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Culture Shock When Interning Abroad: How to Overcome and Embrace it



Interning in a new professional environment in your own country is one thing. But interning in a new culture and country can leave you feeling both exhilarated and terrified. What is it about change that makes us uncomfortable or even fearful? Is it the idea that the unknown can be worse than we even imagine or is it that our imaginations get the best of us?

Before you start to travel, there are basic cultural truths that you take for granted. You even believe them to be universal truths because you’ve known nothing else outside of your cultural bubble. An example would be as simple as thinking that the perception of geography is the same in every country. Such as how many continents are there? As an American citizen, I was taught there are seven and assumed so did the rest of the world. I mean that’s a fact, right? Well, once I left the United States to intern abroad in South America I learned that locals had a very different concept of geography. So much so that they believe there are only five continents. This boggled my mind when trying to discuss geography with university students there. I realized that this a completely different aspect of cultural shock that I had never even expected. You expect the food to be different. Maybe the language. But the geography? That was something I wasn’t prepared for and just one example of many.

There are 4 stages of culture shock:


The first stage is the honeymoon stage where everything is new and exciting. Oh, this food is so great and this architecture is spectacular.

The second is frustration and can even turn into crisis. Why can’t anyone seem to understand my accent? Why doesn’t the bank, post office, or even transportation system work as well as back home? You compare everything.

The third is acceptance. You realize that you can’t compare your new home to your own country or it will continue to drive you insane. This is the way it is and you aren’t going to change it. If you can’t beat them, join them, eh?

The fourth and final stage is mastery. What language barrier? You start picking up the local lingo and ordering food like a local. Tourists ask you for directions and you gladly tell them the right directions. You’re settled into your second home away from home.

Here are 5 ways you can be sure to not let cultural shock get the best of you while abroad:


1. The first and foremost rule is to stop comparing your country to your new temporary home. Comparing the two cultures causes nothing but frustration and negativity towards one or the other. For example, the difference in customer service in a Latin American culture such as Colombia shouldn’t be looked down upon but accepted for what it is. It may be slower or seemingly less attentive but that’s because culturally that works for them. The fast-paced service component isn’t a priority and the environment is more relaxed for the employee. Whether or not you approve is irrelevant being that it’s a cultural difference that works for that particular country and it’s not going to change just for you.

2. Make friends with locals. Why else would you travel halfway around the world? These are the people that are going to help you understand the whys and hows of the culture. They are the ones that are going to open you up to the best local spots, restaurants, and experiences.

3. Have a couple expat friends that understand your culture shock and complaints for those times when you really do need to vent. They are going to have a similar take and perspective on the situation and it helps to have someone that gets where you are coming from figuratively and literally. But be careful not to use this as a negative bubble where all you do is complain. Remember why you went abroad for your internship in the first place.

4. Keep in touch with those from home. Going abroad and being able to stay connected has improved dramatically over the last 5 years even. There are various methods, apps, and social media sources you can use to not lose touch with home. Whatsapp is a free smartphone app you can use for messaging internationally and now it even has phone calls. Viber is another free app that allows for global free calls as long as you have WIFI. Actually, if you have an iPhone, you can make free Facetime calls as long as it is iPhone to iPhone and you are connected to WIFI. And as you already know, Skype and Facebook are great ways to stay in the loop.

5. Acknowledge and participate in the positive aspects of the culture that you wouldn’t have experienced in your own country. There are always components of every culture that you can learn from. How about the exercise-oriented city of Melbourne? The financially-savvy and progressive island of Hong Kong? Or the trust and relationship-oriented business structure of Latin America? There are good qualities and cultural characteristics to be picked up from every destination you go to.

Photo 1. based on A Mess of Chinese Signs, by Michael Coghlan, CC-by-2.0

Photo 2. based on Sushi, by Hajime Nakano, CC-by-2.0

Photo 3. by The Intern Group


Photos and blog by Bridget McAndrew

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The International Internships Blog is a collaboration by The Intern Group staff, alumni and current participants to give you career advice & tips, program information, & so much more!