Cultural adaptation is the process of changing mindset or behaviors when moving into a new cultural context so you are capable of living within that culture.
When immigrants move to a county with a different culture to their own, they may need to make some adjustments. For example, a new immigrant may need to learn how to navigate the new culture’s norms and behaviors (when to shake hands, how to talk to your boss, how to make sure you don’t sound rude, etc.).
According to the cultural adaptation theory, moving to a new culture involves ‘culture shock’ which takes time and effort to overcome. There are 4 stages to overcoming culture shock and successfully adapting to a new culture, which are outlined below.
AP Human Geography Note: AP Human Geography tests often give tricky questions comparing adaptation and acculturation. For a guide on how to navigate those tricky questions, jump to this section.
5 Examples of Cultural Adaptation
Examples of cultural adaptation usually involve ‘figuring out’ how things work in the local culture.
You may learn that people in your new culture greet each other in a different way. They may kiss on the cheek rather than shaking hands or use a different salutation. You may also learn that it’s important in one culture to give a nod to people as you walk by or hold a door open for people, whereas in another culture it isn’t.
When I moved to England, I learned that they often said “You alright?” to start a conversation. When I first moved there, in my head I thought “of course I’m alright! What, is there blood on my face or something?” In my home culture, you would only ask if someone was alright if they appeared hurt or upset.
Once you’ve learned the correct way to greet someone, you may be able to get by in the culture a little better without being considered ‘weird’.
2. Figures of Speech
Figuring out local figures of speech and language can also help you get by in a new culture better. There might be ways of speaking that are different in different areas of the world.
For me, when I travelled South America, I learned quickly that the words they used were different in each country. Whenever I went to a new country I’d have to learn which was the best word to use to communicate most effectively.
Similarly, if you go to Australia, you might hear people say: “How good is that!?” This isn’t a question – it’s a statement meaning: “that’s good.” So don’t respond with your analysis of how good it is or isn’t in your subjective opinion!
3. Understanding the Dress Code
When you move to a new country, you may find the dress code is a little more (or less) conservative than your own. By understanding the dress code, you might have a better chance of getting along without sideways looks. This might be especially important in job interview situations.
When I travelled to Morocco, I learned that it was often considered inappropriate to wear shorts as a male – the norm is to wear jeans. This was a little frustrating to me because it’s a very hot country. Walking around in jeans in the middle of the African summer isn’t too fun. But given it was the expected dress code, I sucked it up and did it in order to be respectful to their culture. Interestingly, I found this to also be the case in Colombia!
4. Learning Where to get Goods and Services
A new immigrant may find it very difficult to find goods and services in their new culture. This can be as simple as needing to find the supermarket. But once you’re in the supermarket you also may find that the products on the shelves are very different to those in your home country. You’ll need to adapt your cooking methods to accommodate for the fact your supermarket doesn’t supply your favorite products from home.
The same goes for services. You might need to learn the standards for seeking medical attention, for example. Can you walk into a doctor’s clinic, or do you need to book an appointment? How much will it cost or will the costs be covered by the government? And, are the doctors going to deliver Western medicine you expect or might they have traditional remedies to your illnesses?
5. Business Interaction and Etiquette
Businesses operate differently around the world. What one country considers a ‘gift’ another country may consider a bribe. In fact, learning about overt bribery culture around the world might be necessary to make sure you don’t find yourself in a tough situation. I’ve found myself confronted by police seeking bribes in Mexico, for example, which they seemed to think was a perfectly natural way to ensure things are handled quickly (or not escalated).
The 4 Stages leading to Cultural Adaptation
Winkelman (1994) came up with 4 stages culture shock which explain how people will adapt to a new culture. The fourth phase is the phase in which adaptation finally occurs.
The four stages are:
- Honeymoon and Tourist Phase
- Cultural Shock Phase
- Adjustment, Reorientation and Recovery Phase
- Adaptation, Resolution and Accumulation Phase
Each stage is said to occur one after the other, meaning this is a linear model of cultural adaptation. These are outlined below.
1. Honeymoon and Tourist Phase
In the first phase, people are excited and stimulated by the differences between their home culture and their new culture. This is commonly experienced by people who are traveling to a new culture for a short amount of time, such as honeymooners or tourists.
One of the reasons the honeymoon phase is considered positive is that tourists often aren’t exposed to the difficulties of moving to a new culture. They’re often exposed to a culture through institutions designed to make their lives easier such as hotels and bus tours.
2. Cultural Shock Phase
The culture shock phase involves negative rather than positive emotions you may have experienced in the honeymoon phase. According to Winkelman (1994), this usually occurs within weeks to a month of arriving in a new culture. It’s often associated with having to do the everyday tasks of interacting within the new culture, such as trying to rent a house or get a new cell phone plan.
Examples of culture shock include:
- Being unsure how to navigate the new culture’s institutions.
- Struggling to find food and cookware for preparing meals you’re comfortable with.
- Not knowing the protocols for how to talk to locals.
- Struggling to understand local jokes and ways of speaking.
- Struggling to find a job and feeling like you don’t know how to present yourself for job interviews.
- Thinking your culture does things better, which is an example of ethnocentrism.
In this phase, you may feel disoriented and out of control of your life. Emotions of frustration, irritation, disillusionment and despair may set in. Many people in this phase may start to try to re-initiate habits of their old culture, like eating familiar foods and gravitating to diaspora populations from your home culture.
3. Adjustment, Reorientation and Recovery Phase
The adjustment, reorientation and recovery phase is the phase that involves the hard work of learning to successfully navigate the new culture. It is a very challenging step where interacting with the new culture is not natural or comfortable. However, small wins after effort to reorient yourself can also make it an enjoyable experience.
You may find yourself developing skills required to understand and even appreciate the ways the new culture does things. While you may not find them to be easy or your preferred way of doing things just yet, there is also reward in knowing how to adjust adequately.
Some people fail to adjust and decide not to engage with the new culture. Examples of when this occurs include:
- Falling into enclaves where you manage to live within a new society while only interacting with people from your old culture.
- Giving up and flying home.
4. Adaptation, Resolution and Accumulation Phase
Successful adaptation occurs in this phase. You will have not only learned to navigate the new culture, but will also have changed your own self-concept. You may have developed a bi-cultural identity where you can appreciate and embrace the new culture as being a part of who you are as a person.
Some examples include:
- Not only speaking but thinking fluently in your new language.
- Finding your old culture’s way of doing things a bit strange or irritating when you go home for visits.
- Raising children who identify as natives of the new culture.
- Feeling comfortable negotiating the institutions and ways of interacting that are the norms in your new culture.
Once you have successfully adapted, you will start to feel at home in your new culture. This doesn’t mean you will have rejected your existing culture (and you may still practice many aspects of it – such as your existing religion) but you feel as if you naturally belong in both cultural environments.
AP Human History Note: Cultural adaptation is similar to “acculturation”. In fact, Winkelman (1994, p. 122) says: “…one may acculturate and undergo substantial personal change through cultural adaptation…” Remember that acculturation involves developing a bi-cultural identity (adopting) whereas adaptation may not necessarily involve embracing the culture as your own. Talk to your teacher about advice for differentiating the two in your exam, or see more below.
Adaptation vs Acculturation vs Assimilation
If you are studying Human Geography you will likely be exposed to all three of these terms. Here are some general definitions of each:
Cultural Adaptation – Adapting your culture to a new environment without necessarily picking up the new culture’s traits. You become capable of navigating the culture, but don’t necessarily identify with it.
Acculturation – Adopting the cultural traits of your new culture without losing your old cultural identity. You become bi-cultural.
Assimilation – Accepting the dominant culture as your own and rejecting your old culture.
Here are the key differences again:
- If you’re ‘adapting’ to the new culture without necessarily embracing or endorsing the behaviors, it’s likely cultural adaptation.
- If you start picking up the traits of your new culture and embracing them, but not rejecting your old culture, it’s likely acculturation.
- If you reject your old culture for your new culture, it’s likely assimilation.
Cultural adaptation is about learning to “adapt” (synonyms: adjust or modify) your behaviors to get along in a new culture. It’s slightly different to acculturation because acculturation involves not only adjusting your behaviors but becoming an integrated member of the culture where you embrace the beliefs of that new culture (you become bi-cultural). This is a small but important difference if you’re studying AP Human Geography.
Some examples of cultural adaptation include: learning greetings of the new culture, learning language and phrases of the new culture, learning dress codes for the new culture, and learning how to access goods and services in the new culture.
This will be important for new immigrants as well as businesses setting up regional branches in a new country.
But … have you considered if you bring your culture to a new country and you manage to spread your culture there? This is what we call cultural diffusion – you can read about the 6 types of cultural diffusion here or all about heirarchical diffusion here.
References in APA Style
Gillespie, C. A. (2021). 5 Steps to a 5: AP Human Geography. United States: McGraw Hill.
Kim, Y. Y. (2017). Cross-cultural adaptation. In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication.
Moran, A., & Keane, M. (Eds.). (2013). Cultural adaptation. Los Angeles: Routledge.
Winkelman, M. (1994). Cultural shock and adaptation. Journal of Counseling & Development, 73(2), 121-126.