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What is Culture Shock?

Moving to Another Country and Culture Shock


What is Culture Shock?

Pisac Market, Peru

D. Schmidt

Culture shock is a very real experience for many people who move to another country. Anyone who has lived or studied or even traveled extensively in another country has tasted and lived through culture shock. At the time it may feel more like homesickness, but what most people who haven't undergone any kind of pre-adaptation program don't know is that there are several stages one goes through when adjusting to a new language and culture.

Before we undertake these five steps, let's look at what culture shock is and what causes it. Knowing what it is and where it comes from will help you identify it more easily and make your international move a little easier.

The online Oxford Dictionary defines culture shock as disorientation experienced when suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture or way of life. This is a good summary; however, let's break it down a bit further. When you move to a new country, everything is unfamiliar; weather, landscape, language, food, dress, social roles, values, customs and communication - basically, everything you're used to is no longer in place. You'll find that the day unfolds differently, that business is conducted in a way that may be hard to understand, the stores are opened and closed at hours that you could never predict. Your patterns are off-kilter, the smells, sounds and tastes are unusual and you can't communicate with the locals - not even to buy a loaf of bread. This is culture shock. And like any form of shock, there is a definite and almost certain reaction.

Symptoms of Culture Shock

Signs and symptoms of culture shock are:
  • a feeling of sadness and loneliness,
  • an over-concern about your health,
  • headaches, pains, and allergies
  • insomnia or sleeping too much
  • feelings of anger, depression, vulnerability
  • idealizing your own culture
  • trying too hard to adapt by becoming obsessed with the new culture
  • the smallest problems seem overwhelming
  • feeling shy or insecure
  • become obsessed with cleanliness
  • overwhelming sense of homesickness
  • feeling lost or confused
  • questioning your decision to move to this place

Sounds like fun, huh? Now you may have one of the above symptoms or a combination of a few; it's very individual and unpredictable. I know I tend to be much more emotional than I usually am, crying over simple things that normally I wouldn't even look at twice. Seeing people hugging or someone being kind to me would make me burst into tears. I didn't feel sad. Just sentimental. I suppose that should be added to my list. I also found that I clung to the familiar. E-mail and being in touch with people back home gave me a great source of comfort until I realized that I needed to remove myself from the old and embrace the new. I believe that was part of my transition from the Re-integration Stage to the Autonomy Stage.

The Culture Shock Model

Step 1: The Honeymoon Stage

Like any new experience, there's a feeling of euphoria when you first arrive to a new country and you're in awe of the differences you see and experience. You feel excited, stimulated, enriched. During this stage, you still feel close to everything familiar back home.

Step 2: The Distress Stage

Everything you're experiencing no longer feels new; in fact, it's starting to feel like a thick wall that's preventing you from experiencing things. You feel confused, alone and realize that the familiar support systems are not easily accessible.

Step 3: Re-integration Stage

During this stage, you start refusing to accept the differences you encounter. You're angry, frustrated and even feel hostile to those around you. You start to idealize life "back home" and compare your current culture to what is familiar. You dislike the culture, the language, the food. You reject it as inferior. You may even develop some prejudices towards the new culture. Don't worry. This is absolutely normal. You're adjusting. This is actually a pretty common reaction to anything new. Think back to when you started a new job or moved to a new house or a new city or when you moved in with someone. Any adjustment can cause you to look back in awe and wonder why you made the decision to change.

Step 4: Autonomy Stage

This is the first stage in acceptance. I like to think of it as the emergence stage when you start to rise above the clouds and finally begin to feel like yourself again. You start to accept the differences and feel like you can begin to live with them. You feel more confident and better able to cope with any problems that may arise. You no longer feel isolated and instead you're able to look at the world around you and appreciate where you are.

Step 5: Independence Stage

You are yourself again! You embrace the new culture and see everything in a new, yet realistic light. You feel comfortable, confident, able to make decisions based on your own preferences. You no longer feel alone and isolated. You appreciate both the differences and similarities of your new culture. You start to feel at home.


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