What Is Culture Shock And How You Can Deal With It

Culture shock is real. It is common for expats or those who have moved abroad. Here, we will go through the 5 stages of culture shock, the symptoms, and give tips on how to deal with it to make life easier.

What is Culture?

Traditions. Religious practices. Morals. Language.

These are only a few of the vast and diverse building blocks of culture.

Food. Music. Art. Literature. Aspects of social life that unites a group of people.

A collective agreement to certain rules and norms to be able to live in harmony and function as a society.

Culture is a composition of learned and shared beliefs, behaviors, values, customs, and symbols that are intricately communicated and imitated without thought by its members and reflected in their history.

Culture plays a vital role in the fabrication of social order. It stabilizes society. It holds a society together. It gives individuals a sense of community and belonging. It is so deeply ingrained in a person’s identity that it is often difficult to imagine behaving or even thinking differently.

Definition of Culture Shock

It’s quite easy to be unwitting to the considerable influence culture has in our lives when we are constantly surrounded by others who share the same values.

With the affordability and accessibility to air travel, more and more people can explore the world and find themselves amid other cultures. They visit countries they’ve only heard about. Feast on food they’ve never tasted before. Meet people they’ve never had the pleasure of meeting. Encounter cultures foreign to their own.

Some people do well during these experiences. They embrace the diversity and immerse themselves in the culture; then, they go back to their old lives without skipping a beat.

But others are confronted with a much different feeling. A feeling defined as “confusion and anxiety that somebody may feel when they live in or visit another country.”

Oxford Reference further expounds the phenomenon as “disorientation, often accompanied by feelings of isolation and rejection, resulting from a radical change in culture, through migration to a different country, or when a person’s culture is confronted by another, alien culture. In severe cases, it may lead to adjustment disorder. This feeling is culture shock.

So what is culture shock?

Culture shock is an equal-opportunity, typical malady of acclimating to a new culture. It’s normal to feel in disarray linguistically and physically when put in an unfamiliar setting.

Even subtle differences in the way of life such as greeting a person, hand signals, or the way food is eaten.

An American visiting the Philippines may notice that when asking for directions on the street, Filipinos would point with their lips by puckering them and moving their mouths in the direction they’re pointing to.

In Norway, it’s unusual to greet or acknowledge random people on the street; but in America, you say “Hi, how are you?” whether you know the person or not.

In places like India, Africa, and the Middle East, eating with your hands are customary; whereas other cultures might find not using utensils odd or rude.

The unfamiliarity can bring about symptoms such as sleep difficulties, headaches, irrational fear, irritability, homesickness, temporary loss of a sense of identity, anxiety, confusion, and anger to name a few.

These symptoms may occur immediately, or weeks or even months later.

5 Stages of Culture Shock

The 5 Stages of Culture Shock

Many researchers have written about culture shock, and although they all have described the stages differently, they all share the fact that it is a stage-based developmental process.

The development of these stages is also not necessarily linear. This equal-opportunity malady can have an individual experiencing all the stages at once or reverting to an earlier stage. The length of effect of one stage and the reactions can vary from person to person.

Here we go into the 5 stages of culture shock.

1. The Honeymoon Stage

The first stage of culture shock is the Honeymoon stage which can last a couple of days or up to several months.

Everything is new, foreign and exciting. The initial euphoria. You’re ready to delve in this new and fascinating culture. You’re zealous and quick to point out any cultural similarities, but also paying no attention to any likely nuisances.

You laugh at the traffic jam in the highways of Manila. It’s exhilarating to ride the jeepneys and to try the street food. You find the ‘natives’ extremely friendly and hospitable.

2. Distress and Anxiety Stage

Next is the stage of distress and anxiety. The novelty wears off. The onset of culture shock happens gradually as you encounter simple difficulties.

You get lost on your way back to your new home because you can’t understand the street sign. You can’t figure out how to eat rice with your hands like your Filipino roommates do. It seems archaic the way you must pass your jeepney fare from one person to another until it reaches the driver – why isn’t there an option to a monthly pass?

You begin to question the way everyone does everything. You start getting irritated and hostile toward the host culture. You express feelings of discontent, confusion, frustration, sadness, or incompetence. You may even develop prejudices as you start comparing the Philippines to where you’re originally from in an unfavorable way.

3. Adjustment Stage 

The third stage of culture shock is where things are starting to look up. A routine will develop, and emotional and psychological balance once again reigns in your life.

You relax a bit more as you learn the language. You become more objective and rational as you understand the culture better and its people. You don’t even think twice anymore when the jeepney fare gets passed to you as you pass it on to the driver. You realize food does taste better when you use your hand.

Difficulties may still exist, but you’re able to handle them. You start feeling appreciative and competent. You start wanting to belong.

4. Adaptation of Biculturalism

Next is the adaption stage. You’re feeling very comfortable in your host country. You can talk to strangers easily and language barriers do not pose any problems anymore.

You adapt. You no longer feel alone and isolated as your new friends and your daily activities become part of your life.

You gain a strong sense of belonging.

You start to feel at home.

5. Re-entry Shock

This final stage of culture shock occurs upon return to your home country after being in your host country for a long period.

You may notice things are no longer the same. You may not feel like you belong anymore as your friends and family may seem to have changed.

Your newly acquired customs are not applicable in your home country.

Examples of Culture Shock

As stressed previously, the effects of culture shock, as well as the duration and reactions thereof depend on the individual. Factors such as mental state, resilience, personality, family, previous experiences, and level of education among others also play a role.

Even the most mundane of tasks that are usually done without second thought can make such a big impact and result to culture shock.

Here are a few examples of Culture Shock

  • In countries like India, Philippines, Thailand, and Morocco, in place of toilet paper is a bucket of water and a dipper to scoop the water to clean yourself.
  • In Central and South America, toilet paper is thrown in the rubbish bin rather than flushed in the toilet.
  • Norwegian and French women have no problems going topless when laying in the sun, whereas Muslim women wear burqas covering themselves from head to toe.
  • The Thais celebrate Phuket vegetarian festival in which participants cause all sorts of bodily harm to themselves as part of the festival, such as slicing one’s own tongue with a knife or jabbing sharp objects in the cheeks.
  • In the Philippines, devout Catholics show their faith during Easter when participants reenact the crucifixion including actually getting crucified with real nails.
  • In Hawaii, everyone is your cousin and anyone older is an uncle or an aunty.
  • Likewise, in the Philippines, anyone a few years older is called kuya (big brother) and ate (big sister), while those who are significantly older are called tito (uncle) or tita (aunt).
  • Asians eat a lot of rice whereas Scandinavians eat a lot of potatoes.
  • In China, chicken feet are a regular dish served.
  • In Scotland, haggis is a traditional meal.
  • Food portions in America are larger than that of Europeans.

How to Cope with Culture Shock

There are many strategies to effectually deal with culture shock, while still trying to adapt to the changes of a new culture. There is no right or wrong way to cope, but the effectiveness of each strategy is dependent upon the individual. It can be helpful to try one or more strategy at once or at different times.

Here are some strategies that may be beneficial:

  • Expect things to be different and realize that you are not the first or only person to have experienced culture shock.
  • Assess the situations that are causing distress and anxiety. Determine the new culture’s social rules or customs. Minimize involvement in these distressing situations.
  • Be patient. Take a deep breath and take time to adjust. Remind yourself that culture shock is normal, and that it is not permanent.
  • Develop friendships with people from your home country as it may re-energize you for interaction cross-culturally. Talk to them about your concerns; they may have coping strategies you haven’t tried.
  • Avoid isolation or circumventing new situations. Familiarity is comfortable, but attempt exploring the new environment or meeting new people.
  • Create a list. Write down new life skills, lessons learned, or new perspectives acquired. This is a powerful experience and often, it is much easier to see that when organized in a list.
  • Incorporate relaxing or physical activities to alleviate stress and foster self-care.
  • Avoid breeding contempt. Though not unusual to criticize the new culture, especially whilst in the company of fellow expatriates, engaging in this will simply make adjusting more difficult.
  • Set goals to purposefully make assimilation easier such as learning five new phrases each week or trying one new local food a day.
  • Have a sense of humor and laugh at misunderstandings or embarrassments.
  • Eat well and start a routine.
  • Have fun.
  • Seek support from mental health professionals, when the symptoms prove to be too much to bear.

Culture Shock is to be expected

Culture shock is unavoidable and is completely normal and to be expected. Most people who move to a new country will experience the 5 stages of culture shock to a certain extent.

It is not a sign of failure or wrongdoing, nor is it unmanageable or everlasting. The experience can increase awareness and sensitivity to other cultures. It can also impart significant learning and provide valuable life skills, which can be beneficial in the future.

How to deal with Culture Shock

Author: Regine Orme is mother of 3 raising multicultural kids. Originally from the Philippines, Regine moved to Norway with her family at 14 years old. She graduated with a BA in Psychology in Brigham Young University-Hawaii where she met her husband. They have been living in Washington, DC for the past 7 years.