Culture Shock

What is Culture Shock?

“Culture Shock” is the term used to describe the more pronounced reactions to the psychological disorientation most people experience when they move for an extended period of time into a culture markedly different from their own. In a sense, culture shock is the occupational hazard of overseas living through which one has to be willing to go through in order to have the pleasures of experiencing other countries and cultures in depth.

Culture shock comes from being cut off from the cultural cues and patterns that are familiar—especially the subtle, indirect ways you normally have of expressing feelings. All the nuances of meaning that you understand instinctively and use to make your life comprehensible are suddenly taken from you.

  • Living and/or working over an extended period of time in a situation that is ambiguous.
  • Having your own values (heretofore considered as absolutes) brought into question.
  • Being continually put into positions in which you are expected to function with maximum skill and speed but where the rules have not been adequately explained.

For some people the bout with culture shock is brief and hardly noticeable. These are usually people whose personalities provide them with a kind of natural immunity. For most of us, however, culture shock is something we’ll have to deal with over a period of at least several months, possibly a year or more.

Culture shock is often mixed with frustration, and although they are related and similar in emotional content, they do differ. Frustration is always traceable to a specific action or cause and goes away when the situation is remedied or the cause is removed. Frustration may be uncomfortable, but it is generally short-lived as compared to culture shock.

Symptoms of Culture Shock

  1. It does not result from a specific event or series of events

    It comes instead from the experience of encountering ways of doing, organizing, perceiving or valuing things which are different from yours and which threaten your basic, unconscious belief that your culture’s customs, assumptions, values and behaviors are “right.”

  2. It does not strike suddenly or have a single principal cause

    It builds up slowly, from a series of small events which are difficult to identify.

Not everyone will experience a severe case of culture shock, nor see all the symptoms. Some that may occur in more severe cases include:

  • Homesickness
  • Withdrawal
  • Psychosomatic illnesses
  • Boredom
  • Unexplainable fits of weeping
  • Compulsive eating
  • Loss of the ability to work effectively
  • Compulsive drinking
  • Need for excessive amounts of sleep
  • Irritability
  • Hostility towards host nationals
  • Chauvinistic excess
  • Stereotyping of host nationals
  • Exaggerated cleanliness

The Stages of Culture Shock

  1. Initial euphoria

    Most people begin their new adventure with great expectations and a positive mind-set. If anything, they come with expectations which are too high and attitudes that are too positive toward the host country and toward their own prospective experiences in it. At this point, anything new is intriguing and exciting. But, for the most part, it is the similarities which stand out. ;This period of euphoria may last from a week or two to a month, but the letdown is inevitable.

  2. Irritation and Hostility

    Gradually, focus turns from the similarities to the differences. And these differences, which suddenly seem to be everywhere, are troubling. Little, insignificant seeming problems are blown way out of proportion. This is the stage generally identified as “culture shock,” and you may experience any of the symptoms.

  3. Gradual Adjustment

    The crisis is over and you are on your way to recovery. This step may come so gradually that, at first, you will be unaware it is happening. Once you begin to orient yourself and are able to interpret some of the subtle cultural clues and cues which passed by unnoticed earlier, the culture seems more familiar. You become more comfortable in it and feel less isolated from it. Gradually, too, your sense of humor returns and you realize the situation is not hopeless after all.

  4. Adaptation or Biculturalism

    Full recovery will result in an ability to function in two cultures with confidence. You will even find a great many customs, ways of doing and saying things, and personal attitudes which you enjoy—indeed, to which you have in some degree acculturated—and which you will definitely miss when you pack up and return home. In fact, you can expect to experience “reverse culture shock” upon your return to the U.S. In some cases, particularly where a person has adjusted exceptionally well to the host country, reverse culture shock may cause greater distress than the original culture shock.

Minimizing the Impact of Culture Shock

  • One of the best antidotes to culture shock—though it may not make sense at the time—is knowing as much as possible about where you are.
  • By looking consciously for logical reasons behind what seems difficult, confusing, or threatening, you will reinforce that there are explanations behind what you observe in the host culture.
  • Don’t succumb to the temptation to criticize the host culture. Resist making jokes and comments that are intended to illustrate the stupidity of the locals, and don’t hang around the Americans who do make them.
  • Identify a host national (a neighbor, a friendly acquaintance) who is understanding, and talk with that person about specific situations and about your feelings related to them. Talking with Americans can be helpful, but only to a limited extent. Your problem lies in your relationship to the host culture.
  • Above all, have faith—in yourself, in the essential good will of your hosts, and in the positive outcome of the experience. Know that the above responses can occur, that culture shock is in some degree inevitable, and that reactions are emotional and not subject to rational management.

Source: Survival Kit for Overseas Living.; L. Robert Kohls.

Additional Resources

  • What's Up With Culture? The University of the Pacific offers a very valuable online "course" in understanding and dealing with culture shock. This website offers an immense amout of information about why culture shock happens and what to do about it. It also looks into the reverse culture shock of coming home. We encourage you to take a look.