Culture Shock

Date: 2016 Mar 2

What is culture shock? It is the mental, physical and emotional adjustment to living in a new environment. It is the coming to terms with different ways of approaching everyday living–everything from fundamental philosophical assumptions (one's worldview) to daily chores.

Anyone living in a new environment long enough cannot ignore the differences. They become frustrating, and possibly infuriating, until recognizable patterns emerge and an understanding of why things are done differently develops.

Culture shock is different for everyone, but a common pattern can be charted on a U-shaped curve that encompasses five separate phases: fun, fright, flight, fight and fun. Typically, when you first arrive in your host country, everything is wonderful. You are excited that you have arrived, finally seeing first-hand all those places that previously were just one-dimensional pictures. This is the 'fun' stage.

After awhile, all those wonderful, cute customs become aggravating. There is no point to them. You think your own culture's ways are much better, more efficient, and more sensible. While your host country's people seem friendly at first, you feel it is just superficial warmth, not a real interest in establishing a friendship. You begin to miss your family and friends. This is the 'fright' stage.

Then it gets worse. You're really homesick. You can't find anything good about your host country. Everything stinks. You are convinced that nothing beats your home country, and you remember how good you had it at home. You may even come to believe that all your problems will go away if you can just pack up and go home. This is the 'flight' stage. It's serious, but usually temporary.

You give yourself a pep talk and decide to stick it out awhile longer. This experience deserves a fair chance. You become a bit more active in the clubs you joined earlier. You make more of an effort to get to know the people on your dorm floor. You decide to be less furious with those stupid policies (like post offices and stores that close early). Now you are into the 'fight' stage.

You begin to like the people on your residence hall floor. In fact, those acquaintances are more like friends. They tell you why those stupid policies are the way they are. In fact, those policies make sense and don't seem too stupid. You are no longer inconvenienced by them and have trouble understanding why they bothered you so much. You suddenly realize you like it there and want to stay forever. You have arrived at the fifth and final stage — and have made it through the emotional roller coaster ride of culture shock.

Possible Symptoms of Culture Shock

Sometimes people don't realize when they are suffering from culture shock or they may experience some of the symptoms during different times and in varying degrees. This confusion can be the result of looking at several symptoms as isolated problems rather than as related components of a single affliction. Some signs which you may notice that could indicate culture shock are:

  • Homesickness
  • Boredom
  • Withdrawal (spending too much time in your room, only seeing other U.S. students, avoiding your host family)
  • Negative feelings and stereotyping of nationals
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Excessive sleep or insomnia
  • Compulsive eating or drinking
  • Lack of appetite
  • Irritability
  • Crying uncontrollably or outbursts of anger
  • Physical ailments, such as frequent headaches or stomachaches

Dealing with Culture Shock

There are ways to prepare for, and thereby lessen the extremes of, culture shock. First, know that you will experience some degree of culture shock (even if you don't believe it now). Everyone does. Carefully read the process outlined so that you will recognize the symptoms and feelings. Most importantly, understand that those frustrating feelings will pass.

Second, expect things to be different. Some differences will be quite obvious, others less so. You are probably prepared for the major cultural differences, such as religious and socio-economic differences. It is the apparently trivial differences that will become the most aggravating. Try not to allow yourself to blow them out of proportion.

Third, don't label differences as "good" or "bad." Instead of judging what you see as better or worse than what you know in your country, try to focus on the differences and ask why they exist.

Fourth, maintain the ability to laugh at your mistakes. It will take some time to adapt to the point where you can maneuver without making cultural missteps. After all, it took quite a bit of training by your parents and family and effort on your part to be comfortable in your own culture!

Finally, you don't have to "do as the Romans do" and accept all the differences. You will like some of your host country's ways and incorporate them into your daily routine. Other ways won't fit your values or outlook, and you will decide that they are not appropriate for you. You are free to make choices, and doing so is perfectly acceptable.