So you’re in a new country and you’ve been there for a while. That heady intoxication and delight starts to fade, leaving you feeling hollow. Instead of enchanting you, all the little differences start to grate, scratching away until you’re raw. You start to long for the safe streets of home.
This kind of paradigm shattering trip is becoming more common as the world gets smaller.
What is it and what are some ways to cope?
“Culture shock is precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse.” — Kalervo Oberg
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” — Bilbo Baggins
Experiencing culture shock is profoundly unsettling. If you respond to it appropriately, it can be profound and character building. If you respond negatively and out of fear, it can actually increase your tendency towards bigotry and isolation.
Although anyone who has travelled will have discovered the phenomenon on their own, the term Culture Shock was originally popularised by the Canadian anthropologist Kalervo Oberg. He identified four main stages of culture shock In a talk delivered to the Women’s Club of Rio de Janeiro. His aim in describing these stages was to show the root of the anxiety and friction many people feel when in other cultures. By identifying the source of the problem, namely a jarring discontent with everything with which one is familiar, a person can adapt more rapidly to the new situation and move through the stages of culture shock more rapidly. The stages were further clarified by Winkleman in 1994.
- Honeymoon Phase: The individual is entranced by the culture, and revels in its every subtle nuance. Novelty and
- Frustration Phase: The novelty wears off and all the little things about the culture which are difficult start to become stressful. The person also experiences fatigue with the constant energy expenditure of trying to understand the different physical and linguistic cues.
- Adjustment Phase: A breakthrough occurs and the individual is able to understand enough of the culture to function within it. Gradual adaptation and integration then takes place. Although a few things still grate, appreciation is now possible.
- Acceptance Phase: The individual can now navigate the new country with ease, and without the daily stress of being in a heightened state of alertness.
Sometimes a fifth stage is included, that of reintegration into your original culture on your return. This stage is often unexpectedly difficult, since it is unexpected. Returnees find that their time abroad has changed them and they no longer fit in at home as they once did, as well as finding that they idealized their home environment as being far easier than it actually was.
Moving through the stages can happen faster or slower depending on the individual’s awareness of the stages and mind mastery in taking control of their attitude to the problem.
As Oberg notes, the difficulties of a new place are often very real. For example In Texas, for example, it really is impossible to get around without a car. In Israel apartments really are smaller and on average less well maintained. But the difficulty is more to do with one’s attitude than the thing itself. There are hurdles and issues in every place, it just depends on which ones you are willing to stomach.
A person in a state of culture shock feels threatened more easily and has a greater sensitivity to the risk of robbery or deception. Challenging the fear, pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone and learning how to recognize the difference between a normal fear and culturally-induced anxiety is key.
But it’s not just the superficial social codes (in Texas you have to engage in brief friendly chit chat with everyone you meet, don’t look anyone in the eyes on the London Underground). It’s that people in different places have radically different ways of seeing the world, and you have to adapt when you go there.
Of course, this only kicks in if you actually interact with local people and those of varying political ideologies, racial and religious backgrounds, and frames of reference. You can get this within the same country as well if you swap regions and class position often enough, but the differences will be less stark.
Many people won’t experience this level of culture shock even if they do travel extensively. This is due to the ever increasing strength of a kind of global culture, practiced mainly by the educated middle class. If you exist within this bubble, then it almost doesn’t matter if you’re in Tel Aviv or London or New York. You can order a cappuccino, read the same news and likely hold the same views (climate change bad, LGBT rights good).
Speculation over whether or not a cohesive globalized culture is desirable or even possible has been rife for decades. UC Irvine even runs an undergraduate degree in Global Culture, which purports to “explore globalization from a humanistic perspective.” Other colleges running Global Cultures courses include NYU and the University of Dearborn-Michigan.
But this globalized culture has another side effect. Even as it avoids unpleasant, challenging, or threatening experiences for one group of people, it flattens, invades, and suppresses any dissident or individual cultures.
Part of the issue of globalization is that people are now experiencing culture shock without moving, as their own towns and cities change cultures around them. This may be minor and positive, as in a few new restaurants opening around town, or tense, as in a whole community of people from another part of the world moving to your town en-mass in a reasonably short space of time.
Two million immigrants came to the European Union in 2016. Regardless of how you feel about immigration, that is a huge number of people in a very short space of time. Chants of “we want our country back,” (an English Defence League slogan) are much easier to understand in this context – it’s a natural psychological reaction (albeit a harsh one) to rapid change. It maps perfectly onto the second stage of culture shock: frustration. By the same token, the immigrants themselves are feeling culture shock. The new country they have arrived in isn’t what they thought it would be. They find it harder than they imagined, many little things start to bother them, and it becomes hard and alienating to keep trying to work through it.
Understanding anxiety around immigration and rapid social shifts through the lens of culture shock can help boost empathy for those experiencing it.
Whether you are for or against mass immigration, this framework can help you make sense of the psychological processes behind why it causes so many emotional issues for people. That can lead to greater understanding about possible ways to mitigate the problem. Leaning into it and understanding that after frustration comes adjustment and acceptance can make things a lot easier.