The St. Petersburg program takes culture shock a little more seriously than, say, programs in Paris, probably because there are more things for Americans to be shocked about in Russia (lack of potable water, sheets of ice falling onto pedestrian routes, disgruntled stray dogs, the price of peanut butter, etc).
According to our student handbook, symptoms of culture shock include “depression, lack of energy, unexplainable episodes of crying, anger, tendency to stereotype host nationals, irritability, homesickness, strong yearning for old friends, fear of being cheated, recurring minor illnesses, decline in work effectiveness, conflict and tension among family members, compulsive eating or drinking, excessive sleeping or isolation, and seeing everything as negative.”
The thing I personally find most difficult about negotiating life in another country is modifying the Golden Rule. You have to stop thinking, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and instead operate on the principle of “do unto others as they would have you do unto them.” Changing your mindset involves a lot more observation and research, because what someone from another culture was raised to consider appropriate is not always intuitive.
For example, American students like to be praised for doing a good job, and will say thank you. Students from another culture may not appreciate the same compliment, because it makes them feel singled out, and they may refuse the compliment so as not to appear arrogant. A personal example of mine is being late for class in Russia. At most American universities, if you are late for class, you find a seat as quietly as possible so as not to disrupt the lesson (and hopefully, so as not to let the professor notice you were late). In Russia, you are still expected greet the professor before continuing to your seat, at risk of appearing rude. Other common cultural differences surround the concepts of being on time, dealing with criticism or feedback, acting your age, developing different kinds of relationships, and communicating nonverbally.
Overall, I don’t think adjustment to life in Russia is all that difficult (then again, my first experience abroad was construction work in the Ecuadorian Amazon province), as long as you are self-motivated enough and willing to brave the weather in order to try new things regularly. Every semester, a small but consistent percentage of AIFS St. Petersburg students hole up in the dorms for the duration of their study abroad terms, emerging only for food and pre-organized cultural activities. This deeply confuses me. I would not recommend study abroad in St. Petersburg if you are addicted to the internet or do not like going out in the cold.