Managing Culture Shock:Considerations

Understanding Culture Shock

Culture shock is an intricate psychological experience individuals encounter when adapting to a new cultural environment, an experience which can be intensified if there is a large cultural difference between one’s host country and home country. This phenomenon encompasses a series of phases, which can differ in duration and intensity from person to person. Usually, culture shock is not the result of one event, but the result of an accumulation of events, thus sometimes making it difficult to identify while struggling with it. Understanding and effectively addressing culture shock, alone or with the aid and guidance of a therapist, is pivotal for anyone embracing a new culture.

Four Phases of Culture Shock

The Honeymoon Phase: In the initial stage, the novelty of the new culture often captivates individuals. Everything seems enchanting, from local cuisine to customs. This phase is characterized by fascination and positive encounters.

The Negotiation Phase: After a few months, reality sets in, revealing differences and challenges. Factors such as language barriers, differences in hygiene, and unique societal norms can lead to frustration and disconnection. Communication difficulties may especially contribute to creating feelings of loneliness and homesickness.

The Adjustment Phase: As time progresses (typically after 6 to 12 months), individuals become more acclimated to the host culture. Routines develop, and daily life begins to feel less foreign. Problem-solving skills improve, and people start to accept the host culture’s ways more positively. The Adaptation Phase: The final stage, referred to as the bicultural phase, signifies full integration into the host culture. While aspects of one’s original culture may persist, individuals feel comfortable and participate fully in their new cultural environment.

Effects of Culture Shock

Culture shock’s effects can vary widely, impacting mental and physical well-being. Individuals might experience feelings of frustration, alienation, and difficulty in understanding or being understood. Other emotional and behavioral symptoms that may be associated with culture shock are anger, homesickness, irritability, and even physiological stress reactions. Research suggests that culture shock can have long-lasting effects, emphasizing the importance of preventative measures.

Varied Sources of Discomfort

Culture shock can have diverse triggers, such as differences in climate, the availability of local products, city layouts, culinary traditions, social etiquette, and ways of spending leisure time. Seemingly mundane aspects of daily life, such as school holidays or free-time activities, can also contribute to culture shock. Its diverse sources make culture shock a common experience between many expats.

Interpreting New Behavior

A significant component of culture shock arises from an individual’s inability to decipher new behaviors that convey similar meanings but are expressed differently in their home country. For example, expressions of affection can vary greatly between cultures, leading to misunderstandings and discomfort. Improving cross-cultural communication skills can help to bridge cultural gaps effectively and navigate misunderstandings.

Integration Protocol

The approach to integrating newcomers can significantly influence culture shock. Some cultures place the burden on the original group to facilitate integration, while others expect newcomers to navigate the process independently. This contrast can substantially impact how newcomers perceive and respond to culture shock, and it is an important distinction to keep in mind when relocating.

Liberties and Norms

Culture shock can also stem from variations in liberties and norms. Differences in attitudes toward topics like drugs, alcohol, prostitution, driving habits, electronic surveillance, and overall street safety can be stark. Navigating these disparities can be challenging for expatriates, but this process can be mediated by the assistance of a therapist.

Managing Individual Responses to Culture Shock

Understanding Individual Reactions

Individuals may react differently to culture shock. While some may interpret it as a form of rejection, others may find it motivating, spurring them to integrate more effectively. Therapists should help clients understand their unique reactions and guide them toward adaptive responses.

Balancing Expectations

The experience of culture shock depends not only on the expatriate but also on the receptivity of the host culture. Expressing differences between one’s home country and the host country can sometimes be perceived as excessive demands. Expatriates must communicate their observations carefully to minimize misunderstandings.

Cultivating Openness and Adaptation

Coping with culture shock involves fostering acceptance and openness. Expatriates should be reminded of their initial reasons for moving and encouraged to shift their perspectives. They can integrate helpful customs from their host culture into their own lives, facilitating a smoother transition.

The Phenomenon of Reverse Culture Shock

“Reverse culture shock,” a phenomenon often overlooked, occurs when individuals return to their home country after an extended stay abroad. It’s marked by feelings of disorientation, alienation, and frustration upon reentering familiar surroundings. The once-familiar may now seem foreign, as individuals have adapted to different customs and norms while abroad. This unexpected challenge can trigger a range of emotions, from nostalgia for their host country to frustration with the changes they perceive in their home culture. Acknowledging and preparing for the possibility of reverse culture shock is crucial for expatriates, as it enables them to navigate the reintegration process with greater resilience and understanding.

Embracing Openness: Key to Navigating Culture Shock

Preparing for Inevitable Feelings

Moving abroad inevitably brings feelings of rejection, alienation, and difficulty in understanding and being understood. These emotions are part of the culture shock experience and must be managed. Openness plays a critical role in this process.

Acceptance of Differences

Expatriates must embrace the differences between their home and host environments. A willingness to accept these distinctions can ease feelings of alienation and foster an environment conducive to personal growth and well-being, both mentally and physically.


Culture shock is a natural and challenging part of living in a foreign country. Therapists, alongside expatriates, can work to understand its sources and manifestations while encouraging openness and adaptation. Embracing these strategies can help individuals not only cope with culture shock but also thrive in their new cultural surroundings.

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