It's the reason you know how to verbally and non-verbally communicate with family, friends, colleagues and others. It's what helps you navigate and interact in your country. It's what makes you, you. Culture.
Culture shapes and influences our behavior, perception and decisions like a mental blueprint. However, if we ever leave our culture and immerse ourselves in another culture without sufficient preparation, we might experience a state of bewilderment, distress and uncertainty. This normal reaction to a unfamiliar way of life is known as culture shock.
In 1954, Canadian anthropologist, Kalervo Oberg (1901-1973), coined the term culture shock and identified 4 stages that individuals experience when interacting with a new culture –– a process that could last a month, a year or longer.
In this post, I'm going to show you the 4 stages of culture shock and provide some tips for progressing through each stage and integrating into the host culture.
Stage 1: The Honeymoon Stage
"I love it here! Everyone's so nice."
Imagine you've just arrived in the United States. You can't believe you're browsing the grocery store aisles, driving along US highways or discussing your first impressions with everyone you meet. You've read about the US in books and magazines. You've watched American TV and Hollywood movies. You've practiced English. Now, you're here!
You're intoxicated by new sights, sounds, smells and events. You're fascinated by similarities and differences between the United States and your home.
You feel like you're consciously discovering the world again for the first time –– people, places, language, money, customs, food. It's exhilarating. It's unforgettable. It's a euphoric experience!
Honeymoon Stage Tips
- Set realistic expectations before arriving in the host culture.
- Understand that culture shock is a normal, yet temporary reaction.
- Immediately start creating familiarity. Make new friends, find new favorite spots, develop new routines, use English as much as possible and begin to study predictable patterns of interaction.
Stage 2: The Crisis Stage
"Why aren't there numbers on the coins?"
As you communicate and navigate through an unfamiliar host culture, the reality of the situation gradually becomes apparent. Frustrating experiences begin to accumulate, baffling encounters and interactions amass and simple tasks become major challenges.
You begin to focus on the differences between the host culture and your home –– not the similarities. Stereotypes, prejudices and recurrent negativity emerges. You feel disoriented, confused and powerless. The culture seems rude, illogical and unadaptable.
Perhaps you've been unable to adequately express yourself or unable to understand, interpret or translate verbal and non-verbal communication. Perhaps you've struggled distinguishing between appropriate and inappropriate behavior or have been unable to grasp the customs, values and etiquette. Perhaps you've had to frequently solicit others for help with simple errands and common tasks. Perhaps you have few or no friends.
It hurts. Nobody hears your sense of humor. Nobody hears your intelligence. Nobody knows that you're a patient, positive and gentle soul. Nobody knows the real you.
Slowly, you begin to reject the host culture and consider returning home.
Crisis Stage Tips
- When we face life-changing circumstances, we're going to face fear. Find the courage to move forward during this difficult stage. You don't need award-winning courage, you just need enough courage to continue integrating into the host culture.
- You may not have many opportunities to create new habits and routines. Use this time to improve your lifestyle and yourself.
- Create as many interactions as possible. Enroll in ESL classes, join meetups, clubs, attend local events, etc. Talk to others. Use English.
- Read books, watch TV and movies and cook the food to learn more about daily life, pop culture, the national psyche and to study predictable patterns of interaction.
- Eat well, get enough exercise and sleep.
Stage 3: The Recovery Stage
"As long as I’m here, I’ll make the most of it."
You've reevaluated your expectations, found minor solutions and developed strategies for handling potential problems. You're able to read cultural cues and grasp the host culture's logic and values.
Your cultural perception has begun to shift. You have more friends, increased social skills and you've even become an explorer of the culture. You've regained your confidence, become more independent, competent and culturally sensitive.
You still have episodic highs and lows, but they don't overwhelm and consume you like before. You now have a balanced perspective of the host culture and your home culture as well as the advantages and disadvantages of both. You may even prefer some aspects of the host culture and that revelation might even expand your ideology about yourself, your home or the world.
You feel like yourself again, but stronger and wiser.
Recovery Stage Tips
- Continue exploring and absorbing the host culture.
- Use the opportunity to search inward and broaden your ideology about yourself, your home and the world.
Stage 4: The Adjustment Stage
"I’m comfortable here! I feel at home."
Congratulations! You've adjusted to the host culture. You've taken an inward and outward journey that has led to immeasurable personal growth. You're now able to live and work to your maximum potential.
You're no longer distressed by cultural differences. You can confidently speak and understand most colloquial English. You've developed meaningful friendships. You've settled. You belong.
Now that you've adjusted to the host culture, returning home will be difficult.
Adjustment Stage Tips
- Continue to improve your cultural abilities.
- In order to reduce the effects of reverse culture shock when you return home at some point in the future, keep in touch with your home culture. Occasionally visit or call family and friends. Eat the food. Use the language. Stay informed about news and pop culture.
- Don't drift away from your culture. I did this and it became incredibly difficult to reintegrate. You can read my story here.
The Guide to Tipping (PDF)
You just learned the 4 stages of culture shock. While it can be an arduous journey and the period can vary from person-to-person, try to face the 4 stages of culture shock as a life-changing, transcendental opportunity. Challenge yourself to integrate into the host culture by searching inward, outward and expanding your ideology. Hang in there! You might be surprised with the outcome.
Have you ever experienced culture shock? How did you work through the stages? Answer in the Comments below.
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