Psycholgical Effects of International Study

Published by Chris Harvey October 10, 2005

Mary Ann Santoro Bellini, Ph.D.

In 1895, after spending time in Venice, Florence, and Rome, Sigmund Freud wrote to a colleague:

“Italy has captured me with the magical delirium of its wonders…this journey is also and above all a journey into my inner world, a discovery of myself.”
Those who study, live, or travel in outside of their home countries often must cope with such overwhelming emotions, which Freud aptly describes as “a discovery”.
As a clinical psychologist, I often deal with clients who have problems related to culture adjustment. In every country of the world, people share a particular way of living. When you move to a new country, the style of living is often dramatically different from that to which you are accustomed. Culture Shock is the term used to describe the more pronounced reactions to the psychological disorientation most people experience when they move from one culture to another.

Kalvero Oberg, the man who first defined and studied Culture Shock, described it as being cut off from your own cultural cues:

“These signs and cues include the thousand and one ways in which we orient ourselves to the situations of daily life: when to shake hands and what to say when we meet people, when and how to give tips, how to make purchases, when to accept a date and when to refuse invitations, when to take statements seriously and when not.”
The cues, which may be words, facial expressions or gestures, are acquired by each person in the process of growing up and are as thoroughly ingrained in an individual as the language spoken or the beliefs held by him. Each person’s peace of mind, emotional balance, and efficiency depend on hundreds of such cues, most of which the person is totally unaware. In a foreign environment, some of these learned cues are removed and confusion and frustration ensue.

In Florence, where I work, many international students arrive from abroad to study for a semester or longer. These bright, enthusiastic students may misinterpret the tone and/or nature of the conversation at their host family’s dinner table. In the case of international business people, the non-working spouse may have difficulty adjusting in local expatriate social circles, where the primary criteria upon which he/she is judged relates to the position held by his/her employed spouse. Situations like these can often lead to varying degrees of Culture Shock Syndrome.

For more information, see

The Four Stages of Culture Shock
Coping with Culture Shock
The Opportunities & Challenges of International Study