What is Culture Shock, and What Can I do to Avoid it?

Culture shock is described as the feelings one experiences after leaving their familiar, home culture to live in another cultural or social environment. Even the most open-minded and travelled individuals are not immune to culture shock.

Phases

Culture shock has three to five phases, depending on which source you read.

The Honeymoon Phase: This is a fun time. Everything is great, exciting, and new. You love the differences, meeting new people, tasting new foods, seeing different architecture, doing new things, working in your new job. This phase can last days, weeks, or months.

The Honeymoon is Over Phase: During this phase, you're noticing differences, even slight differences, and typically not in a good way. You don't like people's attitudes, you have had enough of the food and just want mom's home cooking. Life is too fast/slow, things are so much "better" at home, they celebrate the wrong holidays, and so forth. During this phase, a person often feels anxious, angry, sad, and/or irritable.

The Negotiation Phase: Essentially, during this phase you decide whether you will succumb to negativity or negotiate past it to make the most of your experience. If you're successful, you regain your sense of perspective, balance, and humour, and move on to the next phase.

The All's Well, or Everything is OK Phase: You feel more at home with the differences in the new culture. Depending on how big a change a person has experienced, the person may feel as if the culture isn't in fact new, but that they belong, or the person may not exactly feel part of the culture, but they're comfortable enough with it to enjoy the differences and challenges. The person doesn't have to be in love with the new country (as in the honeymoon phase), but they can navigate it without unwarranted anxiety, negativity, and criticism.

The Reverse Culture Shock Phase: Sure enough, this can happen! Once a person has become accustomed to the way things are done in a different country, that person can go through the same series of culture shock phases when they return home.

Dealing with Culture Shock

  • Learn as much as you can about the new location before you go. This means the good, the bad, and the simply different — from time zones, to what side of the street people drive on, to climate/temperature, to foods, political system, culture, customs and religion(s), to "Can you drink the water?".
  • Be open-minded and willing to learning. Ask questions. If you are going to a place where people speak a different language, consider taking a few courses in that language.
  • Maintain a sense of humour. (Perhaps the most important!)
  • Don't withdraw! Travel within the country, and visit cultural events and locations, such as museums or historic sites.
  • Build new friendships. Associate with positive people.
  • Bring a few touches of home with you, such as photos of your favourite locations and family members, etc.
  • Keep in touch with people at home by Skype, email, phone, postcards — whatever. This can give you some comfort while away, and it will help you to minimize reverse culture shock when you get back home.

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