Culture Shock

On this ‘Culture Shock’ page you’ll find:


One of the most challenging aspects of living and working overseas is coping with ‘Culture Shock’.
This is a term used to describe the stress brought on by all the changes you suddenly encounter as you settle into a new culture.

  • You arrive in a country that is stifflingly hot – air-conditioning, what’s that?
  • You don’t understand the language, and can’t read the signs.
  • You don’t know what the customs are.
  • People are staring at you, because you look different.
  • There is no order or organization in the streets.
  • The traffic is terrifying, because no one observes any rules or regulations.
  • Buses travel at break neck speeds, and accidents are common.
  • Corruption is prevalent. It’s the accepted way of doing business.
  • You can’t do anything by phone, you have to go in person, and stand in long line-ups.
  • Power outages occur every day for hours, without warning.
  • In order to get government officials or anyone else, for that matter, to cut through the red tape and act on your behalf, you have to carry bribe money with you.
  • It takes weeks, and sometimes months to get anything done.


Cultural Etiquette – Am I missing something here?

In some countries, it is a social faux pas to use your left hand, to pass anything to anyone else.

In other cultures, it is considered rude to look at someone, when you are talking to them, or they are talking with you.

You may find yourself in a culture where smiling and nodding your head, do not necessarily have the same meaning your culture gives them.

Silence in some cultures is considered a sign of respect, it signals they are considering what you have just said.
They will remain silent after you have spoken to them, in order to give your comments due consideration. You must learn to wait.

Social Distance – How close do I stand?

Social distances in foreign cultures can also be quite difficult to get used to. How would you handle living in a place where people tend to stand very close to each other, even when there is lots of space around?

When your social distance is different from the culture you have arrived in, you can end up being chased around the room, because as soon as you move back, the other person will immediately close the distance.
You move back, they advance again. Why? Because your social distance feels uncomfortable to them. This is a no-win situation for you. You have to get used to it.

You can run into these funny, sometimes exasperating games, unless you know what is going on.

So now that you know, you don’t have to be annoyed any more, right? You can just realize, this is the new social distance that I must to get used to.

Observe how others are standing, and follow the social rules of that culture. Don’t worry you’ll get used to it.

Social Distance – Is there a sitting distance too?

What if you are sitting alone, at an intimate table for two, in a little cafe. There are a number of other unoccupied tables around you. Suddenly a stranger comes over and sits down at your table, directly across from you, without even asking permission?

How do you interpret such behavior? The person doesn’t look at you, they just calmly eat their food, as if nothing is out of the ordinary.

That’s your clue. There may be a social rule at play here.

Remember you are now in another culture. Could it be that in this culture, it’s considered antisocial to sit by oneself, when someone else is sitting alone, in a social setting like a cafe? That’s a whole new way of looking at it, isn’t it?

Sure it takes a little getting used to. It’s interesting to know the why behind these customs, there’s usually a reason why they have developed. Knowing this helps you to understand the culture better.

Did you know that there is cultural sensitivity training available, for those who would like to be briefed about these niceties before they arrive?
You can also read up on the customs of a culture. It saves a lot of aggravation, if you know beforehand what the customs are.

Living on the Edge
– What Else Can Contribute to Culture Shock?

Language differences – you haven’t a common language anymore, and this raises communication problems.

New expectations around manners and customs – you never really know anymore if you are doing the right thing – or what the right thing is.

Social institutions – schools, churches, government bureaucracies, hospitals, the justice system – all have different ways of doing things, and you have to learn them.

Different values, morals, beliefs and ideals – especially if you have moved to a country where religion guides the way of life at all levels. For example, religion informs the social and political life of Saudi Arabia,
and living there puts you under their laws. This can be a challenging experience for North Americans.

New ways of dress – living in some cultures may require you to invest in a whole new wardrobe.

Symptoms of ‘Culture Shock’

Experts say that the cumulative effect these changes have on newcomers creates a ‘culture fatigue’. When you can’t escape from all the changes, and they are constantly bombarding you, it can be very tiring indeed.

Other researchers refer to the sudden immersion phenomenon as a ‘cultural disorientation’ or ‘change shock’. They say what you are really doing is taking apart your own frame of reference and substituting another.

The feelings range through confusion, disorientation, and frustration, to constant anxiety. And how long it lasts depends on your ability to adjust.

What’s Happening to Me?
The 4 Stages of Culture Shock

One consolation is that everyone who lives in a foreign culture for any length of time, goes through culture shock. Understanding what is happening, can remove a lot of the fear about losing your mind.

Psychologists speak of Culture Shock as having 3 or 4 stages, depending on who you read. Here we will look at it in 4 stages. For the three stage version see Culture Shock – in 3 Phases

Being aware of the stages can be a help, as you notice yourself passing through the characteristics of each stage. This can make it more bearable, because you know that you will eventually get through it.

The Honeymoon Stage — 1-3 Months

Upon arrival, there is an excitement that gives you an energy boost. You have been anticipating this moment from the time you knew you were going. You want to taste, feel, experience everything!

Everyone seems so friendly, and laid back. You feel like you have discovered a little piece of paradise, and you can’t get enough of it.
This stage may last weeks or months, but sooner or later, you graduate to the next stage.

The Anxiety Stage — 3-6 Months

This is the stage when you can feel homesick and start to withdraw from socializing with the nationals. You can also feel bored, need to sleep a lot, and feel irritated by small difficulties.

If this stage is prolonged, it can move into compulsive eating, drinking, or repetitive behaviors. People will do this in an effort to find comfort and relief, from the constant change they are dealing with: the new people,
new sounds, new tastes, new customs, and new expectations.

Some may succumb to fits of crying and depression. They may begin to mistrust their own sense of what is right and wrong. Their whole world is turned upside down. Physical illness, colds, headaches, body pain, may begin to manifest.

It’s important to note that this does not happen to everybody. This is the worst case scenario. You may find yourself feeling some of these symptoms, not all.

They are mentioned here to give you some idea of how to track these reactions in yourself, so if you feel this way, you will know that you are not going crazy.

Culture Shock is a process that you move through, in order to make the adjustment to a different world, emotionally, mentally, and physically. At this point, most people begin the turn around towards recovering their equilibrium.
They do not go into the next stage of Rejection or Regression, but move to the final stage of readjustment.

The Rejection or Regression Stage — 7-18 Months

However, if you are working in a culture that bears little resemblance to the one you spent most of your life in, then you can enter this 3rd stage. Some people can actually get stuck in this stage.

It is brought on by constant aggravation, and inability to find any relief from the constant anxiety, and stress of the changes. At work you keep losing it, your coping strategies turn in a negative direction with anger, rudeness, criticism, complaining, and stereotyping taking over.

You can never seem to find anything you like about the new culture. You find more and more wrong with the people, the infrastructure, the government, the bureaucracy, the lack of familiar amenities.

At this stage, some people withdraw to a ‘Safe Haven’ like an international club where they find people of their own culture, to spend a few hours with. Others never move beyond this stage, even if they live overseas for years.

Still others will leave during this stage. There is no shame in this. Some people do not do well in ‘foreign cultures’. Go easy on yourself, at least you tried.

The Glorious Adjustment Stage

You find that it’s becoming easier to haggle in the marketplace, to converse with bureaucrats, and generally to make yourself understood.

You are still irritated by the way business has to be done, the endless line-ups, and the way women may be treated, but you are reaching a compromise in your own mind, that you can be comfortable with. You no longer feel isolated and apart from the culture. You can participate, or at least make an adjustment.

40% of those who travel overseas for any length of time, become what they call ‘Participants’ in a culture – they become very involved in the experience, and achieve a higher comfort level than most.

50% are called ‘Adjusters’ – they reach an adequate adjustment for the sake of the job, perhaps they compartmentalize the new culture, or suspend their own culture for awhile. They do not integrate into the new culture. But still maintain a separate identity, and look forward to the return home.

5% become ‘Permanent Expats’ – they decide to stay in the new culture, having established a new identity there. They may return home, but only for visits. They have found a new home overseas.

5% become ‘Returnees’ – they reach the point where they develop emotional problems that prevent them from functioning in the culture, and must return home.

11 Practical Strategies to Facilitate Adjustment

There are practical coping strategies that others have found useful in helping to make a successful adjustment to a new culture.

These require you to be pro-active. In other words, you have to make the effort to take control, rather than letting things happen to you. Here’s how to do it.

  • Participation – Go out and socialize with the locals.
  • Tolerance – If things are not to your liking, remember you are a guest in a foreign country, don’t put everything under a magnifying glass, lighten up. You will need a lot of patience.
    Very few places in the world are run with the efficiency that North Americans are used to.
  • Language – So what, if your grammar isn’t perfect, or the words sound strange to your ears. The locals will appreciate your efforts to communicate in their language.
  • Local Mentor Friend – Find a local that you can befriend.
  • Keep gathering information – Read the local newspapers, the big ads, the classifieds, the letters to the editor, the obituaries.
    – You’ll quickly get a sense of what’s important.
    – Listen to the news, note where the emphasis is.
    – Research the history, politics, religious and cultural traditions.
  • Take a break – You can take one day a week, and relax with something familiar, a hobby, a book, a project you can get lost in.
  • Maintain contact with family and friends back home – Email or Skype your family and friends back home.
    Be careful not to alarm them with descriptions of situations they can’t do anything about. Find the humour in things, tell stories. You want them to look forward to your contacts.
  • Be creative in finding solutions – You can now practice thinking outside the box.
  • Journaling – Keep a diary of your thoughts and feelings.
  • Being able to laugh at yourself – This is a sure way to keep your sanity.
  • Setting realistic goals and tasks – Remember to celebrate and reward yourself for small accomplishments too.

Some people spend months on an emotional roller coaster before they make a satisfactory adjustment that they can be comfortable with.

The Signs of a Successful Adjustment

It’s nice to know when you are coming out of this strange ‘no-man’s land’ of Culture Shock. Here are the signs to look for.

  • You begin to feel less isolated.
  • You reach the level where you feel you can function effectively in the new environment.
  • You don’t feel the same frustration or helplessness anymore.
  • You find a middle ground where you can converse comfortably in the language.
  • You have made friends and can share common enjoyment in leisure pursuits with your new friends.
  • You have accepted the differences between your home society and the new society.
  • You feel you can hold your own in a negotiation, and have achieved an understanding of the way people think and behave in the new culture.
  • You fit in – and can trust yourself not to make major social blunders.

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