Culture shock

Culture shock is the emotional and mental reaction to being in a completely new cultural environment. This is often a very difficult experience for many people and it consists of several stages of feelings until someone successfully adapts to being in the new culture.

The “honeymoon” phase of culture shock is usually the first stage that people go through when surrounded by different cultural values and lifestyles. During this stage, people often have very positive images of their new cultural surroundings. They tend to view these in an idealistic way and ignore or minimize problems. Encounters with new people are seen as fascinating and unique. This phase is usually quite short for most people and quickly gives way to the second stage, called “the frustration phase”.

During the “frustration phase”, the newcomer begins to experience a more negative view of their cultural surroundings. The problems of communicating in a new language or the tasting different foods, for example, are no longer novel. The visitor tends to exaggerate or dwell on problems in the new culture. There is a definite frustration that things that should be easy are still difficult. For example, people who may have been enjoyed learning the basics of a language during the honeymoon phase would now find it a chore to try and communicate with locals in the frustration phase. Newcomers may feel isolated during this phase and many people will voluntarily isolate themselves. Depending on one’s outlook and situation, this phase can last days, months, or even years.

After the frustration phase ends, the adjustment phase begins. This marks the time when newcomers begin to adapt to the new culture. They begin to accept the differences around them and the challenges of everyday life. They can appreciate some aspects of the new culture while being realistic about those they perceived as problems back in the frustration phase. This opens the door to three possible outcomes – mastery, rejection, or assimilation.

Those newcomers who enter the “mastery phase” have completely adapted to the values and beliefs of the new culture. They are able to navigate the new culture like a native while at the same time keeping some of their own original cultural values. Those who choose the “rejection phase” have decided against integrating in the new culture and do not accept it. They usually choose to permanently withdraw from the culture through isolation or returning home. Interestingly, these people usually have the hardest time re-adjusting to their home culture after going back. Integrators are people who completely adopt the identity of the new culture and give up the values and beliefs of their home culture.

Culture shock is a very emotional experience for most people and there are many symptoms. A person going through culture shock may display irritability and angry outbursts at times.  Many experience a bout of depression or lethargy from time to time. If not managed carefully, this can lead some people to suicide. It is important to recognize these symptoms in newcomers and understand the reasons for these feelings.

If you liked this lesson, why not try this one on Cultural Diffusion?