What’s culture shock, and what are the inevitable stages of culture shock?
When moving abroad or traveling for extended periods of time, it’s difficult to not come across culture shock.
Culture shock can affect how you conduct yourself in the workplace, your mental health, and can eventually lead to homesickness.
Some of the most frequently asked questions are:
- But what is culture shock exactly?
- Have I already experienced it before?
- Is it something that can be reversed?
These questions and many more will be answered in this helpful guide to the world of culture shock.
There is even the term ‘reverse-culture-shock”!
Reverse culture shock can happen when you stay in a new location with a differing culture, adapting to the point where returning home can stir similar symptoms.
Let’s define culture shock to see how this phenomenon affects you.
Table of Contents
What is Culture Shock?
People in all cultures and ways of life grow up and adapt to their surroundings.
How much people can adapt to certain climates or living conditions and live happy lives is shocking.
Consider the high altitudes that the populations of Ethiopia, the Andes mountain range and Tibet endure.
They thrive in conditions with such little while the rest of the human population would suffer serious health consequences.
This is an extreme example of culture shock, in which a way of life is hard to adapt to for outsiders, but it’s entirely possible to adapt to it.
It may take a long time, or it could never happen!
Then there are those that move to different countries or regions and suffer from either the ignorance of traveling without researching or are incapable of adapting to new surroundings.
Layers of Culture
There are those that can move to a new country on the other side of the world with majorly differing languages, food, hobbies, and air quality and still thrive. Just as I did via cultural travel in Colombia.
As a person who suffered from culture shock at a young age, I learned to deal with it. Some people are just extremely adaptable as people.
There are some that consider culture shock to be a rite of passage or a learning curve on the path to independence.
Although traveling to different countries to experience different cultures can help build character, culture shock has the possibility of becoming crippling to the point of needing to return home.
This could be due to a lack of confidence, lack of common language speakers, or just not enjoying the culture (although this is rare).
Culture shock can be easily overcome, but the most difficult step is accepting whether you have culture shock or not.
If you think you’re in a precarious position, trust us, accepting to yourself that you may suffer from it is the first step to recovery.
The Stages of Culture Shock
There are four stages to Culture Shock that were originally introduced by Canadian anthropologist Kalervo Oberg in 1954.
Oberg’s theory originally deduced that Culture Shock applied to every person who traveled abroad to a new culture, regardless of any abundance in cultural similarities.
The five stages can explain what happens when someone experiences a new culture and what can be done to adapt easier and quicker.
Cultural Shock Stage 1: Honeymoon
This stage is the one that everyone experiences when traveling to a new country.
You don’t necessarily have to be in love with the new culture at first glance, but if you find yourself fascinated by the culture or entranced, it’s also part and parcel of this stage.
You might love the food, love the sights, and the sounds as you leave the airport. You may find yourself adoring the climate or the weather walking around the city squares or the countryside.
This is all part of the honeymoon phase, which is also what most vacationers feel for the short week they stay in a new country.
One of the major signifiers for this stage is associating yourself with nationals who speak your language.
Although vacationers may never leave this stage whilst abroad, those who stay for longer than a couple of weeks usually fall out of this stage.
Cultural Shock Stage 2: Negotiation
This stage can creep up after the first couple of weeks in the honeymoon stage is over.
However, it usually arrives after the three-month mark.
The differences between the old and new cultures become more and more apparent, producing a type of anxiety that almost feels unexplainable to those who reach this stage.
Unfavorable events or points in the day that are disruptive or offensive to your sensibilities due to your cultural background produce anger and frustration.
Even if these specific events aren’t either of those things within the new culture and you’re aware of this, it still takes time to be able to adapt to it.
A sense of disconnection will arise with differences in hygiene, traffic safety, and language barriers.
Due to the disruption in time zones or adapting to new sleeping patterns permanently, this stage mostly includes the likelihood of insomnia.
This stage can be quite difficult depending on how severe the differences between the original culture and the new culture are.
An example of why this is is mostly attributed to food.
When experiencing a completely new cuisine with different preparation methods and alien ingredients, over time it can have a drastic effect. The gut flora needs time to adapt to new bacteria.
The most difficult difference when adapting to new cultures is the language barrier.
Culture shock has always been difficult to handle for someone who doesn’t speak the language.
Learning the language to the best of your ability and learning to adapt to drowsiness will help drastically.
Cultural Shock Stage 3: Adjustment
Usually, around the 6-12 month period, the effects of culture shock begin to wear out.
You start to develop routines, make friends who speak a different language to your native tongue.
You become experienced in problem-solving when it comes to dealing with problems within the new culture.
This period is when you begin to develop a new positive attitude which almost mirrors the honeymoon period.
You are experienced enough to fully adapt to your new culture.
Cultural Shock Stage 4: Adaptation
You’ve now mastered your life in a new culture.
The shock has worn away and the adaptation has fully begun.
The outcome of adaptation can go one of two ways…
Either you are bicultural, in which you can easily switch between the old and new cultures, or you suffer from reverse-culture-shock when returning home.
List of Culture Shock Symptoms
The only way to know whether you suffer from culture shock is by experiencing a new culture.
For some, learning the ins and outs of the new culture in spare time beforehand has helped immensely when making the move.
Without doing some research before moving permanently to a new culture, you’ll experience culture shock for longer than you should be.
Even small adjustments mean a lot to different cultures.
- French Canadians never eat French fries or Pizza with their hands.
- In Turkey, the ‘ok’ sign is a vulgar insult.
- Take Japan, it’s considered rude to eat while walking in public.
- For the French, it’s very common to kiss a stranger on the cheek as a greeting. Sometimes even three or four times.
- In India, kissing as a greeting is strictly frowned upon and is viewed as a sexual act.
How will you know if you’re suffering from Culture Shock?
Well, here are the common symptoms:
This is the point in which you are bombarded with a vastly different culture to the point where your brain cannot process your surroundings fully.
This can be indicated by headaches, drowsiness, and general fatigue.
This is one of the major factors contributing to the most severe culture shock cases.
Learning basic Spanish conversation helped me so much with this.
When someone can’t communicate with someone and in turn can’t understand something that someone’s telling them, it can wear them down over time.
The best course of action for this symptom is quite simple.
Follow a protocol of either finding a lingua franca or learn the most commonly used words in the new culture to the best of your ability.
Anyone with good language learning skills can easily overcome this obstacle.
It can sometimes be an issue for someone who is adapting to a new culture that uses a different dialect to the originating culture despite sharing the same language.
This can only be helped by slow adaptation over time.
Generation and Technology Gap
Beliefs, politics, or morals and values can be severely different in other cultures.
Although generational gaps tend to fall between grandparents and grandchildren, it can also happen to someone who visits a new culture with different values.
Foreign reaction lag can occur when visiting different countries in terms of their technology.
This can become a hindrance for many, especially those who rely on advanced technology for work or recreation.
For many travelers, missing home is the worst part. All the cultural differences fuel their need to return home, which in itself is the worst offending aspect of culture shock.
Remember that culture shock is completely normal when it comes to living under new circumstances and seeing new cultures first-hand.
The fight to stay and adapt is the most difficult stage, so it often produces the most aggravating symptoms.
You can potentially suffer from anxiety, depression, and mood swings.
How To Overcome Culture Shock
Once you have decided that your culture shock warrants the need to overcome, you have to decide whether adapting makes more sense than just returning home.
There is absolutely no shame in deciding that there’s no future in where you’ve traveled to or you just don’t think the move is the right fit for you.
This is partly to do with knowing yourself and your expectations.
Ways To Overcome Culture Shock
This page is to help guide your understanding as to what Culture Shock is, and eventually, how to get over it.
The first part of how to overcome is quite simple enough.
Do your research
You would be quite surprised by how many people move countries or cultures and have no idea what they’re getting themselves into.
Just by researching online and using helpful country-specific guides online, you can learn about the culture the easy way instead of the hard way.
You may even find the concept of adapting to be near impossible before moving, with the generational gap, moral differences, or prejudice towards religion.
Before traveling, make sure you know what you’re dealing with.
Get used to your surroundings and find a routine. Everything that’s happening is completely normal and can only be healed by time.
It’s for this reason that you cannot let bad thoughts get to you.
It’s important that you try to remain calm and keep mindfulness as a priority.
The best way to help with feelings of homesickness or nostalgia is with care packages.
By receiving a package containing all the home comforts you’ve missed, it helps.
Here are many people who emigrated to other countries decades ago that still crave home comforts, so it’s not only a short-term fix but a long-term plan.
With the ever-improving technology of FaceTime and Skype, it’s easier than ever to reach home or make a simple call.
Remember to buy a mobile device without a carrier (also known as an unlocked handset), so you can input SIM cards from other countries and pay less than you would with roaming rates.
Explore and Keep Active
Just by keeping fit or taking regular walks, you lower your resting heart rate and keep the mental health issues at bay.
This is one of the best ways to not only improve mindfulness but it makes adapting to new places a quicker process.
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Culture Shock: Final Words
Moving to a new culture, country or region doesn’t have to be the most difficult thing in the world.
If you have the determination to overcome it, it will come completely naturally. You’ll also find that once you’ve adapted to one country, you’ll find the process half as troublesome the next time around.
Culture Shock isn’t a topic that is discussed enough. It can lead to some nasty experiences and can induce mental health issues.
With help from this guide as well as any doctor’s advice, you can overcome any bout with Culture Shock and live your life abroad.
Whether you are starting your first backpacking trip or at a stage where you want to feel a sense of belongings know that Culture Shock is something everyone will experience is good to know.
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