Culture Shock

Published by MartaCastro on

Cultural Shock

The concept of cultural shock was first described in 1954 by Kalervo Oberg, anthropologist and economist. This author described cultural shock as a series of emotional reactions resulting from the loss of signs and symbols of social interaction. 

For Oberg, cultural shock is a consequence of the resulting effort of contact with a new culture, includes the feeling of disorder, confusion and impotence resulting from the loss of cultural information and previously established social rules. It does not depend on whether we are “travellers” or “open-minded” or if we have good will. Although it cannot be fully eliminated, it can be attenuated.

According to this author, we are not born with a culture, only with the ability to perceive and to use it. Thus, through socialization process, we learn our culture and it becomes our  way of living, automatic and brings safety in social interactions.

Oberg describes the process of adaptation to a new cultural environment as a curve in U with the following stages:

1. The Honeymoon Phase

In this first stage, the differences between the old and the new culture are seen positively, romanticized or even idealized. The new country looks wonderfully different, everything is interesting. It is the adventure of being in a different country, of losing ourselves on the streets, from finding incredible and diverse places.

Symptoms of anxiety and stress tend to be positively interpreted. This phase can last a few days or a few weeks, or even months depending on the circumstances.

2. Frustration

When the honeymoon phase ends and cultural barriers appear, fatigue and frustration from communication, and the difficulty of solving simple things generates frustration, irritation, sadness and homesickness and missing of what is familiar back home.

When cultural differences are evident the person feels disoriented because he/she doesn’t have the new cultural reference. 

Dealing with these difficulties and challenges is subjective. For example, some people can easily adapt, others may suffer considerably and may even develop serious symptoms and psychological or psychosomatic problems.

This phase can start as a huge crisis or a series of small problems that are accumulating. For example, small difficulties that become gigantic problems and cultural differences become exasperating. For example, problems at work, at school, with the language, with transport, lead to disappointment, impatience and frustration. The individual may feel that people are indifferent to his difficulties and starts to have negative feelings towards them. It is common the feeling of confusion and rejection from others and this can lead to isolation, anger, hostility and even depression.

At this stage, the home country becomes extremely important or even glorified.

Additionally, criticisms arise about this society, culture and people. Existing stereotypes are created and reinforced. Unconsciously, the individual looks for elements in the environment that reinforce stereotypes. If this situation remains, the person will not be able to understand the environment holistically and may even decide to return to his home country.

Here lays the difference between travellers from people who live in a country because it discovers the deep culture and true difficulties of living and dealing with cultural differences, compared to those who simply travel and return or depart to another country.

3. Adjustment phase

In this phase, we start to have a routine and learn how deal with differences, we feel more familiar with the environment and learn how to solve day-to-day problems and other bureaucratic subjects, we start to be more comfortable with the new culture and people. We learned the meaning and sings and develop strategies that allows us to better deal with everyday situations. 

While we are probably not yet fully comfortable or at home, it is an important step to feel calmer, more integrated and less angry or frustrated.

4. Acceptance Phase

At this stage, we accept the differences and we know how to live with them even when we do not fully understand. The person ends up absorbing some of the meanings of the new culture, understands them better and feels more comfortable. Once again, the time frame to reach this phase is subjective.

The resolution of the cultural shock lies in learning how to adapt to the new culture. For an effective acceptance phase it is necessary multiple cycles of adjustment and adaptation: ability to solve problems, to deal with the culture and begin to accept it positively. The new culture starts to make sense and the negative reactions become less frequent. This setting is slow and requires several cycles of crisis and adaptation.

Cultural assimilation happens when you develop a stable adaptation, the ability to successfully solve problems in the new culture (between 6 and 12 months). When people already know what to expect in day-to-day situations and already have a routine. The total assimilation of a new culture is difficult, or probably impossible. Cultural assimilation does not imply the abandonment of one´s culture or to lose our cultural identity. However, the personal development and the resources developed to create adequate responses adjusted to the new environment, may create feelings of personal change as we development a bi-cultural identity.

Suggestions to ease adaptation:

– Cultural awareness of where we comes (there are cultural tests to help with this process)

– Learning about local culture (books, cultural workshops are very beneficial)

– Dialogue and seek emotional support (expatriate blogs, organizations, etc.)

– Cultivate the culture of origin

– Reflect on the process of change and cultural shock

– Reflect about the purpose of immigration or long-term expatriation

– Seek professional help (psychologist, therapist, intercultural or transition coach)


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