Culture Shock. What is it and how to overcome it

shock culturale

Culture Shock. What is it and how to overcome it

The Culture Shock experience is one that everyone who has had to come into contact with another culture other than their own has encountered.

It is an emotional state which can affect anyone who finds themselves having to face the challenges of a different culture: changes in lifestyle, clothing, language and behaviour. Culture Shock is a normal reaction to a new environment and it is an inevitable part of any journey or experience abroad.

In this article we will deal with the following points: 

  • What is Culture Shock and what are the symptoms?
  • What are the different phases of Culture Shock?
  • How to prepare yourself and how to deal with Culture Shock.

Let’s take a look together!

What is Culture Shock and what are the symptoms?

The term Culture Shock was used for the first time by the anthropologist Cora DuBois in 1951 to describe the sense of loss/confusion that she and her colleagues felt when they came into contact with cultures different to their own. However, it was Kalervo Oberg (Canadian anthropologist) who extended the significance of the term to include everyone who travels abroad and finds themselves having to deal with new customs and traditions.

According to Oberg, Culture Shock happens when a person feels overwhelmed by the anxiety caused by the loss of common reference points in their interpersonal relationships, in communication and in the behaviour that the person takes on following the new, different situations which they face on a daily basis.

Urmila Chakraborthy, teacher and cross-cultural consultant, describes culture shock as the “sensation of insecurity, confusion or anxiety which people feel when they reside for a more or less long period of time, including work, in a society that is different from their own”.

The symptoms of Culture Shock

But how do you recogniseCulture Shock? It’s simple, if you notice one of the following “symptoms” it means you are experiencing it or have experienced it:

  • Automysophobia, or rather the fear of dirtying yourself or of being dirty;
  • Excessive worry over food, drink or bed sheets;
  • Fear of physical contact with waiters or waiting staff;
  • Sense of powerlessness;
  • Frustration and/or mental tiredness;
  • Refusing to learn the local language;
  • Excessive fear of being trickedrobbed or injured.

However, these symptoms may differ based on the person in question and on the culture of the new environment.

What are the different phases of Culture Shock?

Oberg, as well as having defined what Culture Shock is, has also identified 4 principal phases which anyone who finds themselves having to deal with this, has to overcome. Let’s look at them in detail:

Honeymoon Period (2 weeks – 6 months) 

This is the phase in which the person is fascinated by everything new and where those cultural differences are seen through romantic eyes. In this moment, there is a risk of idealising the new place and its culture.

Crisis Period 

This is the moment when the initial flame starts to fade, the enthusiasm vanishes and unpleasant feelings of delusionfrustration and anger appear, especially when we find ourselves facing negative situations which could be perceived as strange and offensive from the point of view of our own cultural behaviour. This process can also be fuelled by stressful events like moving house.

Adjustment phase

A phase in which the individual becomes aware of their new situation and begins to accept the new culture with a positive and proactive attitude. Discontent is replaced by a sense of superiority towards the people of the host country.

Acceptance and adaptation phase

Finally, in the acceptance and adaptation phase, the person feels at ease in the new culture, serenely accepting the country’s customs and behaviours and starts to benefit from some of these aspects, for example, the local food. The rare unpleasant situations are dealt with without anxiety and once they leave the country, the person also feels a sense of sadness.

How to prepare for and deal with Culture Shock

The process of cultural adaptation can be tiring and often causes emotional stress both for the person who moves abroad for work or study as well as for their loved ones. Culture Shock is one of the main reasons why people rematurely quit their life abroad. To help you avoid feeling isolated or disconnected from your own environment, here are three useful tips:

  1. Prepare yourself in advance. It is fundamental to learn as much information as possible about the new country in order to get to know it – even just a little – before you move. If there is a training course available, don’t miss it;
  2. Learn the language. As well as learning to understand and be understood, learning the language will allow you to meet new people and make new friends which will help you not feel so alone;
  3. Cultivate your interests. Whether it’s sport, art, music etc. you should cultivate your hobbies or passions even in the new country. This, together with allowing you to occupy your free time, will help you expand your circle of friends and lower your stress levels.

If you need more tips and advice on how to deal with Culture Shock or if you need to improve your English, don’t hesitate to contact me!