Culture shock is what people experience when they are exposed to a culture vastly different from their own.
It is the feeling of disorientation and discomfort a person feels when moving from a familiar to an unfamiliar place. This can mean immigrating to a new country, shifting to a different place in one’s own country, or transitioning to a different type of life.
Different cultures have different languages, food habits, social norms, etc. These differences between the home culture and the new culture are what cause culture shock. It can lead to feelings of isolation, a sense of frustration, sleep disturbances, etc.
Definition of Culture Shock
The term “culture shock” was coined in the 1960s by the anthropologist Kalervo Oberg. He defined it as
“the psychological disorientation that most people experience when they move for an extended period of time into a culture markedly different from their own.” (1960)
Another definition comes from John Scott, who defines it as
“…the experience of those suddenly immersed in a culture very different from their own” (2014).
Above, Scott extends the term to include physical and cognitive reactions too, along with psychological ones.
Generally, the term culture shock has a negative connotation, although some scholars argue that it also has benefits for individuals. Gary Weaver argued that there are three main causes behind culture shock: loss of familiar cues, the breakdown of interpersonal communications, and an identity crisis (1994).
When individuals have spent a considerable amount of time in a new culture, they may also experience reverse culture shock upon returning to their home culture. They get so immersed in the new ways of life that the old (once familiar) ways of life begin to feel alien.
The title of Thomas Wolfe’s novel—You Can’t Go Home Again—aptly describes this feeling. Reverse culture shock usually consists of two parts:
- Idealization: When a person is in a new culture, they constantly reminisce about their time in the home culture. All the bad fades away, and only good memories of the past remain, creating an idealized version of home.
- Expectations: Because of their idealization, individuals imagine that their home is a perfect place that will never change. But when they return, they realize that nothing is the same. Even without them, the world has moved on, and this realization causes psychological discomfort.
Examples of Culture Shock
- Being offended by perceived rudeness: Some countries are more upfront than others, which can come across as rudeness. For example, Russians are known for being blunt whereas British people are not. This may cause confusion and frustration when communicating across cultures.
- Not knowing how to greet strangers: You may find that the rules and norms around greetings are different. You get confused about whether to kiss someone on the cheek, shake their hand, or bow! This can start to make you anxious and uncomfortable when meeting other people.
- Not understanding workplace norms: If you got a job overseas, you may find that the norms around what’s acceptable in the workplace can be confronting. For example, if you got a job in Japan, you may find yourself staying back at work a lot later in the evening than you’d have liked.
- Struggling to navigate the bureaucracy: Commonly, migrants to a new country find it really hard to rent a house, get a phone plan, figure out how to pay taxes, and so on. We tend to focus on and be annoyed by things that were easy at home, but hard (or more expensive!) in your new country.
- Difficulty with language: One of the top causes of culture shock is language problems. If you need to learn a new language, communicating becomes very hard and your self-confidence may suffer.
- Punctuality issues: Different countries have different expectations around punctuality. If you come from a country where a meeting time is a rough guess, and you’re going to a country where punctuality is very important, then you may find yourself stepping on toes.
- Struggling with food and eating: Traveling overseas means you are unlikely to find the exact ingredients you wanted in the shops anymore. Even things that are labeled the same may taste different. Before you know it, you may find that you really miss the food back home.
- Accidentally engaging in taboos: Different cultures have different taboos. You may be a little shocked by the expectations overseas. I remember when I first moved to Canada, I was annoyed by the tipping culture. I missed home, where tipping was never expected. But it’s taboo not to tip in North America. Now, I’ve adapted so much that I tip when I visit Australia, even though it’s not expected at all!
- Struggling to adapt when returning home: We also have the concept of reverse culture shock, when you get home and have to adapt all over again. Sometimes, it’s hard. You’ve changed and so have your friends, which makes re-adjusting hard. You may even miss being overseas!
- Being confronted by new gender norms: My wife was pretty confronted when we traveled Asia and she found out women weren’t allowed in certain temples, and when they were, they were told how to dress. Here, she had a bit of culture shock about how gender norms were different.
- Being confronted by others’ expressions of emotions: You may find different approaches to the expression of emotions, which can be confronting. I remember being really offended by the rudeness of people in Vietnam who pushed in front of me when waiting in line. I still get angry thinking about it! At the time, I spoke up – “wait your turn! How rude!” Interestingly, they got angry at me for expressing my emotions in public. How shameful of me!
- Inability to navigate traffic: You may move to another country and expect it’ll be easy to catch the bus, drive around town, or rent a motorbike. But anyone who’s been to Asia will realize the roads are crazy there! You might feel overwhelmed by the prospect of having to drive or navigate the streets in your new home.
- Struggling to make friends: You may find the the people are just a bit different from you. This can make it difficult for you to make friends.
- Not understanding informal norms: Some rules in a society are implicit, or hidden. In high context cultures, you’ll need to use implicit and nonverbal situational cues to understand what’s expected of you at any time.
- Feeling uncertain about gift giving norms: You might get overwhelmed and even angry when trying to figure out what’s expected of you. For example, when invited over to someone’s home for dinner, do you bring a gift? And what? These little frustrations add up and exacerbate your culture shock.
- Loneliness: It takes time to make new friends. Culture shock is often strongest when you’re new to a country and don’t have a good group of social contacts who can help you through.
- Homesickness: Homesickness is one of the biggest signs of culture shock. It’s that sense that you just want to be home where you’re comfortable and with friends.
- Struggling with a new climate: An under-examined feature of homesickness is dealing with the weather. For example, many Australians in Canada complain about the long, cold winters, and end up returning to the warm beaches of Australia because they just can’t handle the weather.
Four Phases of Culture Shock
Although culture shock is experienced differently by different individuals, the phenomenon generally involves four phases.
While addressing the Women’s Club of Rio de Janeiro in 1954, Kalervo Oberg proposed his four-phase model of cultural adjustment:
- Honeymoon phase: During the first phase, the differences between the home culture and the new culture seem quite fascinating. The individual sees this new way of life in an almost romantic light, getting enthralled by the change in weather, food habits, and social customs. The individual is open-minded and confident about trying new things. After the first few weeks, like all honeymoons, this phase ends.
- Negotiation phase: After the first few months, the individual sees the differences in a more realistic sense. Instead of excitement, they now induce anxiety and frustration. Differences in public hygiene, safety, and food quality increase the sense of discomfort. There are physical challenges too: the circadian rhythm gets disrupted (causing insomnia) and the glut flora has to adapt to different levels of bacteria in food/water. The biggest challenge is communication as people often feel incredibly lonely in this phase.
- Adjustment phase: After six to twelve months, the individual learns to cope with the differences and adapts to the new environment. They know what to expect in most situations, and the new ways of life start to feel normal. They develop routines and slowly create social support systems. The new culture now starts to make sense, and they are able to appreciate its positive qualities with a positive mindset. We call this “cultural adaptation.”
- Adaptation phase: In this final stage, people are able to fully participate in the host culture. This does not mean complete conversion as they may still carry values and practices from their previous culture (like accents). However, they are confident about their footing and begin to thrive in the new culture. This phase is also called the bicultural stage as individuals can expertly navigate the differences between two cultures.
When you might get Culture Shock
- Going on vacation: Going on vacation to a foreign country can cause culture shock. While it is often an exciting experience, it can also get overwhelming. Because of the language barrier, one finds it difficult to communicate with the locals, especially while navigating or buying something. Plus, there may be security concerns that one is not cautious about in a new culture; for example, pickpocketing or scamming.
- Living in a foreign country: While vacations are short-lived (and often don’t even go past the exciting “honeymoon phase”), living for longer periods can pose greater challenges. The most fundamental aspects of one’s life, such as grocery shopping or commuting, can be quite different from what one is used to. Socializing is the biggest challenge because of the language barriers and differences in social etiquette.
- Studying abroad: Students living alone in a foreign country face significant culture shock. Without parental support, they can feel more anxious in adjusting to a new culture, especially when the patterns of communication are significantly different. Young et al. point out how this can have long-lasting effects on students, so universities must provide well-rounded programs to help them face these challenges (2014)
- International business: Traveling abroad for business can be quite hectic. There are physiological challenges as one needs to adjust to the different working hours, food habits, etc. Plus, there is a need to get acquainted with the communication style and customs while also keeping in mind the business regulations. So, while international business can be a tremendous opportunity, it can also involve culture shock.
- Retiring abroad: A growing number of people are now choosing to retire abroad, which can cause culture shock. Many people, especially in First World countries, retire abroad to gain new experiences and enjoy a lower cost of living. However, this has its difficulties. They need to adapt to a new legal framework for paying taxes, getting long-term visas, etc. Moreover, after leaving behind their family and friends, it can be quite difficult to find a new social circle given the communication barriers.
- Moving to a new city: Culture shock, besides affecting those who move abroad, can also impact those who move to a different place in the same country. For example, when someone from a rural place moves to a large metropolis. They need to adjust to the new weather patterns, food habits, transportation systems, etc. There are also different local customs and societal norms that one has to learn and adapt.
- Working in multicultural environments: Working in a multicultural environment can cause culture shock. It involves adjusting to communication styles and customs across cultures, which is especially difficult in large, multilingual countries like India. Most MNCs are in Bangalore (a city in Southern India), where people from all over the country work. Northerners find it particularly difficult to adjust, as informal communication amongst colleagues (say inside jokes) often takes place in the local language.
- Volunteer work: Volunteer work can often involve going to and living in vastly different social settings, which can cause culture shock. Whether in the same country or abroad, it requires one to adapt to a new way of life far away from family & friends. The culture shock also affects the volunteering work, including the style of communication, the delegation of work, how volunteers are perceived by the locals, etc.
- International adoption: While most instances of culture shock occur when one travels elsewhere, international adoption is an inverse situation: somebody else travels to you. Welcoming a new family member from another culture can be difficult, as they have their own beliefs and practices. The adopted child may face identity issues and a sense of displacement. Communication also poses a huge problem.
- Returning home from abroad: Returning home after living abroad for a long period can cause what is called reverse culture shock. This involves returning to a familiar but changed environment, which is often quite difficult as the individual may have grown accustomed to the customs and practices of their host country. Reconnecting with their old social circle and readjusting to different living conditions can be rather challenging.
Culture shock refers to the experience of moving to a culture that is different from one’s own.
It is the discomfort one feels after being suddenly exposed to an unfamiliar environment. Different cultures have different languages, food habits, and customs, and these differences are what cause culture shock.
There are four phases of this phenomenon: honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment, and adaptation. While moving to a different culture is a daunting task, individuals ultimately learn how to adapt to the new environment and are able to participate fully in it.
Oberg, Kalervo. (1954). Culture Shock. CiteSeerX 10.1.1.461.5459. Presented to the Women’s Club of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 3 August 1954.
Oberg, K. (1960). “Culture shock: Adjustment to new cultural environments”. Practical Anthropology, 7(4). American Society of Missiology.
Scott, John. (2014). A Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford.
Weaver, G.R. (1994). “Understanding and coping with cross-cultural adjustment stress”. In Culture, Communication, and Conflict: Readings in Intercultural Relations. Ginn Press.
Young, Jennifer T.; Natrajan-Tyagi, Rajeswari; Platt, Jason J. (2014). “Identity in Flux: Negotiating Identity While Studying Abroad”. Journal of Experiential Education. Sage Publications.