Will you get culture shock?
Culture shock is experienced by many living in or traveling to another country. No-one is immune to it, not even seasoned travelers. Let’s take a look at what exactly culture shock is, if you will get it, and what you can do to minimize the negative effects.
What exactly is culture shock?
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, culture shock is:
Culture shock can also be described as a rollercoaster ride full of emotions, where positive and negative feelings alternate. Yes, culture shock is not negative by definition. It can for example also be that feeling of surprise when people insist you skip a line just because you are a foreigner, or the excitement when you are exploring an area you have seen before in a video.
Visually, this is what the journey of culture shock looks like for most people:
The stages of culture shock
Culture shock is commonly divided in nine stages. Not everyone will feel all the stages, and some will stay in some stages longer than others.
Stage 1: The Honeymoon
During this stage you will feel excited as you have just started a new journey into a foreign country. Everything new that you encounter can make you feel excited, even a simple trip to the supermarket. During this time you are eager to try new things and accept them. This phase can last from a few weeks to a few months. You typically only focus on the good things here.
Stage 2: Disillusionment (a.k.a. anger and irritation)
This stage gradually sets in and for extra confusion it may have overlap with the honeymoon phase. It starts with small problems that you run into on a daily basis. These could range from communication issues, like not being understood, to certain traditions and customs. The negative effects you receive from problems, like not being able to buy a train ticket online because you don’t understand the language, may start to irritate you.
This irritation leads to impatience, anger, sadness, feeling incompetent (or feeling that they are incompetent) and/or a general unhappiness with yourself and your situation. It is not uncommon for people to compare their new home to their home country and think that their own culture is “the way things should be”. It is important that you take action if you stay in this stage for too long. If you realize that you have been in this stage for too long, consider the tips discussed below.
Stage 3: Homesickness
At this stage you feel like all the negativity from stage 2 is too much for you to handle. Some people will seriously think about going back home, or think that it was a mistake to come to the country. This stage usually lasts for at least several weeks.
Stage 4: Enlightenment
The enlightenment stage occurs when you begin to understand more about the new culture, the people, and the country itself. New feelings of happiness and even some humor are to be expected. Moreover, you will lose a lot of your homesick feelings as you become familiar with the country and your environment.
Stage 5: Integration
This stage usually sets in when you stay in the country for a long period of time. Here you acknowledge that the country has both advantages and disadvantages (as any country, including your home country, does). You will also start to create some long-term objectives while staying in the country, like getting you resident visa in five years or saving money to buy property.
Stages 6, 7, 8, 9: Re-Entry
The last stages are characterized by renewed feelings of culture shock when you return to your home country (reversed culture shock). During the period you were away (whether it was six months or six years), you got accustomed to how things are done in the foreign country, and now your home country may feel almost as alien as the foreign country once did. You will find that things are not the same back home. It might feel as if your friends and family have moved on with their lives without you and that you don’t belong there.
You will gradually adjust to life at home again, but your experience abroad will have changed you forever as a person. You will somehow use your experience abroad into your new life, like learning to cook food that you miss, listening to the foreign country’s music, or using vocabulary you acquired there.
Will you get culture shock?
Not only can culture shock be felt by people who are moving to a foreign country for the first time, it can also be felt by people who are experienced and have lived in several foreign countries for a long period of time. InterNations states that it are the “deeper cultural differences” that cause culture shock and, as a consequence, make cultural transition challenging.
There is no way to predict if you will get culture shock. Most people get it to some degree, and different people may get shocked by different things. For example, if you are not bothered that “vegetarian” food is not really vegetarian, you won’t experience any discomfort about this. Your vegetarian friend on the other hand may have a big issue with this.
Some people want to like their target country too much (think: K-pop fans). They are able to use their mind to hide/ignore/endure the stress of certain new experiences for a longer time. Eventually when they can’t ignore certain issues any longer, culture shock hits them harder.
If you are staying abroad for a short time, you don’t have as much to worry about since there is a set date when you will return.
How to identify culture shock
To stay mentally healthy, check for negative effects of culture shock when you have been away from home for more than three months:
- You sleep too little or too much.
- You don’t feel mentally challenged or feel any joie de vivre.
- You feel anger, loneliness and/or are not willing to interact with other people.
- You are unable to solve straightforward problems, and challenges seem bigger than they are.
- You feel insecure, not confident, and lost.
- You often think or talk about negative issues related to the country.
- You feel depressed.
- You miss your friends and family too much, or you feel homesick in general for long periods of time.
- You form obsessions, such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
Coping with culture shock
Let’s briefly look at ten ways you can cope with culture shock:
- Always research the country, culture, food, customs, etc. before leaving your home country, so that new things aren’t as shocking (like people eating living octopus in South Korea).
- As you go through the various stages, write down something that you like(d) about the culture, country, or people when you first arrived. Try to find that joy in your adventure again. This is especially useful during Stage 2: Disillusionment.
- Make at least one good friend in the foreign country you can talk to (as opposed to having many friends that you are not close to). This person can help you to understand why they do things their way, putting things into perspective. A website such as InterNations can be helpful with this.
- Find a friend with a similar cultural background. While it is good to vent and raise your frustrations with this person, focus on the good things. Don’t let complaining about the foreign country be the only thing you have in common!
- Do something familiar in the new country, like watching a movie you love, playing your favorite sport with friends, or cooking your favorite meal.
- Ask for care packages from home. Your family and friends can send you pictures, your favorite chocolates and teas, and some other goodies from home to make the cultural transition easier.
- Bring small things from home to feel more familiar. You will usually have to buy new bedding and other items, so even your own apartment may seem a bit unfamiliar to you at first. Bring your teddy bear, some real pictures of your family, your guitar, etc. to help cope with this.
- Skype with your friends and family regularly.
- Having a local girlfriend or boyfriend will make sure you can regularly talk about things and feel connected to someone in the country. You won’t feel like a complete stranger who is also all alone.
- If you do decide to give up on a country and go home, don’t see it as a failure or as giving up. Not everyone is compatible with every country, and now you know.
It is important that you realize you have (negative) culture shock when it happens. If not, your disillusionment and wanting for home can become too great to deal with. This can lead to you feeling unhappy for long periods of time while in the country. People who get personal or professional support usually do not experience culture shock as severely as those who don’t ask for any help.
Getting culture shock is completely natural and you will probably get it to some extent. No matter what, experiencing another culture (whether you like it or not) increases your life experience. You will be a little wiser and sometimes you’ll get to know yourself a bit better. Choose your new country for your next culture shock below:
About the author
Natanz Loetawan is a traveler who frequently volunteers for educational projects.