Culture Shock: What it is and how to deal with it
Moving to a new place is exciting but it can also feel scary and overwhelming. You have to adapt to new people, a new language, a new way of doing things. You may have to change your eating habits or the way you behave (and even dress). Often you have to adjust to an unfamiliar climate too. So don’t be surprised, or too hard on yourself, if you find yourself anxious or confused about the culture you have moved to… you may be in the grips of culture shock. We give some pointers to help you get through it.
Culture shock – a period of adjustment or uncertainty when adapting to a new culture or society– can be caused by a variety of factors. Stress, fatigue and the shock of having to adapt our personal and social identity in order to fit in with the new culture can all contribute.
But don’t worry… culture shock is completely normal and often unavoidable (and it will pass). The discomfort of culture shock can also encourage us to take the necessary steps to integrate into a culture or society.
But how do we know which steps to take? First it helps to understand what anthropologist Kalervo Oberg identifies as the four critical stages in a culture shock cycle:
- Honeymoon phase
- Crisis phase
- Recovery phase
- Adjustment phase
In the honeymoon phase, we are in awe of this new and exciting culture we have the opportunity to explore.
During the crisis phase, we tend to face real adjustment difficulties and challenges and may become reclusive, aggressive or hostile. Some people become stuck in this stage and may even leave their new culture.
If we choose to stay, we begin to learn more about the culture, obtain a deeper understanding of it, and better negotiate our challenges (recovery phase).
In the adjustment phase, we have learnt to accept misunderstandings and complexities as a way of living and have little to no anxiety about difficulties or challenges we may face.
These phases are not necessarily linear – for example, my own experience was to struggle first and then enjoy a honeymoon period – and you may cycle between them, even returning to a phase for a while. Similarly, how much time you spend in each phase is not fixed either. We each have a different way of processing, which means there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to move through culture shock, but just how it feels for you.
If you think you have culture shock and happen to experience anxiety, uncertainty or depression after a move, here are some tips to help you reduce the shock:
- Accept the process
Be aware that you will go through this and that this is okay. It is a process of adjustment, which means that it has a beginning, a middle and an end.
- Establish a network
Friends are essential to engaging with a culture and they offer support and comfort when you are feeling uneasy (see “Six Easy Ways to Make Friends in Your New Expat Home” for some great tips).
- Boost your intercultural skills
Understanding the new culture is about more than learning the language; it is also about coming to comprehend more subtle aspects like non-verbal communication, values and norms.
- Remember to communicate
Keeping open communication with friends and family can reduce anxieties about the new culture and help you reflect on how best to deal with these anxieties yourself.
Anyone who has relocated to a different country has dealt with at least some of the feelings described above. The most important thing to remember is that it’s something that all internationals deal with in one form or another, and it’s not because you are failing to fit in fast enough.
While the subjective emotional journey will be different for everyone, what you are going through is one of the most universal experiences for anyone living outside of their “own” country.
It will make you grow as a person, and you will learn to appreciate your own culture in new ways that you never could have, had you not taken that step beyond your borders into unknown territory.
Have you ever experienced culture shock? Can you identify with the challenges outlined above? How did you cope? We’d love to hear what you think!
If you like this article, subscribe to our newsletter and share these tips with someone who is adjusting to a new culture.
P.S. Thanks to Thomas Tischhauser and Renata Harper for their contributions to this article.
– Oberg, K. (1960). “Cultural Shock: Adjustment to New Cultural Environments”. Practical Anthropology, 7, 177-182.
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