Culture shock

The 5 Stages of Culture Shock

When we visit or move to another country, most of us feel excited and bewitched with by new taste, sound, and smell sensations. However, culture shock (disambiguation) is a very real experience and will usually involve taking on a new language as well as an unfamiliar foreign culture.

Conversely, this can happen when you return to your own native country when you have been away for a long period of time. It will feel like homesickness to many and we experience various stages and levels of adjustment in order to process these changes.

Lets take a look at the definition of culture shock to understand why it happens and how to deal with its symptoms. It is a sense of uncertainty and nervousness caused by environmental differences, unexpected cultural mindsets, and differing social interactions. All of these things play a role with this phenomenon and can make an international transition difficult for even the seasoned traveler.

The Oxford Dictionary describes the following:

The feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes

The Symptoms of Culture Shock

  • Having a sense of distrust, sadness, or loneliness
  • Experiencing information overload
  • Struggling with the language barrier
  • Experiencing a technology gap
  • Having a heightened concern for your health
  • Experiencing anxiety, feelings of fear, and vulnerability towards your new environment
  • Experiencing lack of sleep or sluggishness
  • Over compensating to try to “fit in”
  • Being overwhelmed by even small challenges
  • Having a feeling of shyness and insecurity
  • Having second thoughts about why you moved

You may experience only some of these symptoms, but the reality is that you have gone from what is your normal perception and routine to throwing yourself head first into a completely alien culture, embarking on an emotional rollercoaster ride.

The 5 Phases:

The Honeymoon Phase

This is the euphoric experience you have when you first step into a new culture. It’s exciting, exhilarating, and fascinating. It’s all new after all, and the buzz of it all is both romantic and addictive. However, like most honeymoon periods, this soon comes to an end.

The Aggravation Phase

After around three months, cultural differences become more apparent and obvious and you will start making comparisons between your old and your new home. Once the excitement of your surroundings subsides a sense of frustration and often even anger may emerge. There will be pressure to communicate and you may have only a smattering of or no prior exposure to this new language.

This can make you feel isolated and lonely, prompting you to actively seek out people from the same or similar cultures to your own. At this stage, it is important that you don’t shut down and retreat, you need to get out in the community and start mixing.

Address the language barrier fairly quickly upon arrival by taking some classes, hiring a language tutor, or going for full emersion and surrounding yourselves with non-English speaking people. Children seem to adapt a lot quicker and will pick up a new language within three months if they are put into a local native-speaking school.

The Integration Phase

After 6-12 months a pivotal adjustment phase kicks in. You may look back in hindsight and wonder why you decided to take such a leap of faith. Resentment towards the culture, the food, and the language are common and very normal at this point and you might find yourself thinking that a taste of Mom’s cooking wouldn’t go amiss. You may even see your own culture as more superior and advanced, and be constantly comparing your current environment to that of your old home.

Don’t panic! It passes and more positive outcomes emerge. Once the integration phase is processed your daily activities begin to settle into a sense of normality and routine. You begin to accept your new environment and problem solve situations affecting your transition with more clarity and confidence. Everything starts to make sense and the negative attitudes begin to dilute.

The Bi-Cultural Phase

This is a metamorphosis where you emerge with having much more control. You will begin to operate with a sense of autonomy, fully participating with your new culture and start to embrace the world around you.

The Independence Phase

You are now there! You have returned to your normal self and will feel a complete sense of independence and acceptance. This is when you can truly experience and appreciate your surroundings.

You will no longer feel alone or isolated and can embrace the different characteristics of your new culture. You will probably retain your accent, but you will feel completely relaxed and integrated with your new culture.

What Can You do to Make Things Easier?

Taking a language classes and starting to mix with the locals is a very good first step. This may be as simple as becoming familiar with your local café or marketplace – you will be surprised at how friendly people can be. When you make even the smallest attempt at the language it is appreciated and you may even find that they try to practice their English on you! The more exposure you have, the quicker you will start to feel at home.

Other fail-safe options include joining a club, volunteering, or attaching yourself to a local church. All of these are positive steps towards full integration and it will give you a sense of contribution towards the community.

Learning the culture is extremely beneficial. This helps enrich your experience in another country by seeing the value of the differences between your old and new cultures. Become a tourist in your own town and get familiar with the landmarks. Read up on the history, visit museums and cultural events, and embrace a wonderful sense of ownership of that which you had initially struggled with.

Let go of stereotypes. You probably will have imagined people to look and behave in a certain way and when you arrive you find that all is not as it seems. We are all individuals so try to be open-minded and accept that you will need to make an effort. Adjusting takes time, so don’t be too hard on yourself. To give you sense of familiarity bring with you a few touches of home such as family photos or favorite knickknacks.

Most of all, associate with positive people and maintain a sense of humor!