What is culture shock?

Culture shock is the emotional disorientation you experience when you’re adjusting to living in a different culture. The “emotional rollercoaster” of feelings you experience typically follows distinct phases leading to eventual acclimation within that culture. Every person’s experience of culture shock is different and not everyone may experience all or even some of a particular phase.

Stages of culture shock

Everyone’s experience of adjusting to a new place is different. You may experience all, or just some, of the following common stages of culture shock: 

  • Honeymoon: excitement and fascination with the new culture. Your first exposure to the new culture is overwhelming, exotic, and very positive as you seek out new discoveries and overlook minor problems.
  • Frustration: disappointment, disconnect, and anxiety with the negotiation of differences between your old and new cultures. These feelings may start to occur as you experience more of the culture’s daily life, and encounter more strange or inconvenient differences between old and new cultures, such as language barriers, differences in public hygiene, traffic safety, and food accessibility and quality.
  • Acceptance phase: understanding and a more balanced view of the culture. This mindset shift leads to a more positive attitude and confidence in dealing with the culture.
  • Adjustment phase: feeling “at home” in the culture. You have learned to not only function well, but also enjoy living in the culture, perhaps preferring certain cultural traits of the new culture to their own, adopting certain behaviors from the new culture, and getting involved in new activities in the culture.
  • Reentry shock: experiencing a similar emotional disorientation upon return to your old culture. This results from the process of having transitioned into an acclimated state with a new culture, and is oftentimes more surprising, and may even be more difficult to deal with, than the original culture shock. 

Signs and Symptoms

 Some of the common signs and symptoms of culture shock include:

  • Irritability
  • Withdrawal from people who are different from you
  • Lose interest in your new environment
  • Feelings of anxiety, anger, and/or homesickness
  • Sudden intense feeling of loyalty to own culture
  • Significant change in eating habits
  • Boredom
  • A need for excessive sleep
  • Headaches
  • Upset stomach
  • Depression
  • Loss of ability to work or study effectively
  • Unexplainable crying
  • Relationship stress
  • Exaggerated cleanliness
  • Feeling sick a lot 

Adjusting to Rice

From the moment you stepped onto the Rice campus to start your first year, you could probably tell that Rice is pretty unique. And you’re just getting started! Rice has a rich culture of traditions and history. Sometimes, it may feel intimidating to try to understand, or become a part of it. Don’t worry! With time, Rice will feel like home. 

Common Adjustment Issues

 Some of the unique facets of Rice that may take some getting used to include:

  • Diversity: Rice is a very diverse school. If you come from a completely different ethnic, cultural, or socioeconomic background, you may not be used to the wide variety and range of perspectives and backgrounds of your peers, both intellectually and culturally
  • Residential college system: Rice’s residential college system vastly contributes to the vibrant atmosphere of student service, development, and leadership. Not only is the residential college system unique, each individual residential college is as well. You may find yourself feeling a little overwhelmed by your college’s lively web of culture, history, and traditions. Be patient: over time, your institutional memory will grow exponentially, and you’ll find yourself fluidly incorporating your savvy into everyday conversation. After all, you may very well influence that memory by contributing to its current personality and culture.
  • Size: for some people, Rice is about the size (or maybe even smaller!) than their high school, while for others, Rice may seem huge. You may feel overwhelmed by the number of people you don’t know, the sheer number of people with whom you interact or pass by on a daily basis, or you may be used to it.
  • New city: Houston, like Rice, comes in its own flavor. It may take time to adjust to living surrounded by the goings-on of one of the nation’s largest, most diverse cities. Don’t be afraid to get out and explore! Houston offers some true cultural gems that are yours for the discovering, if you take the time and effort to check out the exciting opportunities outside the hedges.   
  • Academic challenges: If you’re here, you’re probably used to being the top of your class and excelling in everything you do…but then again, so is everyone else here! Instead of being intimidated, embrace the intellectually stimulating environment. Even though everyone here is academically motivated and smart, Rice has a reputation for not being a cutthroat, competitive atmosphere. Seek opportunities to intellectually engage and collaborate with your peers, in and outside of the classroom.
  • Student opportunities for involvement: with the myriad of opportunities to get involved—from academic, campus-wide, extracurricular, and research, not to mention the chance to get involved at your college—you may feel overwhelmed with all of the options. Pause. Take a breath. Consider what passions you want to pursue and how you want to contribute to life at Rice. Don’t be afraid to ask around and get other people’s perspectives on activities. Also, don’t be afraid to try something new! You never know what challenging, insightful new experiences you may encounter.
  • Rice culture: like assimilating into any new environment, Rice’s multifaceted, vibrant campus life may also take some getting used to, from just figuring out the way things work to the expectations, norms, and different kinds of people with whom you’ll find yourself living, working, and interacting on a daily basis. Just remember to be yourself. We like you the way you are. Get ready for the adventure! 

Tips for Adjusting to Rice

 Here are some ways to get to know Rice:

  • Actually read your O-Week book: Your O-Week book is a lovingly, carefully crafted compilation of advice, resources, and information about everything relevant to you while you’re here. Use it.  
  • Talk with your O-Week advisors: They’re great resources for advice on everything from academics to friends and they care about how you’re doing.
  • Get Involved in whatever you’re interested in! Try new things! Check out these websites for an aggregate of cool opportunities for you to explore, from clubs to government, groups to volunteering: Student Association website, Student Activities website  
  • Get to know the campus: Familiarize yourself with the campus, especially before your classes start. Find where your classes are on the campus map and walk to them the day before. Use Rice’ s online map to find them. Recognize where the RUPD blue safety lights are along your typical routes in case of an emergency.  Know the location of a couple of familiar landmarks that would reorient you if you ever get lost—a few good ones include Willy’s Statue, the academic quad, and the Brochstein Pavilion, located in the central quad.
  • Eat in a different servery: Each servery on campus features a variety of delicious options as well as a different atmosphere and group of people to eat with. In fact, each servery features one specialty that no other servery offers, such as wood oven baked pizza and crepes.
  • Pick up something you love: If you participated in an activity in high school that you enjoyed, chances are Rice offers it too. Keep it up! Continuing an activity is not only a fun way to get involved, but also a great way to meet people who share a similar interest. From sports to languages to theatre to everything in between, Rice offers over 300 student-run clubs that you can get involved in. To find out more, check out the Student Activities website, Can’t find it? Start it!
  • Try something new: Rice abounds with opportunities for you to challenge yourself. Don’t hesitate to dive into new activities. With all the different ways to get involved, it’s easy to maintain a balance of the old and new. Take advantage of the freedom you have in choosing optional courses within your major as well as in the distribution credits, as well as your LPAPs.
  • Get outside the hedges: Houston brims with art, entertainment, food, cultural events, and fun beyond the hedges, and Rice gives students the access to explore the city’s cultural and entertainment offerings. Use your Q card and the METROrail to navigate off campus events. Check out all of the major discounts that Rice students get through Hedgehopper card and Passport to Houston program. For more info, check out the Passport to Houston website
  • Be patient: Becoming familiar and comfortable with Rice, and your new home, takes time.
  • Talk to someone: if you’re discouraged by your lack of progress, or feel homesick, lonely, or otherwise not completely in sync with everything, don’t hesitate to talk to someone about it, like a college master, RA, RHA, close friend, or someone from the Counseling Center. We want you to feel at home here, and we want to make sure you feel that you have the support and resources to navigate your new environment.


“Adjustments and Culture Shock.” Study Abroad Student Handbook. The Center for Global Education.  

Schneider, Katherine. “Cultural Difference: International Students Coping with Culture Shock” University of Winsconsin Eua-Claire Counseling Services. 

“Stages of Culture Shock.” Kwintessential.