How to Cope with Culture Shock

Culture shock, Reverse culture shockSince culture shock is a cycle of adjustment, people who make the effort to learn as much as possible about their temporary home country before they leave and who arrive abroad with an open mind, eager to learn as much as possible, often find it much easier to adjust. To make the transition easier, students should not wait for others to make the first move but should start reaching out right away. Buying a map of the city and becoming familiar with the new neighborhood is helpful. Finding out where the closest bank, post office, telephone, grocery store, etc., are located will also help. The student’s next step might be to familiarize him/herself with some of the basic names and phrases which appear on signs, menus, etc. Even other English-speaking countries use phrases unfamiliar to most Americans. A British or Australian passerby will not know you are looking for a “chemist” if you ask for a drugstore or pharmacy.

The following are some suggestions give to students for coping with culture shock:

  • Find someone who understands the U.S. and the host culture and ask them about some of the things that are frustrating you.
  • Listen carefully to people and remember they may not be making the same assumptions you are. If you are not sure of what they mean, ask.
  • Speak the foreign language as often as possible.
  • Maintain regular living patterns – eat and sleep at regular intervals.
  • If you have certain hobbies or are involved in sports at home, try to do the same abroad. This is a great way to make friends.
  • Keep a journal about your experiences and emotions abroad.
  • Set time aside each day to do something special and make sure you do it.
  • Find a place you feel comfortable and spend time there.
  • Talk to friends or counselors if you feel you have problems coping; try to look at your problems one at a time, and set out to solve them the same way.
  • Avoid hanging out with other Americans who are disgruntled with the host culture and spend their time complaining.
  • If you feel depressed, ask yourself these questions:

    “What did I expect?”
    “Were my expectations reasonable?”
    “If so, what can I do to make them come true?”
    “If not, how can I make the best use of my time?”

  • If you develop physical problems (i.e. headaches, stomachaches, insomnia), these may be signs of stress. Discuss your symptoms with a counselor or doctor, and learn to reduce/handle the stress.

Coping with culture shock

Globalization: Survival skills for missionaries, foreign exchange students and others working to bridge cultural differences

This animated diagram illustrates two paths people take during the four phases of long-term cross-cultural encounters. In 1954, the term “culture shock” was coined by Kalvero Oberg to describe the period of cultural adjustment.

This diagram illustrates two paths people take during the four phases of long-term cross-cultural encounters.

This diagram illustrates two paths people take during the four phases of long-term cross-cultural encounters.

The confusion and anxiety brought on by culture stress or shock may cause us to think, do or say things that are contrary to God’s purpose.

Symptoms of culture shock:

  • Unwarranted criticism of the culture and people
  • Heightened irritability
  • Constant complaints about the climate
  • Continual offering of excuses for staying indoors
  • Utopian ideas concerning one’s previous culture
  • Continuous concern about the purity of water and food
  • Fear of touching local people
  • Refusal to learn the language
  • Preoccupation about being robbed or cheated
  • Pressing desire to talk with people who “really make sense.”
  • Preoccupation with returning home

Stages most people go through in adjusting to a new culture

Culture shock, Reverse culture shock

  1. Fun: The excitement and adventure of experiencing new people, things, and opportunities.
  2. Flight: The urge to avoid everything and everyone that is different.
  3. Fight: The temptation to judge people or things that may be different as bad or foolish.
  4. Fit: Willingness to understand, to embrace, and to creatively interact with the new culture.

Coping strategy for culture shock: Survival techniques

Culture shock, Reverse culture shockHow can we cope with culture shock? Having some information about culture shock is a first important step. Then, to successfully cope, make sure your attitudes mirror those suggested in green and red in the top half of the diagram. Follow these tips on surviving situations with unfamiliar verbal and non-verbal codes:

Focus on what you can control
People in culture shock often feel out of control. So, don’t worry about things you cannot change.
Don’t invest major energy in minor problems
People make “mountains out of molehills” even more quickly in cross-cultural situations than they do in their own culture
Tackle major stressors head on
Don’t avoid things
Ask for help
Create a wide support network as quickly as you can in your target culture
Write it down
Record your thoughts and frustrations in a journal. This will give you a healthy outlet for expressing your feelings.

Knowing how to survive culture shock or stress can be useful to missionaries as well as to aiding foreign students who come to another country to study.

Help from the Bible

Can Scripture help us with cross-cultural adjustment? Well, the book of Acts would be a good place to start in looking for examples of cultural adjustment. Paul, who grew up in modern-day Turkey and then was educated in Jerusalem, moved around the Mediterranean planting churches in different cultural contexts. To the Philippians he wrote: “I learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” (Philippians 4:11). As Paul coped with various cultural issues, he was also dogged by Jewish Christians from Israel who tried to force Gentile converts to become Jewish (in which case Christianity would have been a mono-cultural movement).

Another Biblical event to look at would be the story of Ruth. Here’s a young woman who left her home country and culture and moved to Israel and wound up ultimately being in the list of Jesus’ ancestors!
Other Bible stories to ponder include:

  • Joseph: He wound up being forced as a slave into another country and culture. He kept his faith and lived in such a wise way that he rose to a position of power. (Genesis 37-50)
  • Daniel: Living in Babylon during the exile period, he kept his faith while also being a person of influence in the Babylonian government.
  • Abraham: Abraham had some failures in his cross-cultural encounters. Because of fears for his own safety, he introduced his wife as his sister during a visit to Egypt. (Genesis 12:10-20)
Article by Howard Culbertson. For more original content like this, visit: