Moving to the UK was like moving to Mars: navigating culture shock

Blog for members
25 September 2019
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Written by Wahida Ashiq, Founder of Great British Mag. The UK’s only weekly, digital magazine for international students.

An international student once explained to me that moving to the UK felt like moving to Mars. Everything was alien, doing the simplest things became tiring and whilst she understood English - people might as well have spoken Martian, because between the accents and the colloquialism she could only get the gist of what they were saying. 

She went on to say that she was told by her university to expect culture shock, but she grossly underprepared and underestimated its impact on her to get stuck into student life and enjoy her time in the UK. Having launched the UK’s only digital lifestyle magazine for international students, I have the privilege of hearing from hundreds of our readers about their challenges and this experience, unfortunately, is typical amongst international students. They do expect it will take time to settle in, get to know their new neighbourhood, get used to the food, the ways and norms of the local culture, but many do little proactively to prepare for the inevitable culture shock. 


Culture shock can progress to homesickness and lack of confidence

The outcome too often is that students start feeling homesick, lose their confidence and the enthusiasm that made them want to step out of their comfort zone and study abroad.

For some students this is overcome with the support of their university and by finding their own community on campus. But the fact remains a sizable percentage never recover from the culture shock they experience. As a result, they lose confidence in their abilities and never really assimilate into living in the UK and campus life.

A survey reported in PIE News this year revealed out of a sample size of 2,000 students 35% of international students claimed they struggled with their mental health and a shocking 35% said they had contemplated suicide.

Moving abroad can be rewarding and life changing but students must get help with their mindset. One way of ensuring students are prepared for the epic move they are about to make is giving them realistic and thorough insights to what it will be like to live and study in the UK, which goes beyond preparing them for academic life and should be done before they arrive.

By having a better and deeper insight of UK culture students can navigate it better, especially in the early days when they find it hard to decipher social codes.

One student shared their frustration and confusion with me about constantly being asked if they were OK, but no one really pausing to listen to his response. 

He said it wasn’t until he’d been in the UK for a year that he understood being asked “how are you” was just another way of saying hello and didn’t give him the license to tell people how he was.

Life in the UK won’t be what’s depicted in films or books

Students need to have a healthy appreciation that things will be different and life in the UK won’t be what’s depicted in the films they have seen and books they have read.  In fact, those students that have had some exposure to the UK, for example having holidayed here and those from North America suffer what I dub as “unexpected culture shock” because they think they know what the UK is going to be like and what to expect from academic life. However, they arrive and quickly realise it is somewhat different here and that shock takes away some of their confidence. 

I feel there is a real, solid argument that universities should focus more on preparing students for the local and national cultural traits that define the UK. Accents is just one of those things that I hear being referenced time and time again.  

For a small country I am too surprised we have 56 accents, and to put that in context the U.S only has 42.  Local accents really are a curve ball for many students who choose a university based on visiting the website, picking up a brochure or speaking to staff, who often don’t have the local accent, so when students arrive and hear the local accent for the first time it throws them and adds an extra layer of acclimatisation.

I hear culture shock being mentioned at each and every university induction and orientation event I have ever been invited to, and whilst these sessions are informative I do question if the content is being delivered at the right time and whether it’s enough to give the students the insights they need to help them navigate our culture fluidly and with confidence. After all we have a lot riding on their student experience. If the academic experience is only part of how they rate their time in the UK it is vitally important that they feel they have immersed themselves in the local culture, interacted with Brits on and off campus.  And this can only be done if they are culturally-literate. 

I’d be really interested to hear what you’re doing in your institutions to help students prepare for culture shock before they arrive. Please share anything you’re currently doing or planning in the comments below.

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lance johnson
27 September 2019
We have the same thing here in the US where being an international student away from home IS difficult, compounded by our complex culture and language problems. Welcoming and assimilation assistance must come from numerous sources, including the White House, to aid these young people embarking on life’s journey.
Most struggle in their efforts and need guidance from schools’ international departments, immigration protection, host families, concerned neighbors and fellow students, and even informative books to extend a cultural helping hand.
Something that might help anyone coming to the US is the award-winning worldwide book/ebook "What Foreigners Need To Know About America From A To Z: How to Understand Crazy American Culture, People, Government, Business, Language and More.”
Used in foreign Fulbright student programs and endorsed worldwide by ambassadors, educators, and editors, it identifies how “foreigners” have become successful in the US, including students.
It explains how to cope with a confusing new culture and friendship process, and daunting classroom differences. It explains how US businesses operate and how to get a job (which differs from most countries), a must for those who want to work with/for an American firm here or overseas.
It also identifies the most common English grammar and speech problems foreigners have and tips for easily overcoming them, the number one stumbling block they say they have to succeeding here.
Good luck to all wherever you study or wherever you come from, because that is the TRUE spirit of the American PEOPLE, not a few in government who shout the loudest! Supporters of int’l students must shout louder.