The term culture shock was first introduced in the 1950s by anthropologist Kalvero Oberg, who defined it as an illness or disease. Later studies focused on cognitive, behavioral, phenomenological, and psychosociological explanations. In general, culture shock is a consequence of immersion in a culture that is distinctly different from one’s own background or previous experiences. Typically, these encounters involve new patterns of cultural behaviors, symbols, and expressions that hold little or no meaning without an understanding of the new social setting. The most common usage of the term today is in discussing the effects of students’ studying abroad or immigration. Although in the short term culture shock may have adverse effects, in the long run it can enhance one’s appreciation of other cultures, foster self-development, and help a person gain greater understanding of diversity.
Several important factors intensify the effects of culture shock. Greater ignorance of foreign contexts and stronger integration in one’s own native culture contribute to the difficulty of acculturating in a new cultural context. Other variables include intrapersonal traits, interpersonal group ties, the ability to form new social groups, the degree of difference between cultures, and the host cultural group’s perceptions of the new member.
First, intrapersonal factors include skills (e.g., communication skills), previous experiences (e.g., in cross-cultural settings), personal traits (e.g., independence and tolerance), and access to resources. Physiological characteristics, such as health, strength, appearance, and age, as well as working and socialization skills, are important. Second, embracing a new culture includes keeping ties with one’s past social groups, as well as forming new bonds. Those who can maintain support groups fare better in unfamiliar contexts. Third, variance in culture groups affects the transition from one culture to another. Acculturation is more challenging when cultures hold greater disparities in social, behavioral, traditional, religious, educational, and family norms. Finally, even when an individual’s physical characteristics, psychological traits, and ability to socialize are favorable, culture shock can still occur through sociopolitical manifestations. The attitudes of the citizens in a foreign culture may exhibit social prejudices, acceptance of stereotypes, or intimidation. Furthermore, social presumptions may couple with legal constructions of social, economic, and political policies that enhance hardships for those interacting in new settings.
Culture shock develops through four generally accepted phases: the “honeymoon” (or “incubation”) phase, problematic encounters, recovery and adjustment, and finally, reentry shock. In the honeymoon stage, the new environment initially captivates the individual. For example, fast-paced lifestyle, food variety, or tall skyscrapers of a large city may initially awe a newcomer coming from a small town. In the second stage, the area becomes increasingly uncomfortable. Within a few days to a few months, the difference in culture becomes acute and often difficult. Misinterpretation of social norms and behavior leads to frustration or confusion. Reactions could include feelings of anger, sadness, discomfort, impatience, or incompetence. In this phase, the newcomers feel disconnected from the new setting. However, by the third phase, individuals experience their new context with better understanding. They become more familiar with where to go and how to adapt to daily life, for example, knowing where to buy stamps and send a letter. Finally, for those returning to their home locale, they commonly experience “reshock.” In this phase, they must readjust to their previous lifestyle. Things may have changed in their absence, and they must resocialize into their previous cultural setting.
To combat the more distressful aspects of culture shock, the individual must be open-minded to new cultural experiences, must develop flexibility and adaptability skills, and must be capable of building tolerance. Furthermore, he or she must hold positive but realistic expectations. Communication development, whether it be through understanding social norms or decreasing language barriers, is critical to acculturation in a new environment.
Although travelers and study-abroad students often experience culture shock, the extent of cross-cultural interactions goes beyond such narrow conceptualizations. Culture shock also affects many others, such as military personnel, immigrants, minorities entering college, parolees from prison, and married couples who divorce. Additional factors include an individual’s social and class mobility, occupational change, or migration between urban and rural environments.
In particular, immigrants can experience culture shock in a variety of ways. First and foremost is the manifestation of cultural differences in traditions, holiday observations, rituals, and other practices that involve distinct religious differences or educational beliefs. Second, accepted behaviors in both public and private settings may be fundamental to one’s native culture but socially unacceptable in the new environment. An additional hardship may include distance from friends and family and other social support networks. Third, what is particularly difficult for some immigrants is the language barrier. Despite finding comfort and adaptability in the physical environment, they may not be able to communicate successfully. Macro structures of new cultural ideologies, reproduced through micro interactions, can affect the personal psyche of the individual. Further exacerbating the situation may be an underlying racist or stereotypic assumption, which further reinforces insecurity. In addition, a new immigrant may have feelings of anxiety in unfamiliar contexts as a result of a lack of knowledge of cultural behavior cues.
The study of culture shock becomes increasingly important as the globalization process continues. Greater exposure to other cultures requires a better understanding of cultural differences. Furthermore, understanding culture shock can help lessen social problems that are not cross-national. For underprivileged groups, such as minorities, those in poverty, and English language learners, growing accustomed to new environments can be extremely difficult. In addition to problems in day-to-day lifestyles, these groups also may experience culture shock along a continuum ranging from treatment as “the other” to racism, sexism, rejection, or violence.
Educational programs that address cultural differences can minimize culture shock to make the transition phase less overwhelming. Gaining greater understanding of other cultures not only facilitates the acculturation process but also helps build bridges between diverse groups.
- Adler, Peter S. 1975. “The Transitional Experience: An Alternative View of Culture Shock.” Journal of Humanistic Psychology 15(4):13-23.
- Anderson, Linda E. 1994. “A New Look at an Old Construct: Cross-Cultural Adaptation.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 18(4):293-328.
- Hofstede, Geert. 2004. Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Searle, W. and C. Ward. 1990. “The Prediction of Psychological and Socio-cultural Adjustment during Cross-Cultural Transitions.” International Journal of International Relations 13:449-64.
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Setting the Stage
Have you ever gone somewhere new and just felt you didn’t belong? If you’ve traveled to a foreign country, you’ll understand. If you’re lucky, some of the people you encounter will speak the same language you do. But the roadsigns, menus, and just about everything else might be completely incomprehensible.
Do you ever wonder what life is like on the other side of the world?
Okay, so maybe you haven’t done much traveling. But maybe you’ve found yourself in the midst of a culture that thinks and acts very differently than you’re used to. Sometimes these culture clashes can happen within one apartment building. Across the fence between two houses. Between the city and the suburbs.
What people have to say about culture shock and travel
You don’t have to travel, but I find extended travel to be a helpful tool for reexamining yourself and the constraints you’ve artificially placed on your life. It’s easy to believe everything has to be done one way if you’re always in one place around the same people.
Do you ever feel like everyone’s watching you and wondering what you’re doing?
Olympia was a town crawling with music. I was new to the whole punk scene. The culture shock continued; Olympia had bagels! We didn’t have bagels in Arkansas. You could order vegetarian food all over town! It was so crazy to me – a place with so many vegetarians, the restaurants made special dishes for them?
Sometimes traveling can make you feel like you’ve stepped onto another planet.
Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.
How to Use This Prompt
If you’re a nonfiction writer or poet, think about a time when you’ve entered another culture — whether at home or abroad. What was it like? How did you feel at out of place…and in what ways did you suddenly feel at home?
And sometimes other people can seem like a whole different species.
If you’re a fiction writer, think about your characters. Where have they traveled and why? What did they find along the way?
Write a short story, an essay, a poem, or even just a paragraph or two based on this prompt. Then feel free to share what you’ve written in comments, post a link to your piece on your own blog, or submit it for our site!
And if you’d like more prompts and can’t wait until next week, check out our free e-book, “A Year of Inspiration: 52 Writing Prompts from the Renegade Word.”