Almost everyone who studies, lives or works abroad experiences some degree of culture shock. We can describe culture shock as the physical and emotional discomfort one suffers when coming to live in another country or a place different from the place of origin. Living in a new culture can be exhilarating, personally rewarding, and intellectually stimulating. It can also be frustrating. But adjusting to a foreign culture, and living through difficult times of change can be a satisfying experience, one worth the occasional discomfort and extra effort.
Welcome to our Travellers’ Library to learn how to cope with culture shock.
The term, culture shock, was introduced for the first time in 1958 to describe the anxiety produced when a person moves to a completely new environment. This term expresses the lack of direction, the feeling of not knowing what to do or how to do things in a new environment, and not knowing what is appropriate or inappropriate. The feeling of culture shock generally sets in after the first few weeks of coming to a new place.
We can describe culture shock as the physical and emotional discomfort one suffers when coming to live in another country or a place different from the place of origin. Often, the way that we lived before is not accepted as or considered as normal in the new place. Everything is different, for example, not speaking the language, not knowing how to use banking machines, not knowing how to use the telephone and so forth.
We invite you to visit our Travellers’ Library. You will find here interesting and useful resources about living in a new culture, suggestions and strategies to help you cope with culture shock.
You can also submit to us your own story about coping with culture shock.
Culture Shock… What is it?
Living in a new culture can be exhilarating, personally rewarding, and intellectually stimulating. It can also be frustrating. It is one thing to visit a country, moving on when you have seen enough, and it is quite another to live there and function according to a different, and sometimes, mysterious set of norms. Participation in your chosen abroad program provides a rare opportunity for you to begin to know another society from within. But it involves certain responsibilities. The most obvious one is to adapt one’s behavior to the customs and expectations of the host country. This is not to deny one’s own culture but to respect that of others. Another, even more subtle, responsibility you have is to remain open in order to become aware of similarities and differences, to learn rather than to judge.
People usually experience many emotions while adapting to a foreign culture, changing from excitement and interest in the new culture to depression and fear of the unknown. The difficulties that you experience as you integrate into a new society can be a result of what is termed “culture shock.” Most experts agree that culture shock, although often delayed, is inevitable in one form or another. But adjusting to a foreign culture, and living through difficult times of change can be a satisfying experience, one worth the occasional discomfort and extra effort.
Attitudes come in a wide variety of species, ranging from broad and pervasive cultural attitudes to the most specific and personal attitudes. Because of the scope of this subject, it is probably the most difficult to discuss. However, because the attitudes you take with you to your host country(ies), and those you form once there, will have such a great effect upon your perception of the people and ways of your host country, it is very important for you to be aware of the role attitudes play in your overseas experience.
Normally, attitudes exist on a more or less subconscious level. When faced with a new situation, most people will recognize their reaction to it, but not necessarily the underlying attitude responsible for that particular reaction.
When we deal with people who share the same basic cultural attitudes as ourselves, the system works well: the differences in attitude between two Americans, broadly speaking, are far more likely to be of the specific and personal kind than the cultural kind. When we interact with people of different nationalities, however, the problem arises. Communications break down because their cultural attitudes are fundamentally different than ours, and the results are often feelings of confusion and hostility on both sides. This situation is called “culture shock.” This can be a misleading term.
One tends to get the impression that “culture shock” is some kind of disease that everyone routinely catches and after a certain length of time, recovers from, but nothing could be farther from the truth. There are people who go overseas and never recover from this condition despite the length of their stay. This is because “culture shock” is actually caused by the aforementioned mismatch of cultural attitudes, not by some virus, as sometimes seems to be implied. And it’s easily seen that the traveler who doesn’t maintain an open mind, and doesn’t invest any effort trying to understand a foreign culture, is always going to be in a state of shock. Such people had best stay at home, for if they rigidly hold onto their own attitudes, they will — in reality – have never left!
An underlying cause of negative reactions to another culture is the tendency to judge something that is different as inferior. It is important to be open toward the culture into which you are going, to try to discard stereotypes, and to read as much as you can about the culture before your departure. If you educate yourself on the many aspects of the country in which you will be living, you will better understand and appreciate your new surroundings much sooner. Before departure, learn about the country’s history, natural resources, social customs, religions, art, and political structures. Find out the culture’s set of manners, expected behavior, and unspoken rules. Read up on the country’s present day problems and current national issues. Learning about current affairs will help you to get a sense of how people evaluate events from different perspectives. Talk to other students who have gone to your host country to learn what problems you may encounter. Your study abroad office can help put you in touch with returned students.
But even with this preparation it is inevitable that you will experience some symptoms of culture shock. You may be unaware that the frustrations and emotions you are experiencing are related to culture shock; in retrospect, this becomes apparent. If you understand the phenomenon and its possible causes, you can decrease its effects. Try to acquaint yourself with its signs. For more information about cultural differences and culture shock, check out Exploring Cultural Differences and Cross Cultural Adjustment.
What is Culture Shock?
Most people who live abroad for an extended period experience difficulties in adjusting to the new culture; this is commonly called “culture shock”. In order to understand culture shock, one must remember that our ability to function in the world depends on our capacity to read hundreds of signs, respond to subtle cues, and behave according to countless explicit and implicit rules. At home we know how to read street signs, how to use the telephone, how much to tip, etc. Much of what we do in our daily lives is automatic and requires little thought. Abroad, the reverse is true and simple tasks become difficult because we don’t know how to behave, our actions and words don’t get the expected responses, and we don’t understand the messages we are getting. We are confronted continuously with new ways of thinking, valuing, and doing things. Sometimes, our common sense is no longer useful. This disorientation that can cause severe stress is culture shock. Fortunately, culture shock is predictable and manageable and, if students are prepared for it, they can do a great deal to mitigate its effects.
Culture shock is a cycle of adjustment that may take quite some time. The cycle is marked by four basic phases, and most people experience at least two low periods during their stay abroad. However, the length and severity of these low periods vary greatly for different individuals. The four basic phases are:
This is the tourist phase. Students are excited about living in a new place. At first glance it seems to students that the people and their way of life are not that different from what they were used to at home.
Irritation and Hostility
After the initial excitement is over, students start noticing more and more dissimilarities between life in the foreign country and life at home. The initial curiosity and enthusiasm turn into irritation, frustration, anger, and depression. Minor nuisances and inconveniences lead to serious distress. Symptoms experienced during this phase include:
- withdrawal (i.e. spending excessive amounts of time reading, only seeing other Americans, avoiding contact with local people)
- need for excessive amounts of sleep
- compulsive eating or drinking
- exaggerated cleanliness
- stereotyping of or hostility toward local people
- loss of ability to work effectively
- unexplainable fits of weeping
- physical ailments (psychosomatic illness)
This second phase of culture shock is often a difficult period and may last for quite a long time. Fortunately, most people only experience a few of these symptoms, but it is helpful to be aware of the symptoms so that students understand what is happening to them or their friends and can take steps to counteract them.
Over time students will gradually adapt to the new culture. Once students begin to orient themselves and are able to interpret some of the subtle cultural clues and cues, the culture will seem more familiar and more comfortable to them. They will feel less isolated, and their self-confidence will return.
Adaptation or Bi-Culturalism
Full recovery has occurred when students are able to function in two cultures with confidence. At that time, students will find they enjoy some of the very customs, ways of doing and saying things, and personal attitudes that bothered them so much in phase two. Students may not realize how well they have adjusted to the new culture until they return to the U.S., at which point they may well experience reverse culture shock.