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Culture Shock

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Most people who live abroad for an extended period experience difficulties in adjusting to the new culture; this is commonly called "culture shock". The term "culture shock" was introduced for the first time in 1958 to describe the anxiety produced when a person moves to a completely new environment.

In order to understand culture shock, one must remember that our ability to function in the world depends on our capacity to read hundreds of signs, respond to subtle cues, and behave according to countless explicit and implicit rules. At home we know how to read street signs, how to use the telephone, how much to tip, etc. Much of what we do in our daily lives is automatic and requires little thought.

Abroad, the reverse is true and simple tasks become difficult because we don't know how to behave, our actions and words don't get the expected responses, and we don't understand the messages we are getting. We are confronted continuously with new ways of thinking, valuing, and doing things. Sometimes, our common sense is no longer useful. This disorientation that can cause severe stress is culture shock. Fortunately, culture shock is predictable and manageable and, if students are prepared for it, they can do a great deal to mitigate its effects.

Culture shock is a cycle of adjustment that may take quite some time. The cycle is marked by four basic phases, and most people experience at least two low periods during their stay abroad. However, the length and severity of these low periods vary greatly for different individuals, and culture shock can even make one develop a better understanding of oneself and stimulate personal creativity.

Symptoms:

  • Sadness, loneliness, melancholy, boredom
  • Preoccupation with health
  • Aches, pains, and allergies (psychosomatic illness)
  • Insomnia, desire to sleep too much or too little
  • Changes in temperament, depression, feeling vulnerable, feeling powerless
  • Anger, irritability, resentment, unwillingness to interact with others
  • Identifying with the old culture or idealizing the old country
  • Loss of identity
  • Trying too hard to absorb everything in the new culture or country
  • Unable to solve simple problems
  • Lack of confidence
  • Feelings of inadequacy or insecurity
  • Developing stereotypes about the new culture and people
  • Developing obsessions such as over-cleanliness
  • Longing for family; homesickness

 

 Stages of Culture Shock

Culture shock has many stages. Each stage can be ongoing or appear only at certain times. The first stage is the incubation stage. In this first stage, the new arrival may feel euphoric and be pleased by all of the new things encountered. This time is called the "honeymoon" stage, as everything encountered is new and exciting.

Afterwards, the second stage presents itself. A person may encounter some difficult times and crises in daily life. For example, communication difficulties may occur such as not being understood. In this stage, there may be feelings of incompetence, discontent, impatience, anger, and sadness. This happens when a person is trying to adapt to a new culture that is very different from the culture of origin. Transition between the old methods and those of the new country is a difficult process and takes time to complete. During the transition, there can be strong feelings of dissatisfaction.

The third stage is characterized by gaining some understanding of the new culture. A new feeling of pleasure and sense of humor may be experienced. One may start to feel a certain psychological balance. The new arrival may not feel as lost and starts to have a feeling of direction. The individual is more familiar with the environment and wants to belong. This initiates an evaluation of the old ways versus those of the new.

In the fourth stage, the person realizes that the new culture has good and bad things to offer. This stage can be one of double integration or triple integration depending on the number of cultures that the person has to process. This integration is accompanied by a more solid feeling of belonging. The person starts to define him/herself and establish goals for living.

The fifth stage is the stage that is called the "re-entry shock." This occurs when a return to the country of origin is made. One may find that things are no longer the same. For example, some of the newly acquired customs are not in use in the old culture.

These stages are present at different times and each person has their own way of reacting in the stages of culture shock. As a consequence, some stages will be longer and more difficult than others. Many factors contribute to the duration and effects of culture shock. For example, the individual's state of mental health, type of personality, previous experiences, socio-economic conditions, familiarity with the language, family and/or social support systems, and level of education.

 

How to Fight Culture Shock

Successful sojourners from other countries have the ability to positively confront the obstacles of a new environment. Some ways to combat stress produced by culture shock are:
Don't forget the good things you already have!

  • Remember, there are always resources that you can use
  • Speak the language of the new culture as often as possible.
  • Maintain regular living patterns--eat and sleep at regular intervals.
  • If you have certain hobbies or are involved in sports at home, try to do the same abroad. This is a great way to make friends.
  • Keep a journal about your experiences and emotions abroad.
  • Talk to friends or counselors if you feel you have problems coping; try to look at your problems one at a time, and set out to solve them the same way.
  • Avoid hanging out with other people from your own culture who are disgruntled with the host culture and spend their time complaining.
  • Learn to be constructive. If you encounter an unfavorable environment, don't put yourself in that position again. Be easy on yourself.
  • Learn to include a regular form of physical activity in your routine. This will help combat the sadness and loneliness in a constructive manner. Exercise, swim, take an aerobics class, etc.
  • Relaxation and meditation are proven to be very positive for people who are passing through periods of stress.
  • Maintain contact with the new culture. Learn the language. Volunteer in community activities that allow you to practice the language that you are learning. This will help you feel less stress about language and useful at the same time.
  • Establish simple goals and evaluate your progress.
  • Find ways to live with the things that don't satisfy you 100%.
  • Maintain confidence in yourself. Follow your ambitions and continue your plans for the future.
  • If you feel stressed, look for help. There is always someone or some service available to help you.

 

Reverse Culture Shock

(adapted from Robert Kohls, Survival Kit For Overseas Living)

When you return to your country you may experience some degree of what is called "reverse culture shock" or "re-entry shock". Although reverse culture shock may not be as significant as the initial culture shock you experienced upon going overseas, it can be more upsetting as it is often unexpected. (After all, you are returning to your "own" culture.)

Upon returning home, you will be glad to see your friends and family, and happy to be back in familiar territory. But at some point you will probably feel frustrated at not being able to communicate all of your thoughts and feelings about your study abroad experience.

You may notice that, although your friends are happy to see you, they are not interested in hearing about all of your experiences. You may feel somewhat alienated, finding that while you have grown and expanded your horizons, your friends have not. They may seem somewhat provincial and not interested in anything international.

During this transition period, it is especially important to keep in contact with your fellow study abroad students-they can provide a great support system. They will be interested in your experiences and will want to share your feelings about being back home.

As with initial culture shock, it requires time and effort for you to make a successful readjustment. There may be some frustrating moments at first, but it will all be worth it. Not only will you have learned about another culture, but you will also have gained a greater understanding of yourself and your own culture.

Suggestions for overcoming reverse culture shock are:

  • Keep in contact with fellow study abroad students, you will all want to share your re-entry experiences.
  • Get involved in groups or activities both on and off campus that are international in focus (like volunteering or work study in the Office of International Study Programs) or continue a new interest that you acquired while overseas.
  • Ask a trusted friend to make a list of fads, vocabulary, TV shows, what's "in", etc. that may be new since you left to study abroad. This will help you feel in tune with what's going on at home now.
  • If you learned a new language while studying abroad, try to keep it up. Join a conversation group or seek out international students with whom you can speak the language. They will welcome the opportunity to speak their native tongue and, as fellow international students, will enjoy sharing common experiences.


Adapted from
"Culture Shock" by Dr. Carmen Guanipa,
Dept. of Counseling and School Psychology,
San Diego State University.
Copyright © 1998 -- All Rights Reserved -- Dr. Carmen Guanipa

and from
There and Back Again by Beulah F. Rohrlich and Survival Kit For Overseas Living by L. Robert Kohls