Cultural Adjustment

Cultural competency training and cultural awareness is of paramount importance for those working in any international setting.  Those participating abroad are immersed in a culture different from their own and will undoubtedly experience culture shock and cultural adjustment. 

Culture Shock(1)

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:

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 seem perfectly normal and acceptable to the locals – no 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.”(2)

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.”(3) 

Cultural Adjustment (4)(5)

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,(6) and differences that you do notice seem interesting and exotic.(7) 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 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 a part of it.(9) 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.

General Tips for Coping with Culture Shock and Emotions (9)(10)(11)

Slower Pace and Elastic Time

One of the first cultural differences volunteers notice about the developing world relates to notions of time. Compared to the Western lifestyle, the pace of life in developing countries is much slower, punctuality is less valued, and schedules and appointments are understood to be flexible. The Peace Corps has characterized these two differing concepts of time, which are really two poles of a continuum:

Monochronic time: Time is the given and people are the variable. The needs of people are adjusted to suit the demands of time – schedules, deadlines, etc. Time is quantifiable, and a limited amount of it is available. People do one thing at a time and finish it before starting something else, regardless of circumstances.

Polychronic time: Time is the servant and tool of people. Time is adjusted to suit the needs of people. More time is always available, and you are never too busy. People often have to do several things simultaneously, as required by circumstances. It’s not necessary to finish one thing before starting another, nor to finish your business with one person before starting in with another.(12)

To summarize, in monochronic societies people work around schedules, whereas in polychronic societies, schedules are worked around people. Although the polychronic notion of time may seem new and obscure, it is actually widespread across cultures and countries. 

Slow Progress

People may jokingly tell you that you must learn to run on “African Standard Time.” The shift from a monochronic to a more polychronic time scheme can bewilder and frustrate volunteers.

“Americans are notorious for being doers, activists. One of the most common complaints of Peace Corps Volunteers around the world is how long it takes to ‘get things done’ in the host country. Sometimes the complaint appears in comments about the slow pace of life overseas. This American urge to do something, however, is somewhat inconsistent with the Peace Corps mandate to help other people do something.”(13)

With a goal of building local capacity, volunteers are indeed helping other people learn to “do something.” This does not mean that local community members will be working while volunteers laze around. In other words, don’t make the mistake of confusing slower pace of life with easier lifestyle:

“What about the ‘work?’ You’ll notice I put that word in quotation marks, not because you won’t work very hard here. It’s just that you won’t understand why it’s so hard. In the States, hard work is 60 hours a week. Here it’s waiting for things to happen, watching them happen at a pace that’s absurdly slow by the standards you’re used to, and then trying to work the way people work here. Otherwise you won’t be working with them, you’ll be working for them.”(14)–Peace Corps Volunteer, Madagascar


In your home country, making others wait is probably considered disrespectful and rude. After all, isn’t their time valuable? Who are you to waste it? When you are abroad, however, you can expect to do a lot of waiting.  Do not be insulted if others make you wait; it is not because they are being rude, or because they think you are insignificant. Rather, it is simply a symptom of a culture with a more relaxed attitude toward timeliness and schedules.(15)  Patience, flexibility and an open mind are the keys to succeeding as a volunteer in a less monochronic society. For instance, rather than allowing herself to become frustrated with the inefficiencies of a slower daily schedule, Unite For Sight volunteer Jackie Madison embraced the different style of time in Ghana:

“It was sometimes hard to get used to a very different schedule, especially for a college student who is used to going ‘boom, boom, boom,’ and working really fast all the time. [The] Ghanaian way of life… is a bit slower and more calm, but I think in general that’s a great way to spend the summer. I had a fantastic time slowing down for a while.”(16)


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

(2) Ibid.

(3) Ibid.

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

(5) Ibid.

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

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

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

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

(10) Cultural Adjustment.” International Office, University of California, Berkeley. Accessed on 5 December 2008.

(11) What is Culture Shock? And How to Adjust in a New Culture.” Consortium for International Education & Multicultural Studies. Accessed on 11 December 2008.

(12) Culture Matters: The Peace Corps Cross-Cultural Workbook,” p. 104. Peace Corps Information and Collection Exchange. Accessed on 11 December 2008.

(13) Culture Matters: The Peace Corps Cross-Cultural Workbook,” p. 148.

(14) As quoted in “Culture Matters: The Peace Corps Cross-Cultural Workbook,” p.136

(15) As quoted in “Culture Matters: The Peace Corps Cross-Cultural Workbook,” p.106.

(16) “Jackie Madison Speaks About Volunteering With Dr. Baah.” Online Video Clip. Accessed on 11 December 2008.