Culture Shock

Traveling to a foreign country is fun and interesting, but living in a foreign country can be very different. After the initial phase of being fascinated by the new sights, sounds, and tastes of the new culture, you might start experiencing problems with common daily activities such as shopping or transportation, and trouble communicating with the host culture. This can lead to feelings of frustration, hostility, stress, and anxiety.

Culture shock is a normal feeling of disorientation when living in a foreign place. The anthropologist, Oberg (1960), explained the symptoms of experiencing a new culture as an unpleasant surprise, or shock. He described it as a state of anxiety and frustration resulting from the immersion in a new culture. The difficulty to adjust to a new culture is caused by the inability to understand, interpret, or translate new patterns of cultural behavior, symbols, and expressions in the new social setting.

The loss of references, the absence of familiar cues and symbols can lead to identity conflict, disorientation, cultural misunderstandings, interpersonal conflict, and feelings of powerlessness. Culture shock is more intense the more the values, beliefs, customs and behaviors of the new culture differ or are perceived as different from one’s own.

Six aspects of culture shock:

  • Strain caused by the effort to adapt
  • Sense of loss (friends, status, profession, possessions)
  • Feeling rejected by the new culture
  • Confusion in role, values, and self-identity
  • Anxiety and even anger about “foreign” practices
  • Feelings of helplessness

Common symptoms include feeling isolated and lonely, experiencing anxiety and worry, having too much nervous energy, mood swings, and can lead to depression and reduction in work performance. These changes affect the whole family.

During the recovery and adjustment phases, the visitor learns how to function in the new culture and be independent. With increased confidence and familiarity with the host environment, the perception of the foreign culture starts to change. By embracing the differences and accepting what the new culture has to offer, the visitor learns to interact successfully with members of the host culture and build social relationships. This phase brings a sense of satisfaction, accomplishment, and personal growth.

Steps for minimizing culture shock

  1. Expect culture shock to happen irrespective of location
  2. As soon as you arrive in your new location, identify all the opportunities for building support networks
  3. Be careful to resort to escapist strategies such as drinking or eating too much
  4. Learn from others’ experience
  5. Give yourself time to adapt
  6. Stay open minded and flexible about change
  7. Be willing to communicate your feelings and thoughts to others, verbally or non-verbally
  8. Don’t hesitate to seek professional help
  9. Think about the positive aspects of culture shock – people who experience it adapt better to their new environment than those who do not
  10. Retain a sense of humor.
  11. Be curious about the foreign culture.
  12. Try to be positive in what you expect from people.
  13. Be confident and have trust in yourself.
  14. The ability to tolerate failure is critical because everyone makes mistakes especially in a new environment, it is important to put mistakes into perspective, learn from them.
  15. Expect the same symptoms to reoccur when you go home. Reverse culture shock is normal.


Breaking Through Culture Shock by Elisabeth Marx