Culture shock is defined by the University of Florida Interactive Media Lab as “the uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty that many people experience when immersed in unfamiliar surroundings where they are unsure of the acceptable norms of behavior, or what to expect from other people.” This phenomenon can occur when traveling or moving to a new city, state, or country. While it’s not something that can easily be avoided, being prepared and knowing what to expect can make the experience one that is both beneficial and not life shattering.
Travelers to new and foreign places are most likely to experience culture shock as their surroundings can change dramatically from what they’re used to at home. However, other populations can also suffer from culture shock. That includes students who have recently moved away to attend college or those who relocate for their job.
There is a variety of signs that a person may be suffering from culture shock. They include losing the ability to pick up on the social and language cues of the people in their new environment as well as a difference in the values and morals that one finds important and valuable. Other things that one might experience include feelings of depression, anxiety, fear or anger. Feeling disoriented is also to be expected. Losing a feeling of satisfaction with life and the ability to appropriately interact with peers and coworkers are other things to be on the lookout for.
According to Global Perspectives, there are four stages to culture shock that one must work through to before a resolution is discovered. People can move through these stages in any order, but typically must go through each of them before coming out the other side and feeling satisfied and successful in one’s new environment, whether it’s short term or long term.
The first stage is called the honeymoon stage and refers to the initial positive feelings associated with trying something new and living or traveling in a new place. People often become infatuated with their new surroundings during this stage and love everything that has to do with it, including the people, food, entertainment, and living environment. For some people on shorter trips, this honeymoon phase describes the entire trip and the other stages don’t come into play because one isn’t in the new place long enough to transition through them all.
The frustration stage, which can also be called the disenchantment phase, sets in when one begins to become frustrated or irritated with the inability to interact with locals, whether due to the differences in customs or the language barrier that crops up when traveling or living abroad. As the ability to cope declines, a person will feel increasingly angry, frustrated, and hostile about the new situation and the difficulty that comes with trying to shop, dine out, and meet new people when different languages are spoken and different customs are followed.
When one moves into the adjustment phase, he or she is becoming more familiar and comfortable in the new surroundings and is getting better at navigating the new location. People may begin to pick up on the language and social cues and start to meet new people. Shopping, eating out, reading street signs, using public transportation, and making new friends become easier during this stage, which is usually a positive one for most people.
The acceptance stage can take weeks, months or even years to get to, but is characterized by the ability to thrive in a new place, despite the differences in customs, culture and language. A person in this stage begins to realize that these differences will likely stay in place, but they don’t have to be a barrier to success and fulfillment in the new home or workplace.
Though culture shock can be uncomfortable or even unpleasant at times, experts say that there are benefits to feeling and experiencing it. According to experts at Work the World, culture shock can help a person gain a better understanding of why their home customs, values and traditions are so important and meaningful to them. At the same time, going through the stages of culture shock also gives people confidence that they can thrive anywhere, as well as improving their feelings toward and interactions with people in a variety of cultures. A greater level of maturity and a clearer perspective on the different parts of the world are other positive aspects of going through culture shock.
There are a few tips to help one get through culture shock, including trying to immerse oneself in the new place while also surrounding oneself with what’s comfortable and familiar from home. This might be cooking favorite foods or wearing favorite clothes. Staying in touch with family and friends at home, as well as building a new social network can also help make the transition smooth and positive.
The very word “shock” gives the phenomenon of culture shock a negative connotation, but the experience can actually be very valuable and important.