10 Ways to Overcome Culture Shock/Language Barriers in Florence, Italy & My Personal Experiences With It

Aug 4, 2023 2:03:57 PM / by Sara Shriber

Culture shock and language barriers can be frustrating, yet motivating experiences. Sara blogs from Florence about the 4 stages of culture shock, understanding local etiquette, and how to adapt to changes. She also crafts out 10 tips to get you on track.

Piazzale MichelangeloPiazzale Michelangelo.

Everyone experiences culture shock and language barriers at some level when studying abroad. After spending more than one month in Florence, I have experienced culture shock and I consistently try to overcome the language barrier. Before coming to Florence, Italy to study abroad, I did not know any Italian and I have never been to Italy before. I had no idea what to expect, but I was excited to be immersed into Italian culture and learn the language. Study abroad is a great experience, but it also comes with difficult and sometimes frustrating experiences overcoming cultural differences.

DuomoIl Duomo.

During my CEA CAPA orientation, I learned about the four stages of culture shock that are applicable to my experiences. The Honeymoon stage is the first stage where people are feeling overwhelmingly positive and are very excited to explore their new city and to travel. The Frustration stage is where people become frustrated in terms of not understanding the language, hand gestures, signs, directions, etc. Then, the Adjustment stage is where frustrations start to go away and people feel more comfortable with the culture, navigating, language, etc. Lastly, the Acceptance stage is when someone feels comfortable living in a new culture and realizes that they do not have to completely understand the culture to thrive in an environment. Currently, I feel like I am moving between the Frustration and Adjustment stage. There are times where I get frustrated when dealing with culture shock and overcoming the language barrier, but I also experience times where I feel more comfortable living in Florence and being able to navigate.

Cappuchino Having a Cappuccino in Florence - but not during midday!

There were many surprises and new things I had to adapt to when I first came to Florence. For instance, mealtimes are much later than the United States and often last a couple of hours. Lunch does not start before 1:00 pm and dinner does not start before 8:00 pm. This was hard for me because I like to eat lunch around noon and dinner around 6:00 pm. In addition, the grocery shopping experience is different than the United States. When most Italians grocery shop, they only buy food for a couple of days and make more than one trip to the grocery store each week. When shopping for produce, you have to wear gloves and you cannot touch it. The first time I went to the grocery store, I accidentally touched the produce because I did not realize you had to do that. When you check out at the grocery store, the cashier places all your items on a small countertop and you have to put everything into your bags. Other surprises I experienced include the coffee culture. When ordering coffee at a café or bar, people stand at a countertop to drink their coffee and to sit will often cost more money. I typically sit to drink my coffee only if I am going to study. Also, Italians do not drink coffee midday as it is considered bad for digestion. Overall, I had to adjust to these cultural differences in order to “blend in.”

Grocery StoreDid you know?
You have to put on gloves when handling and shopping for produce in Italy. 

One of the major struggles I have faced while living in Florence is the language barrier. I am currently taking Italian, which is helping with the language barrier, but I still have difficulties when communicating with locals. For the most part, most people speak English (some speak it really well and others only know a little). At times, it can be frustrating when you cannot have a conversation with people because of the language barrier. For instance, when I went to the post office to hand in my permit of stay, all the signs were in Italian and the lady helping me did not speak English. I was getting frustrated because the document is very important and we both could not understand each other. During times like these, I am more motivated to learn Italian. Some other incidents where I experienced a language barrier include ordering food at a restaurant, asking for directions, buying a sim card, using public transportation, and volunteering in the community. Since I have learned more Italian, I have experienced fewer problems with the language barrier compared to my first few days in Italy, but it is still something I face often.

Based on these experiences thus far, I have compiled a list of 10 tips to overcome/lessen culture shock and the language barrier:

1. Be patient - adapting to a new environment is a process.
2. Keep an open mind when trying to understand another culture.
3. Avoid constantly comparing things to home - it makes settling in more difficult.
4. Talk to your friends about homesickness - you aren’t the only one.
5. Step outside your comfort zone.
6. Become involved in the community to meet locals and experience the culture.
7. Travel and appreciate your country.
8. Learn and practice the language regularly. It helps you integrate into the community and shows your interest of learning the language.
9. Stay in touch with family and friends back home.
10. Keep a positive attitude.

Thanks, Sara!

Sarah Graham


Sara Shriber was an official CEA CAPA blogger for spring 2020, sharing her story in frequent posts on our blog. A Marketing major with an International Business certificate at the University of Pittsburgh, she studied abroad in Florence. 

Sarah's journey continues all semester so stay tuned.

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Topics: Florence, Italy, Language

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