nations Holding Hands Laughing


Crossing cultures

Where we come from shapes our attitudes, emotions and expressions. Go to another country and values and behaviours may be quite different.

Consider Canadians. When confronted with a problem, many of us will directly approach the cause of it with the hope of resolving it to the mutual satisfaction of all parties involved. In Canada, that behaviour may be considered honest, forthright and appropriate. Outside Canada, the same approach might be considered too blunt and even rude.

Language is certainly one barrier to communication across cultures, but not the only one. Arriving in Canada for the first time could create anxiety. Students unfamiliar with Western or North American culture might also encounter obstacles related to non-verbal communication. When is a handshake more appropriate than a hug? How close do I stand next to someone? Do I look people in the eye when they talk to me?

And not to neglect the world of education, which is why international students come to Canada in the first place, Canadian methods of studying, learning, presenting ideas and developing arguments may be quite foreign to some incoming students.

If you plan to study in Canada, you are encouraged to take advantage of the regular orientation sessions and ongoing counseling services offered, where you can obtain valuable information about Canada and ask questions about living here. Then you will be prepared to cope with the differences you encounter.