Researchers have developed a number of different theories to try to better understand the process of adjusting to a new cultural environment. In this article, we’ll discuss the concept of ‘culture shock’ and how it can manifest differently for different people.
Then, in the next few articles in this Cultural Adjustment Series, we’ll discuss some of the theories of cultural adjustment, as well as some of their limitations — and how all of this might help you make sense of your own experience of life abroad.
What is Culture Shock?
Put simply, culture shock is the experience of disorientation and emotional distress that a person may experience as a result being immersed in an unfamiliar culture or environment.
Although some cultural differences may be obvious — like language or music or the types of foods people eat — there are many subtler but no less important cultural differences that can add up and contribute to culture shock.
Social norms, such as how close people stand to one another, how they greet each other, manners of showing respect, and how much eye contact they make are easily taken for granted in one’s own culture. And yet, when thrown into a new environment where these norms are different, they can lead to a sense of disconnection and disorientation. Toss in different administrative systems, customs, behaviors, manners, sense of self, family organization, etc., and it’s no wonder adjusting to a new culture is stressful. It’s as though everything you’ve learned about how the world works and what to expect from other people has been thrown out the window!
Although people had clearly been aware of the concept of culture shock for centuries (there are apparently descriptions of it in some ancient Greek writings), the phrase itself seems to have been first introduced by anthropologist Cora DuBois in the early 1950s. DuBois used this phrase to refer to the experience that many anthropologists experienced when entering a new culture as part of their work.1 However, the person responsible for making this term so well known was another anthropologist, Kalervo Oberg, who expanded its meaning, applying it to all people who travel or move to a new culture. Oberg suggested that culture shock was caused by a disconnect between all the familiar “signs and symbols of social intercourse” that the person is used to and those of the new environment.2 — in other words, by having the proverbial rug (of social and cultural norms) pulled out from under them.
The Many Faces of Culture Shock
Because it involves the word ‘shock,’ this phrase suggests something… well, shocking — something acute and dramatic. However, for many people, it may feel more subtle and play out over a longer period of time.
For some, it might look a lot like homesickness, just missing the familiar: missing loved ones, familiar foods, the ability to read street signs, and being around people who “just make sense.”
For others, it may come out as irritability or frustration — perhaps in response to things not working the way they’re used to. Or to the sheer amount of effort required to accomplish basic daily tasks. Or to the fact that people in this new culture don’t seem to understand the concept of sharing the sidewalk. Or, for that matter, picking up after their dogs. (Not that I speak from experience…)
Another common response is just feeling more anxious or emotional than usual. Small frustrations might make you feel like a complete failure or like you’re going to have a meltdown. (And not actually having that meltdown in public might require herculean efforts!) You may feel like you’re riding an emotional rollercoaster but also feel confused about why you’re reacting so strongly to things that normally would be just minor irritations or disappointments. You may just not be able to regulate your emotions as well as usual.
For many people, this process involves a fair amount of physical and mental exhaustion. You might sleep a good 8 hours, but you’re still exhausted the next day. And not just exhausted like you didn’t get enough sleep — exhausted like you’re walking through a fog with lead boots on.
For still others, it manifests through physical symptoms, such as headaches, digestive problems, sleep disturbance (difficulty falling or staying asleep), or more frequent illnesses (i.e. lowered immunity).
What do all of these experiences have in common? They’re responses to stress. Stress affects us in many ways — how we feel emotionally, how we behave and respond to others, our energy levels, and our physical heath.
It can be hard to remember that all changes — even changes that are supposedly positive or exciting — are still stressful to our systems in that they require a lot of adjustment and adaptation, and this takes a toll in one way or another. You may not experience this stress in the ways you typically think of as “stressful,” but you keep getting those headaches. Or you just can’t sleep as well as usual. Or little things are setting you off.
Culture shock can come in many different forms, but at its core, it’s a response to the stress of a huge adjustment — to having the world completely turned on its head. Adjustment doesn’t happen overnight — in fact, as we’ll see in the next article, it can move through different phases over a longer period of time. So be patient with yourself.
The Hidden Side of Culture Shock
Because many people associate culture shock with a sense of acute distress, they often overlook some of the more subtle ways it can play out in their lives — especially when they’re happy and excited (or feel that they should be happy and excited) about their move abroad.
Fatigue, mood swings, heightened anxiety, and physical symptoms are common even among people who see themselves as generally making a smooth transition. Recognizing these as symptoms of culture shock can help you have a bit more self-compassion and be patient with yourself as you acclimate to your new life.
People who move to another culture that is dramatically and obviously different from their home — for example, someone who moves from the US to China — may experience more dramatic culture shock than those moving to a relatively more culturally similar one — say, from the US to France.
However, this can be misleading. Often when people move to a less dramatically different culture, they don’t recognize the impact of these more subtle but still very important changes in their lives. They may not be as kind to themselves when they experience frustration. Or they may not give themselves permission to make mistakes or experience setbacks and to recognize that this is, in fact, normal. They expect themselves to adapt relatively quickly and easily, and they can be pretty hard on themselves when things are challenging.
Even if you’re just moving from the US to Canada (or, for that matter, from New York to Texas!), there will be a period of adjustment. Be gentle with yourself as you move through this process.
Culture Shock & Relationships
The experience of adjusting to a new culture affects people differently, and it can be challenging when you and your partner or family members seem to be responding differently to the same experience. Tempers can be shorter than usual. Emotions can run high. One person may respond by trying to get out and do a lot of things and meet new people, while the other might hole up in the apartment.
It’s helpful to talk about these differences. If you and your partner or other family members are responding differently, sometimes just making note of these differences can make people a bit more understanding. You’re responding to the same stressors, just differently.
This doesn’t give anyone a free pass to take their frustration out on anyone else. It just means recognizing where the reactions are coming from and talking about what you can do to help one another through the process.
If you’re open and supportive (and respectful) of one another, this experience has the opportunity to bring you closer together — it can help you to learn more about each other and to build stronger trust and connection. However, if you don’t acknowledge what’s going on and talk about it, there’s a risk of hurting one another, one or both of you feeling let down, and building resentment or emotional distance.
Coming Up: Associated Theories of Cultural Adjustment
Over time, several different theories of culture shock have been developed. Researchers have proposed various models involving stages (or phases) of culture shock that those living abroad might be likely to experience. In the next article (coming tomorrow!), we’ll explore some of these theories and how they might apply to your experience living abroad.
What About You? Share Your Own Experience!
Do any of these common experiences of culture shock resonate with you? Or do any of them come as a surprise or make you rethink some of your own experience of adjusting to a new culture? Do they allow you to have a bit more compassion for a family member who may be responding differently than you to the stresses of life abroad?
As always, I would love to hear from you — your thoughts, reactions, or questions about this post. However, if you choose to share your thoughts below, please keep in mind that these comments are visible to anyone who visits the blog. Therefore, I would encourage you to use a pseudonym (not use your real name) to protect your own privacy. If you would like to get in touch but would prefer to contact me privately, you can do so here.