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 and fluid the concept of culture is.

One’s culture orients, grounds, supports, and frames one’s life. Cultural beliefs ground individuals’ worldviews, providing a reference point for understanding observations and guiding behavior. People from different backgrounds simply have a different frame of reference; what one may perceive to be “normal” is a consequence of the environment in which one is raised. It is also essential to realize that one is often blind to elements of their own culture until it is contrasted with another, as the former is one’s default context or baseline. It is helpful to remember this when encountering a new culture and when interacting with people from different backgrounds.

Culture Shock(3)

What: Culture shock is the holistic reaction to displacement from one’s familiar environment. Suddenly, one finds oneself 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, a traveler finally arrives at the 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 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, one may experience the brunt of the symptoms of culture shock. Cultural differences become more salient, and one 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 travelers develop a routine and become more comfortable with the new surroundings, it is typical to slip into the recovery phase. The transition may be unnoticeable; the recovery phase comprises a gradual adjustment to the new environment. One typically becomes oriented, learns to interpret subtle cues, and regains self-esteem and a more positive outlook. Most importantly, perspectives will become more and more balanced; the traveler will become less critical of the local culture and more open to integrating into the community.

The Adjustment Phase: Eventually the traveler develops the ability to function in the new culture. The sense of ‘foreignness’ diminishes significantly. The traveler will not only be more comfortable with the host culture but also feel a part of it, becoming, in essence, bicultural.(10) Everyday tasks and conversation will once again become effortless, and flexibility and ease in navigating the new surroundings will increase. Motivation, self-confidence, and a sense of humor will have rebounded from the lows of the crisis phase, and the balance between living abroad while holding onto one’s 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 >>

Footnotes

(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. www.cie.uci.edu. Accessed on 5 December 2008.

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