Culture Shock: Overview

traffic_02.jpg If you search the internet for culture shock, chances are you will come across a number of sites and studies detailing the “Phases of Culture Shock”. It has been conveniently broken down into four phases:

1. The Honeymoon Phase – the period in which you view every experience in the new culture in a romantic and wonderful light.
2. The Negotiation Phase – this tends to be the most common and expected phase as you start missing the creature comforts of home and may be annoyed by what used to be so “romantic”.
3. The Adjustment Phase – you’re finally starting to feel situated and the experiences you have feel “normal”.
4. Reverse Culture Shock – because this is usually the most unexpected phase, it can sometimes be the most difficult one, as you don’t expect you have to adjust to life back at home.

It’s great to have terms to identify the different emotions you may experience while traveling, but truth be told, everyone reacts to new environments and situations in very different ways and at different times.

No matter how prepared or educated you may be, culture shock can still manage to sneak up on you. But it’s still helpful to be aware of some key factors that can contribute to it.

Language Barriers – You don’t need to be fluent in the language, but it’s extremely helpful to learn a few phrases before going to a new country. It helps to break the ice and also makes the other person feel more comfortable using their English.

Pre-Conceived Notions – You may have pre-conceived ideas or notions about a destination or culture and these can easily set you up for wrong expectations. Study up on where you’re going and the people you may meet. This will be helpful in adjusting to a new environment and will also be respectful for those you will encounter. 

Reminders of Home – It’s bound to happen – little signs of home will spring up and can easily turn into big signs of homesickness. For me it’s always watching movies that feature New York City. I always find it helpful to reflect on the reasons that brought me to that time and place and realize that going home will sneak up on me way too fast.

Immersing too Fast – You may feel like “jumping right into the swing of things” is a great idea. But also remember that patience is a virtue. Easing into a culture can really help in the adjustment period.

immersion_05.jpg When Michael and I decided to take our career break, he really wanted to go to Australia and New Zealand and I wanted to return to Thailand and explore Laos for the first time. By starting in the countries that were easier to assimilate to (Australia and New Zealand) it was easier to transition to Homestays and Hilltribe Treks where no one spoke English. Michael even admits that he probably wouldn’t have enjoyed communal bathing in a Hmong village or feeding baby goats in Thailand if we had started there.

Even a well-traveled person can experience culture shock. After a nine-month gap in travel, Sherry decided to volunteer in Nepal for a couple of weeks before teaching English in Vietnam. One thing she didn’t expect was the transition to be so difficult:

 “Maybe I got too cocky and thought that I was tougher than I really was [after traveling for 16-months]. Maybe I got too soft in the US where life was easy. I’m not sure what it was, but that transition left me freaking out thinking ‘What have I done?’”

Despite the abrupt transition in lifestyle, her experiences taught her that this was part of the process.

 “I reminded myself that the first few days in a new country/city were always like that – very shocking and scary. But eventually you get used to it and ease into it – you stop fighting and give into your surroundings.”

crossculture_03.jpg Cross-Culture Shock – An overlooked form of culture shock is of that between countries – especially if you are traveling long-term. You may get used to the culture in one country and find it hard to assimilate into your next destination. Sherry found this to be the case when traveling to Europe after months in Asia. “I just have this feeling that Asia and it’s culture got under my skin and Europe won’t live up to that. Yet I have to tell myself to stop worrying about this transition and just let it happen and enjoy it.”

One of the benefits of long-term travel is that you are open to many options. Don’t be afraid to change your plans if your heart is taking you in another direction.

You’re Home – Sick? – As mentioned above, probably the most unexpected form of culture shock is the reverse-kind. Who knew that coming home could be so disruptive? But it happens. Read more about that in Reverse Culture Shock: Homecoming.

Of course there are a number of factors that can attribute to culture shock. But whatever the circumstance, the best piece of advice is to be patient. Be patient with yourself, with the culture, and with the situation – you won’t be sorry.

We’d love to hear from you:

Do you have any tips on dealing with culture shock? Share here.



Other comments

2 Comments on "Culture Shock: Overview"

  1. Sherry Ott on Sat, 7th Mar 2009 5:27 am 

    I found that learning “Hello”, “Thank you”, and general taxi instructions “Left” “right” “here” and “straight” in each country’s language was all I really needed to communicate – and lots of charades!

  2. Daniel on Thu, 10th Sep 2009 12:51 pm 

    True regarding reverse culture shock — after working abroad for a couple of years, my wife and I found it difficult returning to life in North America. Conversations seemes so loud (and superficial). Passing through the language of another culture makes you particularly sensitive to volume, I think, and the delusion that whatever they are talking about it is infinitely more interesting than it actually is!

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