Culture Shock

Culture shock is a term coined by anthropologist Kalervo Oberg, describing the feelings of disorientation, surprise, confusion and uncertainty experienced by those arriving to live in a new, unfamiliar culture. Everyone living in a foreign culture for a period of time experiences culture shock, but how long it lasts depends on one's ability to adjust. Factors that can contribute to culture shock include language differences, new expectations around manners and customs, different values, morals, dress codes, beliefs and ideals. Different rules and procedures in social institutions, such as schools, government bureaucracies, hospitals, charges, the justice system, can also add to the feeling of confusion. There is also another phenomenon, called reverse culture shock, consisting of the shock experienced when one returns to his or her native culture after being abroad.

According to Oberg, there are three phases of culture shock. The first, the honeymoon period, refers to the excitement, optimism and euphoria upon arrival in the new culture, combined with the expectations of unlimited opportunities. During this phase a person is open, curious and ready to accept whatever comes their way. This phase may last a few weeks or months. The second phase, the shock phase, is when one starts to realize the foreignness of the new culture. It is characterized by stress, irritability, inability to sleep, a focus on the negative aspects of everyday life. However, not everyone needs to feel these symptoms. Being prepared and knowing what to expect as part of the process can help avoid most of the negative effects.

The last phase, adaptation or recovery, begins when the person reaches a compromise between the unrealistic expectations of the honeymoon phase and the disappointment and dissatisfaction with the reality during the second phase. Some researchers also believe there is a rejection or regression phase before the third one, in cases when the new culture is very different from a person's own. At this phase, people find it increasingly hard to adjust to the new environment, some seek refuge in an international club where they can communicate with people of their own culture, while others give up and return to their own country. Out of all the people who spend any length of time in a different culture, 40 percent become what psychologists call ?Participants,? in a culture. They are very involved in the experience and feel more comfortable than most. Another 50 percent, who are called ?Adjusters,? reach an adequate adjustment but do not integrate into the new culture and look forward to returning home. Some 5 percent become ?Permanent Expats,? and stay in the new culture, returning home only for visits, while another 5 percent become ?Returnees? as they develop emotional problems preventing them from functioning in the culture and need to return home.

Reverse culture shock has a number of symptoms. One feels strain because of the unexpected effort to have to re-adapt to his or her own culture. There is also a sense of loss and feelings of deprivation related to friends, status, profession, and possessions left behind. Some may feel rejected by their family and friends and feel confused about their role, values and self-identity. One may also feel anxious and disillusioned after losing his or her lifestyle as well as helpless because of the inability to understand his or her feelings. There are a number of factors that can contribute to the symptoms of reverse culture shock. A person who has been abroad for a long time can have an unrealistic perception of his or her own country, expecting it not to have changed over time. Therefore, one can feel disorientated if this image is shattered upon return. After the excitement related to being a foreigner and learning new things constantly, one can feel bored and uninterested in life once the initial excitement upon return wears off.

Expats often feel isolated from family and friends because they have changed and cannot have their old relationships. Overall, the ability to readjust to one's own culture depends mainly on the way he or she envisions the future after the return home. Some who find it hard to adjust to their old way of life realize home is a relative concept and look back to the country they have just left. Their friends are there, everything is familiar and they have more in common with the other expats. So they leave again, returning to their new home.

Culture Shock: Selected full-text books and articles

Communicating across Cultures By Stella Ting-Toomey Guilford Press, 1999
Librarian's tip: "Managing the Culture Shock Process" begins on p. 245
Difficulties and Coping Strategies of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Immigrant Students By Yeh, Christine; Inose, Mayuko Adolescence, Vol. 37, No. 145, Spring 2002
Looking for a topic idea? Use Questia's Topic Generator
Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.