Prepare for a new culture

Preparing for a new culture

A lot of things need to be arranged before you go on exchange. You need to apply for admission, find courses and accommodation, book your plane or train tickets, pack your suitcase and much more. It is important to have these practical things in place, but it’s also good to prepare yourself mentally for the changes you’ll face in your everyday life. On this page, you can read more about how to prepare for a new daily life in your host country. 

What is culture?

Culture can be defined as the values and worldview that are shared by a particular group of people and that distinguish one group of people from another. The culture in which we live can be said to affect the way we see the world – something often referred to as “seeing through cultural glasses”. We are thus already shaped by and continue to be shaped by the environment we inhabit; with our family and friends and through our hobbies, education and travel. Culture is therefore not necessarily tied to countries, even though there are greater cultural differences between Aarhus and Tokyo than between Aarhus and Oslo.

Culture shock

When you study abroad, your daily life changes. Your exchange can feel like a rollercoaster and you may experience what is called culture shock. 

Everyone experiences their exchange differently. Some have no difficulties, while others get homesick. But the image of a rollercoaster helps to illustrate the range of emotions you may experience during your exchange and the fact that they often come in waves.

When you move abroad, all your daily routines change – what you eat for breakfast, how you get to university, your fellow students, your teachers, your leisure activities, the language you hear around you, and much more. For many, this all seems fun, new and exciting at the start. Everything is fantastic. You experience so many new things at once, and you want to soak up all the new impressions. Perhaps you also meet lots of exciting people with different cultural backgrounds. Everything feels like an incredible holiday.

But, after a while, all these changes can become difficult, and you might start to feel home sick. The feeling of being on holiday is replaced by the feeling of frustration about a new “everyday life” in a new country. Perhaps you start comparing everything around you to Denmark and find yourself thinking that everything works better there. You might get tired of not being able to find everything you want in the supermarket, you might miss rye bread, you might find it difficult to speak another language all the time, and you might misunderstand your fellow students because you come from different cultural backgrounds. 

This is what is referred to as culture shock. Although culture shock can feel overwhelming and remind you of the saying “there’s no place like home”, it will eventually pass. It’s important to remember that an exchange only lasts a semester or two. Time flies, and, before you know it, you’ll be home again. And then you may find that you miss daily life in your host country and experience culture shock back in Denmark

How can I deal with culture shock?

Try to make the best of it – If you see or experience something different, replace “Oh, how strange!” with “Oh, how exciting!” or “Oh, how interesting!”. Don’t think in terms of better or worse – just different.

Talk to someone about it – Try chatting to other exchange students. Perhaps they are going through the same thing. You can also ask the local population about the things that are troubling you or that you don’t understand, because understating something better can often help to reduce frustration. Another option is to find out whether your host university offers counselling services to exchange students. is also open for you, and you can chat or call anonymously.

Find a hobby – Perhaps it’s time to take up a new sport or to sign up for a course in ceramics? Or perhaps your host university has activities for students?

Be social – Life is more fun if you have people to share it with. Even if you’re just on exchange for a few months. If you’re finding it difficult to make friends with local students, try the international student community, who are often very open and welcoming. The Erasmus Student Network (ESN) can be found at several European universities and gives you the chance to meet other exchange students by arranging social events across degree programmes.

And remember that it’s okay not to be on top of the world the whole time. You have taken a big step by travelling abroad – perhaps far afield and perhaps by yourself.

University culture

You will spend a lot of time at your host university whilst on exchange, and the university culture and study environment might be different from what you are used to. 

Listen, watch and observe
You can learn more about how local students address and interact with members of teaching staff just by observing them. Do they use the teacher’s first name, surname or title? Do they keep a physical distance? Do they say “please”, “excuse me” and “thank you”? 

Respect differences
Compulsory attendance, formal titles such as “doctor” or “professor”, more lessons, small tests instead of one big exam, multiple choice exam formats, less group work... There may be several differences between the way teaching is conducted at your host university and your home university. Perhaps you think the way you’re used to is best, but it’s still important to respect any differences. And once you adjust to a new way of studying, you may even prefer it. In most cases, exchange students are not treated any differently, so it’s important you perform in the same way as the local students.

“They’re so rude!” – or perhaps “They’re too polite!” 
Different cultures understand politeness differently, and there is not one ‘correct’ way to be polite. Some cultures value formal communication and distance, while others prefer directness and informality. A more direct and informal tone can sometimes come across as aggressive or impolite because there is little pleasantry. So, if you think the local population is impolite, ask yourself whether this could be rooted in cultural differences – or perhaps language barriers and misunderstandings. Take a step back and examine this new, different culture and approach – it may help you to understand your host society better.

Useful links and resources

Hofstede has put together an overview of the main cultural features of almost all the countries in the world. This overview allows you to compare national cultures according to their various structures and values. However, it is worth remembering that this overview cannot take into account differences between individual people and regions in a given country.

Watch the video How Culture Drives Behaviour to learn more about cultural glasses.