Feeling culture shock

Knowing about culture shock is no cure for feeling it. The accumulation of uncertainty, missed cues, and confusion of new contexts can lead to stresses that wear us down. Being aware of these can help us go though them productively.

From culture stress to culture shock – recognizing internal adjustment processes

Whenever we move into a new cultural context, there is a strong likelihood that we will feel some degree of discomfort or disorientation, a phenomenon psychologists call “culture shock.” The term and the “five stage” model were first identified by the Swedish scholar, Kalvero Oberg, who also gave us the illustration of feeling like “a fish out of water.”

Though he identified many emotional similarities in cross-cultural experiences, there are also great varieties to what may trigger them. This article illustrates some of these processes through one case: a Chinese medical doctor’s brief trip to America.

Unexpected stresses of a short trip

An adult student friend, Dr. Dong had a wonderful chance to go to Seattle to present a paper at a professional meeting. Having attended my course in Intercultural Communications, we met to review some of the cultural differences he might experience. I also gave him the phone number of a friend of mine who lived in the area. When he got back, we met again to review his experience.

Dr. Dong told me later that the course information had helped him. He experienced the typical stages of culture shock. He arrived expectant and happy and enjoyed his first days very much. At the medical conference, he felt quite confident in his area of research and was able to perform well in his presentation. But after a few days, he began to feel uncomfortable. His medical English was fine, but the social interaction expectations were different, and he was unsure of the cues and the communication style.

He worried more and more that he was misunderstanding simple English greetings and table talk conventions. When someone greeted him with, “Hi, how’s it going?” he thought they had asked him “where are you going?” and answered with the name of the conference hall, only to get a quizzical stare from them. At a western style dinner, a colleague asked, “So how’re you enjoyin’ the States?” he thought he heard, “how are you enjoying your steak?” and answered that he was eating chicken, not beef. That time, they smiled, and patiently repeated the question, with both laughing at the error.

Such misunderstandings and miscommunications were minor. But for Dr. Dong, they were the beginning of a sense of “cultural confusion.” By the end of the meetings, he felt a deep sense of “cultural stress” and was worn out from having to pay attention to so many new expressions and ways of dealing with things. He felt his handshake was not as firm as Americans’, found that people reacted unusually when he modestly insisted his English was not good after they complimented him, didn’t know how to accept dinner invitations properly and therefore missed out on going to several lunches, and so on. Eventually, he was so bewildered that he felt the full impact of “culture shock.”

The nature of culture shock

What is culture shock and why does it occur? Kalvero Oberg’s seminal article, “Culture Shock: Adjustment to New Cultural Environments” (1960) has been reprinted and revised for many textbooks and magazines. He called it “the occupational disease of people who have been suddenly transplanted abroad.” His use of the word “disease” is a pun, because it implies that it is like an “ailment, with its own symptoms and cure,” but also that the root cause is also a feeling of “dis-”ease, or unsettled uneasiness.

Linell Davis, in her excellent book, Doing Culture (1999), defines it this way, “The troublesome feelings such as depression, loneliness, confusion, inadequacy, hostility, frustration, and tension caused by the loss of familiar cues from the home culture.” In our changing world, transitions are becoming more frequent. With this definition of “losing familiar cues,” a form of “culture shock” could occur with any major change in context. In fact, many newlyweds experience the same stages as culture shock, because each is suddenly adjusting from their normal way of doing things according to their own understanding of gender to the ways of the other partner. Changing jobs can lead to some of the symptoms of culture shock because every company has its own corporate culture that must be adapted to. So understanding the symptoms and process of culture shock can be very valuable for one’s social and professional life.

Oberg and other experts use the phrase “a fish out of water” to describe this phenomenon. While a fish is swimming in its familiar environment, it need not think about the importance of water, the context which surrounds it. But remove it for a few minutes, and the fish is gasping for its life, yearning to be back in that familiar environment. Only when we are away from the everyday things that we know so well do we suddenly start to realize how important they are to our comfort or ease of communication. Each unfamiliar new context feels just like the strange air that is a threat to the fish – it surprises or even shocks us. Like Dr. Dong, we feel bewildered, unsure of ourselves, disoriented or even fearful.

Reflecting on personal cultural dislocations

It is very helpful to think back on our own experience. If we have ever moved from one context to another, we have probably felt some of these “symptoms.” Many students feel some of this adjustment shock when they change from one school to another, or move from a small town to a big city. Business people encounter some of these factors when they change companies. And the first months of marriage often bring such feelings to both the bride and the groom.

Beyond the feelings listed by Davis above, the list of sensations one may feel in new surroundings often also include:

  • Feeling like an outsider, feeling unsure of oneself or even feeling stupid;
  • Sensing that one’s language skills aren’t good enough, missing jokes, colloquial phrases, references to TV shows or pop songs or other cultural “insider” information;
  • Feeling uneasy and unsettled, irritable and increasingly short-tempered;
  • Feeling lonely and wanting to go “home,” feeling more and more like a stranger or outcast;
  • Feeling overwhelmed, overloaded, daydreaming, staring blankly at things or even staring at nothing;
  • Becoming more and more afraid of communicating and of making mistakes, worried, anxious.

These all likely indicate symptoms of initial culture shock. With each new context, there is a need for new ways of doing things. Being uninitiated and unsure of what to do, a sense of displacement can be very strong at the beginning. The feelings that Dr. Dong felt came mostly from the communicative context that he found himself in. People’s responses to him and his sense of competency in responding to them cause his “dis-ease.”

Reviewing the challenges

Some moves across cultures confront us with physical challenges, as noted in the earlier reading (Steve Kulich’s “First culture shocks”). No amount of personal competence can change the climate, the population, or table habits we might face. But intercultural awareness can help learn to accept them, understand the whys and wherefores, and seek to adapt as best as we can.

Dr. Dong faced communicative challenges. He could quickly become more aware of some skills and make adjustments. But others were too deep-seated in his background or expectations to adapt to in such a short time.

The good news is that human beings are very good at adapting. Though almost everyone undergoes some degree of psychological stress in transition, after a few weeks or months, we learn how to “read” our new context. We become aware of some of the new cues, new expectations, or new ways of communicating. With some trial and error, and with a lot of patience with oneself, most people succeed in overcoming culture shock and learn to enjoy their new context.

Dr. Dong’s visit to the US was only three weeks long, but by the end of the 5-day medical conference, he was already starting to feel more confident. Sure, he felt a little foolish about some of the mistakes he had made, but he quickly learned to laugh at his errors and found that his colleagues smiled with him. This broke down the barriers to communication and helped him build some good professional relationships. And after the conference, he contacted the family I had referred him to and had a nice time visiting them. There were some additional cultural surprises, but he discovered his initial breakthroughs helped him better understand and adapt to them more quickly.

By the time he returned to China, he was feeling quite positive about his US trip, and was glad for the new experiences and new skills it had brought about. Though he had gone through some embarrassing or trying culture stresses, each had proven to be valuable learning experiences, and in the end had helped him overcome culture shock. Whatever our future adjustments, having an awareness of what culture shock is and entails can help us diagnose it quicker, be patient with ourselves and realize it just a normal part of most transitions, and keep growing through it more effectively.

Oberg, K. (1960) Culture shock: Adjustment to new cultural environments. Practical Anthropology, 7(4), 177-182.

Davis, Linell, 1999, Doing culture: Cross-cultural communication in action. Beijing, China: Foreign Language and Research Press.

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This article is from the free online course:

Intercultural Communication

Shanghai International Studies University (SISU)