Culture Shock and Living in Northern Ireland
When international students first arrive to a new country, you not only have to learn to deal with new teaching methods, you also have to learn about a new country which has different manners, beliefs, customs, laws, language, religion, family structures and politics! These are all things that define who we are, what we believe and why, and when people move away from their own culture to a new culture they can sometimes feel overwhelmed. These feelings are very normal, and are usually due to an experience commonly known as ‘culture shock’. Not all students will experience culture shock, and many will experience it in different ways. Some of the effects of culture shock might be that you feel stressed, or have headaches; you might find that: you are having problems eating or sleeping; you feel sad; you feel like an outsider; it is hard to concentrate and this could make it difficult to study. Here are some of the things to think about:
- Even if English is your first language, it might take some time to get used to the Northern Irish accent and the slang and idioms that are used here. It can be tiring continually speaking and listening to English if it is not your first language. It is important that you get familiar with the language here, and the best way is to talk to the locals – don’t be afraid to ask people to speak slower, to repeat what they have said, or to explain a particular word or phrase if you haven’t understood it.
- Winter months here can be dark, cold and wet. This can make you feel a bit sad, especially if you come from a warm, dry climate. Just remember – you are not alone! You will hear local people complaining all the time about the weather here! However, it is very important that you don’t let it affect you too much. There are lots of good things that you can do on a cold wet night - have your friends round for a cosy movie night or just ‘wrap up’ in warm, waterproof, clothes and enjoy all of the exciting things to do in Belfast!
- Not all students will notice a big difference in the style of dress here, but, for example: if you come from a dry or hot climate it might be uncomfortable for you to wear heavy clothing and layers to keep warm here; sometimes students might find the way people dress here offensive; and other students might think it is boring! Although it is a very good idea to keep warm over the winter, students are not expected to adopt the style of dress here. If you are more comfortable in the clothes you would normally wear at home, don’t be afraid to wear them here.
- You might find that you don’t always like the local food, and meal times might seem strange to you. Remember that in Belfast there are lots of shops where you can buy food that is more familiar to you. See our 'Shopping' section for information about where you can buy food that you are more familiar with. You don’t have to eat at the same time as local people, but try sharing a meal with some new friends and make the experience one to look forward to.
- Some students will find that people interact with each other in a more or less formal way; for example, the way students here interact with their lecturers and professors might seem too friendly and might be considered disrespectful in your country. The sense of ‘personal space’ can be disconcerting: here people might get much closer to you or stand further away than you expect them to; and you might find people here will touch much more often than you are used to at home.
- Students are expected to arrive on time for lectures and tutorials, meetings with staff members, and other appointments. However, when it comes to social events, things are a bit harder to judge. For example, if you are invited to a party at 8pm, you can usually arrive even an hour or more after the party starts. However, if someone asks you to come for dinner, you should aim to be no more than 20 minutes later than the arranged time. On the other hand, if you have arranged to meet someone to go to the cinema at 8pm, you should arrive at 8pm! Social rules can be difficult to grasp, and this can sometimes make you feel like you are not really fitting in.
How to manage culture shock
The good news is that, if you do experience culture shock, it is temporary and can be managed. Here are some tips for minimising the effects:
- Remember that what you are feeling is normal. Most students will experience some degree of culture shock.
- Keep in touch with your family and friends at home. You can buy international calling cards which will make telephone calls cheaper, or use the computers in the International and Postgraduate Student Centre to Skype!
- Keep photos, mementos and other familiar things around you.
- Make familiar food – there are lots of places in Belfast where you should be able to buy food from your home country. Eat a healthy diet.
- Exercise! Even if you don’t like sports or the gym there are lots of ways you can get exercise. See the Queen’s Sport website for a full list of classes available.
- Make lots of friends while you are here with other international students and local students. Getting to know people in your class is important, but is also a great experience to meet people from other backgrounds. If you are having trouble meeting people, why not join a Club or Society, or come along to some of our events!
- Make sure to ask for help! At home it might be unusual for you to talk about your problems with people outside of your family, but it is completely normal to ask for help or to talk things through with support staff at the University, and remember that we are always happy to see you.
- For some students, it will be important to meet other people of your faith. If you are not sure where you can find a community who follow your faith, come to International Student Support and we will help.
Most importantly, know that this is a completely normal experience, and in fact, it can even have benefits! The experience will make you learn things about a new culture while becoming more aware of aspects of your own culture as well as giving you valuable skills and confidence that will stay with you throughout your life. We hope that you are all settling in OK, but if you are having difficulty with any aspect of your life here, come to see the International Student Support team – you are our top priority!
Living in another culture can be strange. Even if you are from a western culture you will notice that Northern Ireland's culture is different to your own. You will find that people say 'please' and 'thank-you' very often. These are forms of politeness which are expected. You will notice in shops, banks, pubs and bus stops etc that people queue. This means that you stand in line and wait your turn to be served or get on the bus. It is considered rude if you do not queue. If you are invited to someone's home for a meal it is usual to take a small gift such as flowers or chocolates. You should also tell them if you have specific religious or dietary needs.
You must be 18 years old or more to drink alcohol in the UK. You do not have to drink alcohol in pubs, you can choose from a wide range of soft drinks and fruit juices.
Smoking is banned inside all public buildings in the UK, including all of Queen's University buildings, pubs, restaurants, nightclubs, and private clubs. You will see 'No Smoking' signs. You cannot smoke in Queen's University student residences and if you rent a property in the private sector you must check if you are permitted to smoke in the property. It is forbidden to smoke on Queen's grounds except for designated smoking areas.
Men and women have equal rights in the UK and it is illegal to discriminate against someone because of their race, gender, age, class, sexual orientation or disability.
The national emergency number in the UK is 999. This number is for police, ambulance and fire service and is ONLY TO BE USED FOR VERY SERIOUS EMERGENCIES.
You can call this number free from any phone. Your call will be answered by an operator who will ask which service you require (i.e. police, ambulance or fire service). You will need to give your name and explain your situation. If you are using a landline phone (such as a payphone and not your mobile), emergency services will be able to track your call and will know where you are. If you are calling from a mobile phone you will have to explain where you are.
If you are not sure about whether or not you should ring 999, you can call Queen's Security on 028 9097 5099, who will be able to help you.