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 the sounds of hacking and spitting early in the morning from those living above us.  Smells, both wonderful (spicy food and woodsmoke) and the unpleasant (sewerage and rubbish in the streets).  Initially, we bounced around finding all the new experiences fun and exciting!  However, after a while the tide began to turn.

Stomach upsets and sickness were challenging…

Tiredness set in … 

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

I dislike the squat toilets.  The local dress I wear, including scarf, pants and tunic consist of great quantities of fabric which have a mind of their own and easily fall into the toilet. 

I hate 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?


Leonie and her family are experiencing culture shock.

Culture shock

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!’ 

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)

These events arise out of the differences experienced. 


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.  Consequentially, cross-cultural workers may fear for their health and safety.  Differences in toilets, 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 is going on, what is expected of them or where to find things.  Worship at church may be different.  Cross-cultural workers may also experience theological shock, particularly if some of their theological positions or ‘truisms’ are challenged.

Cross-cultural workers may experience a sense of loss: homesickness, support networks, routine and roles. Often cross-cultural workers experience reductions in productivity and efficiency. 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 

Cultural incidents also occur during social interactions due to social differences (Storti, 2001: 61-2).

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

Adapted from Storti (2001: 61)

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

Adapted from Storti (2001: 62)


If cross-cultural workers are expecting the differences they encounter when entering another culture, the extent of their culture shock will be moderated. Further, researchers argue that realistic expectations facilitate adjustment (Ward, 2001: 77).  Embracing these differences is the start of the process of fitting in.

Hopefully culture shock did not come as a surprise, since it is normal, healthy and critical to the process of inculturation. 

What differences were James, Leonie and their children expecting to encounter?  Were their expectations realistic?

Changing identity

Elmer’s (2002: 66) diagram shows some cross-cultural workers adjust and others don’t.

Some cross-cultural workers have corners knocked off their square heads during transition!  The cross-cultural workers who retain their square heads cause more irritation to their host community.  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). Cultural imperialists do this. Most cross-cultural workers want to transition to an ‘octagonal’ head, so that they don’t bump the local people as much.  

Stages and symptoms of culture shock

Culture shock feels like a roller coaster ride often depicted by a ‘U curve’. 

The first stage is the honeymoon phase, after which cross-cultural workers move into the avoidance, anger and acceptance stages. 

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 for a healthy adjustment.  

After a while, however, people run out of energy.  Culture shock can feel like wading through mud.  There is resistance all the time, in every activity, with a cloud of uncertainty about the possible dangers ahead. 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. 

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

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

Criticism is a common feature of the anger phase of culture shock.  Cross-cultural workers often compare their new culture unfavourably with their home culture, sometimes whinging with other cross-cultural workers!  Other possibilities include general grumpiness.  Leonie has become irritable, expressed in negativity about various aspects of Nepali culture including the squat toilets and the seemingly chaotic road rules. 

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

Jones (2015) describes the movement from anger to acceptance:

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.

Read more about the stages of culture shock at John Fisher’s personal transition curve


Certainly, the experience of culture shock varies from person to person. It is often not a tidy ‘U curve’.

Many variables including age, health, living conditions, language, employment and personality affect the extent of the culture shock experience. It varies according to how much change we have to undertake. You can read more about variations in culture shock including those of children.

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, in peoples ‘normal’ lives, tend to be expressed in greater force at this time. 

What happens after culture shock?

The confusion and helplessness that arise from the complete loss of cultural cues central to the culture shock process, is over soon. However, episodes of culture stress which come from the stress of changing to a new way of living continue to occur for some years, although they become less frequent.  More can be read about culture stress

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 in order to take them into the promised land.  God asks them to be faithful to Him, in the midst of competing cultures and religions. We see however, that when faced with thirst and hunger they quickly begin 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’.  Their relationship with God is damaged.

What happened? How were these cross-cultural workers cared for?

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

Liz could gently enquire about the families’s spiritual 

Liz enquires about what training about culture shock the family received before departure.  Consequently, Liz could refer the family to the Tips for Surviving Culture Shock document they mentioned which included suggestions to facilitate a positive relationship with God.

Liz can also use the document to review:

  • the family’s self-care practices 
  • their level of social support. This might encourage Leonie’s family to pursue local relationships to assist in adjustment, as well as too facilitate the family providing support for one another through setting up a poster on their wall as pictured.

Liz could also remind the family that culture shock including its various stages is normal and that while this process of change is challenging, it is necessary to learn to fit in.

What happened down the track?

After a local friend said to Leonie, “Squat toilets are more hygienic than western ones, since the shoes are the only item touching the toilet,” Leonie adjusted her attitude and found using squat toilets easier.  She wasn’t fighting the experience anymore and in time became more proficient at managing all the fabric.

Leonie also became aware that road rules did exist in Dhaka.  She observed that the largest vehicle had right of way on the roads.

Leonie and her family have experienced the discomfort of culture shock but this is a normal process of personal transformation required to adapt well. 

* 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:


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).

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.

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

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:

Jones, J. (2015) ‘The Seven Lies of Living Cross Culturally’, The Culture Blend. Available at:

Jones, R. (2021) ‘Beyond Culture Shock: Culture Pain, Culture Stripping’, A Life Overseas: a cross-cultural conversation. Available at:

Mobbs, C.H. (2013) ‘Culture shock in children’, ExpatChild. Available at:

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:

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:

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.