Culture Shock 101: A Guide to Culture Shock

Culture Shock 101: A Guide to Culture Shock

Similar to language, the rules and customs that define a person’s culture are learned early and reinforced steadily through their continued experiences and social learning.

A person’s culture shapes their identity and provides an understandable framework for social interactions.

When people travel, however, they are immediately plunged into a very different social system. At first, the newness of it all is exciting, but as the traveler stays awhile, they can become very confused and experience very scary feelings simply due to the newness of it all.

People travel for all sorts of reasons: for study, for business, for pleasure, for a better place to retire, but when the values, behaviors, and social customs a person has always understood – even taken for granted – no longer serve them well in their new environment, culture shock sets in and it can cause quite a bit of trouble for the traveler and for those around them.

A 5-Part Guide to Understanding Culture Shock

This 5-part tutorial is designed to help travelers understand culture shock along with giving you a strategy for surviving it.

  1. What causes culture shock?
  2. Recognizing the symptoms of culture shock
  3. The 4 stages of culture shock
  4. Top tips for surviving culture shock
  5. Reverse culture shock when you return

What causes culture shock?

An overload of the unfamiliar

According to most travel and behavioral experts, the definition of culture shock goes something like this:

Culture shock is the feeling of disorientation, insecurity and even anxiety that results from being continuously in a new and experiencing an unfamiliar culture.

The causes of culture shock are wide and varied and they depend heavily on how different the new culture is from the traveler’s old, familiar one.

Unfamiliar ‘rules’ for social interaction

A sense of culture shock may initially be triggered by differences in social interaction, such as:

  • greetings between people
  • facial expressions
  • body language
  • spoken language
  • general attitudes
  • dining schedules

Strange environment and climate

Feelings of culture shock are often reinforced by the traveler’s physical environment, including:

  • the cleanliness of their lodgings
  • the design and adequacy of the toilets
  • the operability of appliances like clothes washers and heating systems
  • the level of noise
  • the quality and availability of food and water
  • the type of dress
  • the climate, altitude, and weather

Different attitudes and expectations

A traveler is also likely to face different attitudes and expectations that can worsen their culture shock, such as:

  • whether appointments start on time or on a more flexible schedule
  • whether the people they encounter exhibit a cheery, positive attitude or a negative one
  • whether stores, banks, museums and other places are open at hours that coincide with the traveler’s needs or not
  • whether local people appear to be helpful to foreigners or distrustful of them

Recognizing the symptoms of culture shock

Odd feelings and bizarre behaviors

As with many other types of stress, culture shock manifests itself both physically and emotionally. It’s important to recognize these signs in yourself, in your traveling partner, and in those around you (perhaps co-volunteers) who have also been displaced into a new culture.

Here’s how to recognize the signs that you, or someone you care about, it experiencing culture shock.

Culture Shock displays much like Depression

The symptoms of culture shock are actually very similar to those of depression. They include:

  • Feelings of loneliness or sadness
  • Difficulty sleeping or severe sleepiness
  • Loss of appetite or compulsive drinking
  • Lack of confidence or feelings of insecurity
  • Unwillingness to interact with others or feelings of isolation
  • Exaggerated homesickness and/or overly critical of the local customs

Manifests as Changes in Temperament

This means that travelers who are experiencing culture shock may display changes in temperament, such as:

  • Quickly becoming angry when faced with relatively minor frustrations
  • Developing irrational concerns about their health and the cleanliness of their surroundings
  • Becoming consistently irritable or critical of their new environment
  • Displaying excessive fear of being cheated, robbed, or injured

Get help if you need it

Like many other processes of psychological adjustment, people tend to suffer alone, and travelers are no different.

In fact, a traveler may think he or she is the only one  not coping well with their new surroundings and circumstances. It’s important to understand that culture shock is actually quite common and it’s important to get help if you need it.

  • Students often have counselors available who can help
  • Workers and volunteers also typically have access to others who’ve been through the experience
  • Long-term visitors can work with a concierge service and tour guides to help them stabilize
  • Expat retirees can find others in their community who have acclimated to the new culture

The 4 Stages of culture shock

Increasing levels of frustration

While the process of adjusting to a new culture is exciting and fun at first, as time goes on the traveler is presented with an increasing number of problems and frustrations.

As the traveler continues their daily struggle to interact in a meaningful way with their new environment and culture, their sense of security and well-being suffers.

Only as they are able to gradually accept all the new culture has to offer does a traveler’s sense of stability and security return.

1. Early arrival, the tourist phase

This stage occurs just after arrival, when the traveler is still in the tourist phase, full of elation and ready to experience their new lifestyle. According to some experts, this period can last six months or longer, but every traveler is different.

During this stage, the traveler may encounter some problems or be confused by some things, but in general, they take it all in stride and accept the difficulties as just part of the newness, something to be laughed off.

2. Trying to settle in, the rejection phase

This stage begins when the traveler has to deal with problems regularly: the busses that don’t arrive on time, they can’t buy their favorite foods, the phones or electricity doesn’t always work, etc. At this stage, others who are used to the traveler being around don’t seem too concerned about the problems the traveler is having – an action that often reinforces the traveler’s feelings of alienation.

At this stage, the symptoms of culture shock begin manifesting themselves. This stage is actually a kind of crisis as the ‘disease’ of culture shock sets in with full force. It’s important for the traveler and those around him or her to recognize that their feelings are real and that their symptoms can actually become quite serious.

3. Conforming, the recovery phase

This is the stage where recovery begins. It’s characterized by the traveler starting to feel less concerned about the strangeness of their adopted culture and more understanding of it. The feeling of being a new arrival has faded and the traveler is better able to tolerate the cultural differences that initially caused so much distress.

At this stage, the traveler should begin to feel a new sense of equilibrium and they often feel pleasure in their new culture. The physical and emotional manifestations of their symptoms begin to go away and, while not completely settled, they’ve started to feel more at home in their new culture.

4. Assimilation, the complete adjustment phase

This is the stage where the traveler has accepted all the new culture has to offer: both good and bad. They understand why people act a certain way, how the transportation system operates, and how to work the appliances in their home, for example.

This is the stage of assimilation into, or complete adjustment to, the formerly new environment and strange culture. Of course, it’s often at this stage that the traveler also heads for home!

How quickly do the stages pass?

Every person goes through their own process at their own speed. A traveler’s physical condition, even their need for special medical care or a specific diet, as well as their personal degree of tolerance to having their natural rhythms disrupted can influence the severity of their culture shock as does their ability to cope with changes in altitude, climate, foods, pathogens, and more.

Tips for surviving culture shock

It’s all about your flexibility

While it’s common to experience culture shock when exposed to or living in a foreign country for an extended period of time, different people react differently to the cultural adjustments that are necessary when entering a new culture. Essentially, while culture shock is common, some people have much stronger reactions than others.

Understanding that there are things you can do – before and during your trip – should ease the discomfort and make your transition into the new culture a little smoother.

1. Read up and know what to expect

Read up on your foreign land so you know at least a little about what to expect. Guidebooks are the most obvious starting point, as most contain extensive information about how the culture works in your new locale. You can also ask people who are from that area to share their thoughts.

Knowing what to expect, and checking your assumptions at the border, can take a lot of the initial shock value out of the equation and prepare you for accepting your new culture more quickly.

2. Practice keeping an open mind

It’s important to keep an open mind when traveling in a foreign culture. This means rejecting the automatic impulse to  compare anything that is different against your own culture.

The new culture is simply different – not bad or good. Withholding judgement, and avoiding the urge to package each thing that happens into a specific box, is the best way to remain fully objective and facilitate the process of cross-cultural understanding.

3. Develop a new routine

As soon as possible, develop a new routine to help you settle in. Eat proper meals on a schedule (even if that schedule conforms to the timing in your new culture) and get plenty of rest. It’s also important to exercise regularly as a stress reliever.

Bring familiar items into your living space as they’ll remind you of home and give you a sense of comfort when you start feeling that everything is just a little too much to handle.

4. Integrate and make new friends

Making new friends is a great way to get closer to your new host country and culture. It’s OK to make friends with other expats, but having local friends is important too. While you may need to vent your feelings about the new culture with your expat friends, you don’t want to stay stuck in those old perspectives.

Making local friends is an important way to begin to understand the new culture in a meaningful way. Once you’ve begun making friends, invite them to your home and cook your favorite foods. Often, it’s as much fun for them to learn as it is for you.

5. Stay in touch with family and friends back home

While it’s important to become a part of your new culture, it’s also important to keep in touch with who you are back home. You’re going to come home a different person, so it’s good for them to be a part of that change.

Stay in touch through e-mail or voice calls. Your family and friends are not only interested in how you’re doing, they’re also your best comparison of whether you’re adjusting well or not. They can provide encouragement as well as a familiar, stabilizing force to help you settle in.

6. Practice your new language

Whether you’re experienced in the new language or not, learn some phrases in the local dialect and use them to interact and connect with the locals. Smile at those you’re speaking with and make a real effort to learn and use their names. That way, they’ll be more tolerant when they hear their language spoken badly and more likely to help you correct your pronunciation and usage.

One of the best ways to get started practicing the language is by stepping out your door and meeting your neighbors. Bring flowers or some food items to share and they’ll be more likely to help you figure things out (like who to call when you get locked out).

7. Wallow in your new culture

Enjoy your new culture by wallowing in it. Go sightseeing, join a church, enroll in a club and attend the local festivals. If surfing is the thing to do on the weekends, take a class and head to the beach. If everyone sleeps in on Sunday, take that time for yourself or indulge in some extra shut-eye.

Often, simply engaging in the local activities will give you great insight into how the culture works and why people act as they do. It also gives you more opportunities to make new friends.

Reverse culture shock

Feeling like a foreigner in your own country

When travelers have prolonged journeys into foreign cultures, they may experience culture shock not only when they initially enter the new culture, but also when they return to their original culture.

It’s essentially the culture shock double whammy.

Reverse culture shock is a condition that has been studied by organizations such as the Peace Corps and the military. It describes the process by which a traveler is forced to adjust back into their own culture after a period of time spent in a different culture.

Unfortunately, the level of anxiety and confusion can be just as bad as what they experienced when entering their adopted culture.

Be prepared for re-entry

For many volunteer workers and those sent overseas for a long time on business, coming home is sometimes harder than going abroad.

When you leave for a new culture, you’re prepared simply because you know it will be new. When you come home, you bring your new perspectives, your changed perceptions, and your new learning back to find that nothing really has changed.

Much of the work done to get used to your new culture now has to be done when you get home again, including:

  • Developing a new routine
  • Enjoying your new perspective
  • Keeping in touch with friends – this time from both cultures
  • Wallowing in your native culture

Prepare for the change back by arranging to contact the friends you made while away when you return. Just like needing to keep in touch with family and friends when you were trying to adjust to the new culture, you’ll need to reverse that trick when you head home.

Note what’s different now – with fresh eyes

Instead of curling up in your favorite chair and waiting for the shock to wear off, use your fresh eyes to notice the peculiarities of your native culture in a way you may not have been able to see before.

Take advantage of the shock to:

  • Appreciate the things that do work: like electricity, the Internet, the ice maker, the cash machines, and more. These are good things and things we can all enjoy.
  • Note the things that don’t work. When you encounter things that bug you about your native culture, determine whether your recent experience with a new culture is the reason and honor that.

Along the way, it’s important to accept that you have changed and grown as a result of your experience with a different culture.

Damian Tysdal

Damian Tysdal is the founder of CoverTrip, and is a licensed agent for travel insurance (MA 1883287). He believes travel insurance should be easier to understand, and started the first travel insurance blog in 2006.

Damian Tysdal is the founder of CoverTrip, and is a licensed agent for travel insurance (MA 1883287). He believes travel insurance should be easier to understand, and started the first travel insurance blog in 2006.