- Culture shock is a feeling of disorientation, annoyance, and/or hostility experienced when you visit a country with norms and traditions different from your own.
- Culture shock has different stages but usually results in an understanding of your new host country's norms and traditions.
- Everyone experiences culture shock differently -- your past experiences often color how you see your new country.
- Try to manage expectations before going abroad. Do research beforehand and engage with the local community once you're there. This will help you integrate.
The minute you land in your new country, you're busy taking in the newness around you. You're smiling at the street vendors selling fruit on every corner. You're captivated by the sudden openness of the people around you. Or perhaps you're noticing discreet segregation of genders, ages, or confused by why your host mother shies away from some of your questions. This, brave globetrotter, is called culture shock.
Most people who have traveled more extensively than a brief vacation have heard the term. Whether you're a seasoned traveler or are heading off on your first time abroad, you'll need to understand culture shock and how to cope with it during your time overseas.
What is culture shock?
When you go abroad, your daily routine, culture, food, and the attitudes of people around you are no longer familiar. The process of recognizing, understanding, and adapting to these changes is called culture shock.
In our normal environment much of our behavior, like gestures, tone of voice, how we wait in lines (or don't wait), and interact, rely on collectively understood cultural cues. However, we don't actively pay attention to these -- they're our unspoken norm. In a new country, we become more aware of these cultural subtleties because they are different from our norm.
Even drastically different culinary traditions can cause culture shock. Food is deeply ingrained in culture and we have many associations, both good and bad, with the things we eat. Being away from home and realizing common ingredients or comfort foods you often reach for aren't available can bring up strong emotions.
You may not literally be shocked, but this act of feeling disoriented and processing new ways of life, attitudes, and cultural norms is by definition culture shock. There are four stages of culture shock:
- Initial euphoria / The honeymoon stage - After first arriving to a new place, you'll likely be caught up in all the wonderful things your new chosen home has to offer. During this stage, you are more likely to recognize cultural similarities and be charmed by the differences.
- Irritation and hostility / The negotiation stage - Gradually, the euphoria will diminish. You'll get lost. You'll get mad at the apparent "disorganization" of things. You'll become overwhelmed with all the things you have to adjust to and either feel irritated or compelled to make things go "your way".
- Gradual understanding / The adjustment stage - You're finally able to relax. You’ve come to terms with your new home and have achieved a balance of emotions. Instead of feeling irritated, you're understanding of differences. You'll start to have a more positive outlook, interest in learning more about your host country, and make more effort to fit in.
- Adaptation or biculturalism / The mastery stage - Reaching a high level of comfort in your new home is the final stage of culture shock. The order of things makes sense, you can talk to strangers with ease, and you understand cultural nuances. Your routine is more natural. Sure, you still miss your friends and family, but your new friends and activities have become part of your daily life.
Culture shock and depression
In some cases, culture shock can resemble or trigger study abroad depression. If you fear you are on the verge of or already in this state, don’t try to get through it alone. Talk to your study abroad directors or volunteer coordinators. Don’t isolate yourself.
Tips for dealing with culture shock
Now that you understand what culture shock is and how to recognize it, lets get down to real strategies and tips for dealing with culture shock.
1. Learn as much about your host country as possible
Read through travel forums, guidebooks, news reports, or novels. Talk to people who have been there or -- better yet -- are from there.
Get to know as much as you can about what's considered polite or rude (for example, did you know it's rude to step over someone's bag in Madagascar?) and prepare yourself for some of the differences before you go.
2. Ask your program's organizer for advice
Whether you're studying, volunteering, or working abroad, you'll likely have a point of contact. Don't hesitate to ask them what others have had a hard time adapting to and what they've done to cope. Each country has its own nuances, so you're going to face a different situation in France as you would in Thailand. Ask those who know best!
3. Set learning goals for your trip abroad
This may be obvious, but make sure you have goals for your trip abroad, and make sure they include learning about your host culture. Do you love food? Make it a goal to learn how to cook a local dish.
4. Write down what you love when you first arrive, and look back later
During the honeymoon phase, write down all the things you love about your new host country. Later, when you're feeling frustrated or irritated, use this list to remind yourself of all the good things about your host country, instead of the things that annoy you.
5. Find a healthy distraction
Especially in stage two, when you may have negative feelings towards your host culture, find a healthy distraction. Take some time to yourself, watch an episode of your favorite TV show, cook a meal from home, or have a solo dance party in your house.
Going overseas is a challenge, an introduction to a new culture, and an emotional roller coaster all at once at times.
It's OK to feel overwhelmed and need a break from your host country -- just make sure it's a healthy distraction and you don't spend your whole time locked up in your house!
6. Talk to others about how you feel
If you aren't abroad with a group, like a study abroad, connect with other expats around you. Talk to them about how they feel about your host culture. Ask them about how they feel, strategies they've used to cope with cultural differences.
Also, learn from them. They may have figured out something you're still confused about -- like why everyone keeps saying a particular phrase or how to politely say "no" when your host mom insists you finish everything on your plate.
7. Try to let go of expectations
A common mistake to make in your host country is to assume the same norms from home apply. This is the easiest way to feel annoyed, disappointed, and bitter. Try to enter the new situation as a blank slate. This will help you minimize expectations that will inevitably creep in.
When it comes to food, you may realize that the food in a particular country isn’t what you expected, it can incur some culture shock. Your favorite dish at the Chinese takeaway may not even exist in China; likewise, for your curry of choice that is nowhere to be found in India. Just don’t let this stop you from finding a new favorite! This is where things get interesting anyway, and you have the opportunity to test out the real, local cuisine.
8. Try to see things through your host culture's eyes
Throughout every stage of culture shock, try to put your own worldview in your pocket and try to understand the world the way your host culture does.
Maybe you don't agree with some philosophies, and maybe it doesn't make sense within your own cultural context, and it doesn't have to. Just try to understand where they're coming from. Ask questions, be non-judgemental, be an anthropologist!
9. Get involved with the local community
Part of your feelings of culture shock may be because you feel like too much of an outsider, so get involved in your local community as much as possible. This includes making friends! If you went to church at home, go to church there. If you volunteered at home, find a volunteer project in your host city. Join a sports team, go to major festivals, and make this new home a home!
10. Make an effort to learn the local language
Make an effort to learn a few basic phrases (or more!) in the local language. It's not just a way to understand more of the culture (language and culture are linked), but also to make friends. And hey -- it's just fun!
How will culture shock affect me?
Culture shock affects everyone differently and can manifest itself in a variety of ways. Largely, this depends on:
- The countries you’ve previously traveled to ... if any. Have you experienced new cultures before?
- The country you’re now traveling in. How different is it from your own culture?
- The purpose and structure of your current trip. Do you have someone to help you understand the new culture? Are you willing to learn and adapt?
- How well you adjust to new situations. How do you generally react to being outside your comfort zone?
For example, when I first traveled to Tanzania, I had the hardest time adjusting to shopping in chaotic markets and bargaining for goods. I'm used to being left alone to browse when shopping at home, but most shop owners there are anxious to make a sale. They follow shoppers around and continuously present them with suggestions of things to buy. Then, instead of paying a set price, shopper and shopkeeper begin the lengthy process of bargaining for an agreed-upon price. I had limited patience with this system, and would often end up feeling irritated.
The process of recognizing, understanding, and adapting to these changes is called culture shock.
In contrast, when I later visited other countries, like India, with similar markets and culture of bargaining, I felt more confident and able to navigate shopping in markets. I still didn't love it, but my past experiences helped me adapt to these new cultures since I'd traveled in similar places before.
Don't let culture shock stop you from going abroad
Living overseas isn't all weekend getaways and late-night parties. It's a challenge, an introduction to a new culture, and an emotional roller coaster all at once at times. However, it's worth the ups and downs. We promise you, once you're home you'll forget about all the things that irritated you and treasure the memories and friends you made.