Culture shock – it’s real!

“At the beginning of our time in Dhaka, our senses were assaulted – taxi drivers vying for our custom, gangs of dogs, monkeys, dust, smog, waking to hacking and spitting early in the morning from those living above us.  Smells, both wonderful, such as spicy food and woodsmoke and the unpleasant, such as sewerage and rubbish in the streets.  Initially, we bounced around finding all the new experiences fun and exciting!  However, soon the tide began to turn.

Stomach upsets and sickness were challenging…

Tiredness set in … 

Now we feel overwhelmed!  Some of the family don’t want to go out.

I am grumbling about the squat toilets.  I find managing the modest local dress with its scarf, loose baggy pants and tunic whilst squatting on the toilet really difficult.   The scarf, pants and tunic consist of great quantities of fabric which have a mind of their own and easily fall into the toilet. 

I am also feeling grumpy about the traffic.  “There are just no road rules here!” 

Leonie* is speaking to Liz, her member care worker, during a Zoom call, a couple of months after she, her husband James* and their four children arrived in Dhaka.

What would you say or do?

Analysis

Leonie and her family are experiencing culture shock.

Culture shock

Moving into another culture can at times feel like the image above. There are things that are known and recognisable, but the world has shifted, changed and does not work in the way that was previously known. This shifting can lead to culture shock or stress. Nearly everyone will experience this when crossing cultures; it is not something to be afraid of, or even try to avoid, but is a normal part of transitioning into another place. In fact, many argue it is critical to successful transition.

Culture shock, or acculturative stress, as some prefer to label it, is used to describe the impact of a change of culture on an individual.  Oberg (1960: 176), an anthropologist, was the first to use the term culture shock, describing it thus:

Culture shock is precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse.  These signs and cues include the thousand and one ways in which we orient ourselves to the situations of daily life… Now these cues, which may be words, gestures, facial expressions, customs, or norms are acquired by all of us in the course of growing up and are as much a part of our culture as the language we speak or the beliefs we accept.  All of us depend for our peace of mind and our efficiency on hundreds of these cues, most of which we do not carry on the level of conscious awareness.  

Boch (1970: x) writes that ‘the person subject to extreme culture shock is often unsure whether he has gone mad, or whether all the people around him are crazy – perhaps both!’ 

Some prefer the term ‘acculturative stress’ to ‘culture shock’, since it implies a process characterised by phases of stress and adjustment, rather than focusing on negative outcomes (Demes and Geeraert, 2015).  While I agree with this sentiment, I will use the term culture shock since it is more widely used.

Various differences precipitate culture shock. People and places look and smell different.  The difference may be physical including a change in diet, and exposure to bacteria and viruses, precipitating illness.  Cross-cultural workers may fear for their health and safety.  Differences in toilets or climate or housing may be challenging.  There may be social differences, with language challenges, different communication patterns, customs and values.  Social norms might be different including a different attitude to time.  Cross-cultural workers may not know what’s going on or what is expected of them or where to find things.  Worship at church may be quite different.  Cross-cultural workers may also experience theological shock, particularly if some of their theological positions have been assumed.

Cross-cultural workers may experience a sense of loss, of homesickness, a loss of support networks and of routine, as well as the loss of a role. Often cross-cultural workers experience a change in productivity and efficiency during the transition to another culture. Cross-cultural workers are starting from the beginning with everything. They ask questions such as:

  • Who am I? 
  • How can I communicate? 
  • Where can I fit in? 
  • Who will be my friends? 
  • What can I do? 
  • What can I eat? 
  • How do I clean my teeth?

Cultural incidents arising out of social differences also contribute to culture shock.

Changing identity

Elmer’s (2002: 66) pictorial representations, helpfully depict the experience of cross-cultural workers during culture shock.

Two different cultural groups are depicted by different shaped heads. Then a cross-cultural worker with a ‘square-head’ moves to live in with the ‘round-heads’.   

Elmer (2002: 66)

Some cross-cultural workers adjust and others don’t! Those cross-cultural workers (top level) who have corners knocked off their square heads during transition, while others (bottom level) don’t!  Those cross-cultural workers who retain their square heads (bottom level) cause more irritation to their host community. Cultural imperialists do this.  It is easier for cross-cultural workers to retain their square head, if they have power in their context, whether from the money they bring or the positions they hold. Most cross-cultural workers want to transition to an ‘octagonal’ head (top level), so that they don’t bump up against the local people as much.  

Cultural Incidents

Two types of culture incidents can occur during social interactions.

The first occurs when the behaviour of people from another culture confuses, frustrates, or disgusts the expatriate and may lead to a withdrawal from the relationship.

Storti (2001: 61)

The second type of cultural incident occurs when the behaviour of expatriates confuses, frustrates, or disgusts someone from another culture which may also result in withdrawal from the relationship.

Storti (2001: 62)

Expectations

If cross-cultural workers are expecting the differences they encounter when entering another culture, the extent of their culture shock will be moderated.  A number of researchers have argued that realistic expectations facilitates adjustment (Ward, 2001: 77).  

What differences were James, Leonie and their children expecting to encounter before they arrived?  Were they realistic?

Were they expecting to experience culture shock?

Did their sending organisation facilitate the development of realistic expectations through training?

Hopefully they were expecting culture shock, since it’s normal! I argue that in addition, it’s healthy and it’s critical!  

Culture shock ‘applies to any new situation, job, relationship, or perspective requiring a role adjustment and a new identity… It is a normal, inevitable reaction in cross-cultural situations. It doesn’t strike suddenly, or have a single principle cause, but builds up slowly from a series of events’. 

Wilson (1996: 444)

Many would argue that culture shock is a good sign, both because it suggests that cross-cultural workers aren’t imposing their culture on others (as the colonialists are often accused of) and promotes personal growth.  Instead of remaining unchanged, cross-cultural workers are adjusting to fit into their new community.

People who experience culture shock are ultimately more effective, as they affected by the different culture, whereas people who generalise their own views and consider different perspective to be wrong are shown to be less effected by culture shock and tend to be inflexible. 

Gertsen 1990: 341-361

Variation

Certainly, the experience of culture shock varies. Many variables including age, health, living conditions, language, employment and personality affect the extent of the culture shock experience. Mumford (1998: 153) found that the more ‘exotic’ the new location of a group of British volunteers, the greater their experience of culture shock was. Typically, spouses without a defined role in the new location have a more challenging experience.  You can read more about variations of spouse adjustment in the business world.  You can also read about the experience of culture shock in children.  

Even those with previous experience of cross-cultural transition can experience culture shock when moving to a culture that is new to them.  Wilson (1996: 444) argues, culture shock ‘will reoccur every time we encounter an unfamiliar culture’, although it may be less severe on subsequent occasions. Sometimes, when third Culture Kids (TCKs), defined as ‘a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture’ (Pollock et al., 2017: 15), return to the culture of their youth, they sometime experience culture shock which surprises them.  They may be encountering new experiences as adults in that culture; after all, cross-cultural workers may shield their children from aspects of the culture, just as parents do in any society. 

Culture shock occurs during a transition to any new situation requiring a role adjustment and new identity.  It varies according to how much change we have to undertake. Culture shock feels like a roller coaster ride often depicted by a diagram of a curve. 

Stages, and symptoms, of culture shock

An early model, referred to as the ‘inverse U curve’, outlines a number of stages in a common experience of culture shock.The first is the honeymoon phase, after which cross-cultural workers move into the phases of avoidance, anger and acceptance. 

During the honeymoon phase cross-cultural workers are often excited to try new things, explore the new environment and have plenty of energy to do so.  Gerald Durrell’s biography describes his experience of arriving in Cameroons, mirroring Leonie’s families’ experience.

For Gerald and his friend John Yealland every minute of those first few days in Africa – every site, every sound, every face, every creature, every plant – was a source of wonder and delight. It was as if they had been born again – nothing was familiar, nothing expected. Hither and thither they went, ecstatic and bemused, [like men in a masculine trance].

Botting (2014: 116)

It is helpful if cross-cultural workers use the energy of the honeymoon phase to develop social and spiritual supports and other priorities for a healthy adjustment.  

After a while, however, people run out of energy.  Culture shock can then feel like wading through mud.  Operating in mud means there is resistance all the time, in every activity, with a cloud of uncertainty about the possible dangers ahead. Thus, tiredness is a common symptom.  So much change is required and change consumes energy.  It has been found that people typically operate at about 70% of their usual capacity at this time. 

During the avoidance phase, cross-cultural workers are often distracted, feel lonely and withdraw.  Withdrawal is commonly expressed through using distractions such as the excessive use of social media or even more problematically through porn or alcohol. Cross-cultural workers may feel homesick and experience significant fatigue, as mentioned above.  Anxiety and uncertainty are also common experiences.  Leonie’s reference to finding it hard to go out is a common experience of this phase of culture shock. Unfortunately, as going out became harder for them, this limits their engagement with people in their new community. Typically, people then descend further down the curve and become angry or irritable.  

Commonly criticism is a feature of the anger phase of culture shock.  Cross-cultural workers may compare their new culture with their home culture, expressing the superiority of their home culture. This can be done by whinging with other cross-cultural workers.  Other possibilities include general grumpiness with their family.  Leonie has become irritable, expressed in negativity about various aspects of Nepali culture including the squat toilets and the seemingly chaotic road rules. 

As cross-cultural workers start to adjust to the new normal, they move towards the median line again.  In the last phase, acceptance, the cross-cultural worker starts to have a sense of belonging.  They change to become a better fit with their new environment.  They have developed some language competence and start feeling more like their usual self.

It includes wrestling with knowing, without a doubt that your way is better . . .  and then thinking that it probably is . . .  and then wondering if it might be . . . and then acknowledging there may be two good ways . . . and then (sometimes) recognizing the new way is better.

Jones, 2015

More can be read at John Fisher’s personal transition curve.

Transition varies from person to person. Some cross-cultural worker’s experience something more like that depicted below.

While the culture shock curve is a useful conceptual tool for training purposes, a number of scholars challenge the ‘inverse U curve’ model.  Demes and Geeraert (2015) point out that other models including the ‘reverse J curve’ better describe some cross-cultural workers’ experience (more at the cultural detectives).

The tiredness, withdrawal and irritability experienced during culture shock are challenging for us, as well as for those around us.

Where does sin fit in?

‘You don’t know what is in the jar until it is bumped.’

Indian proverb

Culture shock is a significant bump! Experienced cross-cultural workers report that during culture shock, cross-cultural workers’ weaknesses and dark sides bubble to the surface. Those weaknesses, or dark sides, of peoples ‘normal’ lives, tend to be expressed in greater force during culture shock. 

Two extremes are to be avoided during culture shock!   Some cross-cultural workers over adjust and lose their bearings.  For example, one cross-cultural worker cast away her faith and became the second wife of a man of another faith!  Under adjustment is also possible.  It is easy for cross-cultural workers to hang around with other expatriates, only making occasional forays into the real world. You can read more about how to be acceptable outsiders in a new context.

What happens after culture shock?

Episodes of culture stress will continue to occur for some years, although they are less frequent. The confusion and helplessness that arise from the complete loss of cultural cues, or culture shock, is over soon. Culture stress comes from the stress of changing to a new way of living and goes on for some years. More can be read about culture stress. Episodes of culture stress will continue to occur for some years, although they are less frequent. The confusion and helplessness that arise from the complete loss of cultural cues, or culture shock, is over soon. Culture stress comes from the stress of changing to a new way of living and goes on for some years.

A story to consider

In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”

….So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you will know that it was the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, and in the morning you will see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we, that you should grumble against us?” Moses also said, “You will know that it was the Lord when he gives you meat to eat in the evening and all the bread you want in the morning, because he has heard your grumbling against him. Who are we? You are not grumbling against us, but against the Lord.”

Exodus 16:2-8

God has brought the people of Israel out of Egypt to take them to a promised land.  They were asked to be faithful to Him, who had liberated them, in the midst of competing culture and religion. We see however, that when faced with thirst and hunger they quickly start to grumble.  While this grumbling is directed at their leaders, the Israelites are really grumbling about God and what he has asked them to do, comparing their current experience with the comfort of their old ‘home’, in this instance, pots of meat.  Their relationship with God is damaged.

What happened? How was this cross-cultural worker cared for?

Just as the Israelite’s grumbling at God effected their relationship with God, so too could Leonie’s and her families’ grumbling effect their relationship with God.

Spiritual life

A positive relationship with God provides resilience during culture shock.  When cross-cultural workers are tired, it is easy for spiritual habits to drop off, but that’s not helpful. Maintaining a positive relationship with God is important. Taking time to rest in God, including sabbathing, prayer retreats and holidays contributes to spiritual self-care. Healthier perspectives can be maintained by habits of thankfulness, such as journaling ten things to thank God for each day.  Read about other spiritual habits at the Dried up blog post. Frith (2017) writes that it also helps to look for what God is teaching you during the process of transition. 

Liz could gently enquire about Leonie’s and her families’ spiritual life and make suggestions as appropriate.  

Forewarned is forearmed

Being armed with information is beneficial, so if appropriate, Liz can fill in any gaps in the families understanding of the normal experience of culture shock.  While ‘no amount of training can eliminate surprises in culture stress” it can reduce them (Eenigenburg and Bliss, 2010: 123).

Awareness and understanding about this experience, including tiredness, withdrawal, fear and irritability, reduces the stress of culture shock.  For example, when cross-cultural workers are aware that they are likely to be tired, impacting their output, this enables them to be kind to themselves, and not to worry about the experience.  

We also know that positive and realistic expectations about differences being encountered that trigger culture shock, mitigate it. Liz could encourage the family to cultivate positive and realistic expectations from this point on. 

Greater understanding of culture can also assist cross-cultural workers transition by reducing the number of culture incidents. Baier (2005: 30) writes that cross-cultural training assists with the process of culture shock by reducing misunderstandings and learning to appraise cultural behaviour. One type of cultural incident reduces due to cross-cultural workers becoming aware of their own reactions, their expectations of cultural sameness and so become motivated to learn about the new culture(Storti, 2001: 85).  Cultivating curiosity greatly assists in this process. Continuing to learn, remaining in the learner posture, facilitates understanding of the new culture and adaptation to it. The incidence of other type of cultural incidents are reduced when the cross-cultural workers’ behaviour aligns more with local expectations (Storti, 2001: 86).

Liz might encourage the family to learn more about their new culture, to suspend judgement, to cultivate curiosity and a tolerance of differences and ambiguities while cultural differences are being investigated. 

Attitude shifts

Liz could encourage adjustments to attitudes about differences that are encountered, by suggesting that an antidote to the criticism common during the anger phase of culture shock is to seek to say ‘we’ instead of ‘they’.  This assists cross-cultural workers to identify with their adopted cultural group and encourages them to explore or enquire about the benefits of the new way of doing things. This contrasts with the whinging common amongst foreigners, particularly newcomers.

Social support

Social support is important for reducing the impact of culture shock, particularly local support. Liz might gently encourage Leonie and her family to pursue local relationships to assist in adjustment, despite the challenges.  This might include ‘cultural brokers’, local people who can help cross-cultural workers to navigate the new culture; particularly those who understand something of the cross-cultural worker’s home culture, perhaps due to overseas study or work experience. Demes and Geeraert (2015) found that local support was more effective for reducing stress in cross-cultural workers than support from their home country. 

To facilitate the family providing support for one another, Liz could suggest that Leonie and James set up a poster on their wall as depicted:

Then once a week or so, the family can write or draw in each quadrant to share how they are feeling. The ‘Off we go booklet’ can be also be a helpful resource for primary aged children.

Self-care

Liz could encourage Leonie to review their self-care at this time.  It is vital that those living cross-culturally stay healthy so that they are up to the ongoing challenges. This means actively maintaining emotional health and physical health, as well as spiritual health and relational health which have already been discussed. 

Habits that can assist cross-cultural workers in this regard are:

  • expressions of creativity (eg. music, art, cooking)
  • taking time to have fun, celebrating what is there 
  • creating a bubble of familiarity (eg. some photos from home, special toys, bed covers etc)
  • stress busters such as exercise improve physical well being
  • laughing at ourselves when we make the inevitable mistakes
  • family traditions that can continue throughout the transitions

Tradition is important to the life of a family because it reinforces and sustains ideas, values, and practices that are valuable and meaningful to them… Every family needs its own traditions. They become a subtle reinforcement to the cohesiveness of the family as a unit.

Austin (1983)

What happened?

Regarding Leonie’s relationship with squat toilets, she reported that a friend said to her, “Squat toilets are more hygienic than western ones, since our shoes are the only item touching the toilet.”  After some reflection, Leonie decided that she agreed and so adjusted her attitude.   From that point on, she found using the squat toilets much easier to use.  Leonie wasn’t fighting the experience anymore, and in time, Leonie also became more proficient at managing all the fabric.

Regarding the road rules, Leonie became aware that road rules did exist in Dhaka but that they were just different.  She observed that the largest vehicle had right of way on the roads.

Leonie and her family are experiencing the discomfort of culture shock but this is a normal part of the process of personal transformation that is required to adapt well. Liz might share that the process of change is challenging for Leonie and her family but necessary for them to learn to fit in.

* All names of people and places in this blog have been changed to provide anonymity.

Recommended Reading

Saphiere, D.H. (2014) ‘The Nasty (and Noble) Truth about Culture Shock’, Cultural Detective. Available at: https://blog.culturaldetective.com/2014/08/12/the-nasty-and-noble-truth-about-culture-shock/.

References

Andreason, A.W. (2008) ‘Expatriate Adjustment of Spouses and Expatriate Managers: An Integrative Research Review’, National Journal of Management, 25(2), pp. 382–395.

Austin, C. (1983) ‘Re-entry Stress: The Pain of Coming Home’, Evangelical Missions Quarterly, 19(4).

Baier, S.T. (2005) International students: Culture shock and adaptation to the U.S. culture. Eastern Michigan.

Boch, P. (1970) Culture Shock: A Reader in Modern Cultural Anthropology. New York: Alfred A Knopt.

Botting, D. (2014) Gerald Durrell: The Authorised Biography. London: Harper Collins.

Demes, K.A. and Geeraert, N. (2015) ‘The Highs and Lows of a Cultural Transition: A Longitudinal Analysis of Sojourner Stress and Adaptation Across 50 Countries’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Edited by King, 109(2), pp. 316–337.

Donovan, K. (1991) Growing Through Stress. Sydney, Australia: Aquila.

Dye, W. (1974) ‘Stress-producing Factors in Cultural Adjustment’, Missiology, 2(1), pp. 61–77.

Eengienburg, S. and Bliss, R. (2010) Expectations and burnout: women surviving the great commission. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.

Elmer, D. (2002) Cross Cultural Connections. Intervarsity Press.

Frith, M. (2017) ‘Cross-Cultural Transition & Adjustment’, OSCAR. Available at: https://oscar.org.uk/blog/crosscultural-transition-adjustment.

Gertsen, M. (1990) ‘Intercultural competence and expatriates’, International Journal of Human Resource Management, 1(3), pp. 341–361.

Ho, P. and Bing, P.H.B. (2020) ‘Off we go’. Available at: https://www.chinasource.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Off-We-Go-2020.pdf.

Jones, J. (2015) ‘The Seven Lies of Living Cross Culturally’, The Culture Blend. Available at: http://www.thecultureblend.com/the-seven-lies-of-living-cross-culturally/.

Jones, R. (2021) ‘Beyond Culture Shock: Culture Pain, Culture Stripping’, A Life Overseas: a cross-cultural conversation. Available at: https://www.alifeoverseas.com/beyond-culture-shock-culture-pain-and-culture-stripping/.

Mobbs, C.H. (2013) ‘Culture shock in children’, ExpatChild. Available at: https://expatchild.com/culture-shock-in-children/.

Mumford, D.B. (1998) ‘The measurement of culture shock’, Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 33, pp. 149–154.

Oberg, K. (1960) ‘Culture shock: Adjustment to new cultural environments’, Practical Anthropology, 7(4), pp. 177–182.

Pitman, J. (2012) ‘Living Well Where You Don’t Belong’, Outside-In. Available at: https://joannpittman.com/cultural-adjustment/2012/living-well-where-you-dont-belong-full-version/.

Pollock, D.C., Van Reken, R. and Pollock, M. (2017) Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. Boston, MA; London: Nicholas Brealey.

Rabe, M. (1997) Culture Shock! Living and Working Abroad. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Saphiere, D.H. (2014) ‘The Nasty (and Noble) Truth about Culture Shock’, Cultural Detective. Available at: https://blog.culturaldetective.com/2014/08/12/the-nasty-and-noble-truth-about-culture-shock/.

Storti, C. (2001) The Art of Crossing Cultures. 2nd edn. Boston, MA: Nicholas Brealey.

Ward, C., Bochner, S. and Furnham, A. (2001) The Psychology of Culture Shock. East Sussex: Routledge.

Wilson, L. (1996) ‘Women and Culture Shock’, Evangelical Missions Quarterly, 32(4), pp. 442–9.