Module 2: Overview of Cultural Adjustment and Culture Shock

Anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists alike have long-attempted to formulate a concise, comprehensive definition of culture. University of Chicago psychology professor Harry Triandis conceptualizes culture as a “pattern of shared attitudes, beliefs, categorizations, self-definitions, norms, role definitions, and values that is organized around a theme that can be identified among those who speak a particular language, during a specific historic period, and in a defined geographic area.”(1) Robert LeVine, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Harvard University, defines cultural beliefs as the “shared organization of ideas that includes the intellectual, moral, and aesthetic standards prevalent in a community, and the meanings of communicative actions.”(2) These definitions (and many others) are simultaneously correct, and indicate just how vast the concept of culture is.

Our culture orients, grounds, supports, and frames our lives. Cultural beliefs are built into our worldviews, providing a reference point for understanding what we observe and a guide for how to act. Those from different cultural backgrounds simply have a different frame of reference; what we perceive to be “normal” is a consequence of the culture we are raised in.  It is also essential to realize that we are often blind to elements of our own culture until they are contrasted with another. Our culture is our default context, or baseline. Remembering this will help you understand why others sometimes consider your ways to be foreign, and vice versa. 

Culture Shock(3)

What: Culture shock is the holistic reaction to displacement from one’s familiar environment. Suddenly, you find yourself unable to understand, communicate, and function effectively. Common symptoms of culture shock include:

  1. Feelings of frustration, loneliness confusion, melancholy, irritability, insecurity, and helplessness
  2. Unstable temperament and hostility
  3. Paranoia
  4. Criticism of local people, culture, and customs
  5. Excessive concern over drinking water, food dishes, and bedding
  6. Fear of physical contact with locals
  7. Oversensitivity and overreaction to minor difficulties
  8. Changes in eating and sleeping habits
  9. Loss of sense of humor

When: Sometimes, transitioning to a foreign culture can have an immediate impact. An American tourist traveling to a developing country might be instantly alarmed or disheartened by living conditions that are perfectly normal and acceptable to the locals – for instance, a lack of private bedrooms or toilet facilities, the use of chewing sticks rather than toothbrushes, or the conspicuous absence of McDonald’s. Much more common, however, is delayed culture shock.

“Often when a person takes up residence in a foreign country there’s a period of excitement and exhilaration when everything seems new and challenging and fascinating… It is not until this honeymoon period ends that the newcomer begins to realize that there are endless subtle differences that leave him facing a host of perplexing problems.”(4)

Why: Although culture shock is a complex phenomenon, experts agree that the basic cause of culture shock is the “abrupt loss of the familiar, which in turn causes a sense of isolation and diminished self-importance.”(5) 

Cultural Adjustment (6)(7)

In spite of its complexity, the process of acculturation is remarkably predictable. Cultural adjustment consistently occurs in a series of distinct phases, each with specific characteristics. This process generally follows a U-shaped curve beginning with a high, then sinking into shock, and finally recovering to understand and enjoy the new culture.

The Honeymoon Phase: After months of excitement, anticipation, and preparation, you finally arrive at your destination. Thus begins the phase of initial euphoria, or the “honeymoon phase.”  Everything is new, fascinating and exhilarating. Initially, the similarities between cultures are more apparent than the differences,(8) and the differences that you do notice seem interesting and exotic.(9) When reality sets in and the initial elation wears off, travelers transition into the crisis phase.

The Crisis Phase: In this phase, you will experience the brunt of the symptoms of culture shock. Cultural differences become more salient, and you may become frustrated by difficulties communicating and performing basic tasks.  Frustration gives way to irritability, depression, and other symptoms of culture shock.  These sentiments are compounded by feelings of being an outsider, which may lead to a desire to withdraw. Many travelers are tempted to cling to their own culture by associating with other Westerners; this simply extends and intensifies the crisis phase of culture shock.

The Recovery Phase: As you develop a routine and become more comfortable with your surroundings, you will slip into the recovery phase. You probably will not notice this transition; the recovery phase comprises a gradual adjustment to your new environment. You will begin to orient yourself, be able to interpret subtle cues, and regain self-esteem and a more positive outlook. Most importantly, your perspective will become more and more balanced; you will become less critical of the local culture and more open to integrating yourself into the community.

The Adjustment Phase: Eventually you will develop the ability to function in the new culture. Your sense of ‘foreignness’ diminishes significantly. And not only will you be more comfortable with the host culture, but you may also feel that you are a part of it.(10) You will, in essence, become bicultural. Everyday tasks and conversation will once again become effortless, and you will develop increasing flexibility and ease in navigating your new surroundings. Motivation, self-confidence, and your sense of humor will have rebounded from the lows of the crisis phase, and the balance between living abroad while holding onto your own cultural identity will have become second nature.

Reentry: The above cycle is repeated upon return to one’s home country. See Module 12 for details about ‘reverse culture shock.’

Go To Module 3: Coping With Culture Shock and Emotional Feelings >>


(1) Triandis, H. “The Psychological Measurement of Cultural Syndromes.” American Psychologist. 51.4 (1996): 407-415.

(2) LeVine, R. (1984) Properties of culture: An ethnographic view. In Schweder, R. and LeVine, R., Eds. Culture Theory: Essays on Mind, Self, and Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1984), 67.

(3) How to Cope With Culture Shock.” 29 April 2003. UW Madison College of Engineering. Accessed on 3 December 2008.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Ibid.

(6)How to Prepare: Cultural Adjustment.” Center for International Education, University of California, Irvine. Accessed on 5 December 2008.

(7) How to Prepare: Cultural Adjustment.” Center for International Education, University of California, Irvine. Accessed on 5 December 2008.

(8) How to Cope With Culture Shock.” 29 April 2003. UW Madison College of Engineering. Accessed on 3 December 2008.

(9) Pederson, P. The Five Stages of Culture Shock: Critical Incidents Around the World. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995, 77.

(10) “How to Prepare: Cultural Adjustment.” Center for International Education, University of California, Irvine. Accessed on 5 December 2008.