Culture Shock: What is it?

Culture shock 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.

The U-Shaped Curve

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 a while, 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 you’re rooming with. You decide to be less furious with what seem to be crazy policies (like post offices and stores that close early). Now you are into the 'fight' stage.

Finally, you begin to like the people in your residence. In fact, they become more like friends. They tell you why those policies are the way they are. In fact, those policies make sense and don't seem so crazy. You are no longer inconvenienced by them and have trouble understanding why they bothered you so much to begin with. You suddenly realize you like it there and want to stay forever. You have come full circle and have arrived at the fifth and final stage — FUN — 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 to 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 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." Because the American way is the predominant (if not the only) way you know, you will inevitably compare everything in your host country with the ways and approaches you know from the U.S. Realize that you are not looking objectively at your new culture. Rather, you are seeing (and judging) it from the American perspective. Instead of judging what you see as better or worse than what you know in the U.S., 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.

Taking the Sting Out of the Shock

Culture shock occurs because, unconsciously, we expect everyone to be like us. Inevitably, something will occur in a new culture that will not fit your frame of reference and therefore won't be fully comprehended. This sort of ambiguity is threatening and frequently causes fear, anger, repulsion or some strong emotion.

The key to coping is to become aware of these reactions as they arise. Instead of allowing an extreme emotional reaction to control you, try to determine the cause of your reaction. By focusing on the cause instead of the reaction, you can frequently help the emotion to abate. Then you can experience the situation more objectively, without the American presumptions which caused the emotional reaction in the first place.

Careful observation, not clouded or skewed by your own cultural presumptions and expectations, will help you develop an understanding of the new culture and will facilitate your inclusion in that culture.

Cultural Patterns

American Cultural Patterns

Culture shapes everything — the ways in which you think and analyze; what you value; how you do things; what's considered proper behavior. It is difficult to assess all the effects of a culture while you are involved in it. When you are abroad, you will discover important aspects of the American culture that you were unaware of before you left. Since you will be viewing your new culture from the American perspective, it is helpful to have a good grasp on the American perspective and understand how it shapes you.

Being aware of your own cultural biases and presumptions will enable you to understand your reactions to ambiguous events that occur while you are abroad. While you won't escape culture shock, you can be well-prepared to face it and dilute its effects. You may think this is obvious, but take a look anyway. Tacit knowledge can only be of help to you if you are cognizant of it.

Cultural Variations

Most western cultures share many of the same assumptions with Americans, but some variations do exist. Be prepared for "efficient and quick" to be a very different concept from what you are used to. While everyone likes an idea that works, some cultures value aesthetics over practicality or emphasize the process over the end result, and family ties and social obligations are often given priority over individual needs and wants.