Understanding culture shock

The typical stresses or shocks caused by facing unfamiliar cultures are well documented. This article provides a summary of the research, which might help you be more aware of how to interpret your experiences as you encounter them.

Culture shock due to contact with unfamiliar cultures (summary)

This book chapter by Stephen Bochner discusses the psychological processes that take place during and after meetings between individuals and groups who differ in their cultural backgrounds. It identifies two types of cross-cultural contact: (a) meetings that occur between two societies when individuals, or sojourners, travel from their place of origin to another country for a specific purpose and a limited amount of time; and (b) meetings among ethnically diverse permanent residents within multi-cultural societies. “Culture shock” is often used to describe the unsettling reaction of people confronted with novel or unaccustomed situations. Bochner’s chapter argues that facing “culture shock” need not be worrying, and is not inevitable or as widespread as is often suggested, but suggests that culture contact can be a satisfying experience when better understood.

The ABC of culture shock

The chapter draws on the ABC model of culture contact to provide a framework for the discussion. Unlike earlier formulations: this application of the ABC model does not treat encounters with unfamiliar cultural settings as a passive or negative reactions, but rather as a potentially active process where one can learn to deal with with change.

The term coping behavior is sometimes used in the literature to emphasize this active aspect. Additionally, the model makes an explicit distinction between three components of this process: Affect, Behavior, and Cognitions; that is, how people feel, behave, think and perceive when exposed to second-culture influences. The ABC model also links each of these elements to particular theoretical frameworks. Finally, the model has implications for interventions aimed at decreasing “culture shock” and increasing the likelihood of achieving positive culture-contact outcomes.

The affective approach to culture contact is captured by Oberg’s depiction of ‘culture shock’ as a buzzing confusion. To be fair, he had in mind people who were suddenly exposed to a completely unfamiliar setting and overwhelmed by it, a phenomenon particular to the jet age. Nevertheless, it became fashionable to characterise all culture contact in terms of negative affect, such as confusion, anxiety, disorientation, suspicion, even grief and bereavement due to a sense of loss of familiar physical objects and social relationships.

More recent formulations of the affective component in inter-cultural contact draw on the stress and coping literature…, which treats socio-cultural adjustment as an active, adaptive response. Self-efficacy as described by Bandura (1986) has also been a prominent feature of this approach. (Bochner, p. 7)

In this approach to using intervention techniques and culture learning, the behavioral aspects of culture contact are also emphasized. How we act or react to differences is just as relevant in explaining encounters within societies as well as between national cultures. Both of these variations of cultural contact promote interactive strategies rather than just concentrating on the reactions of the visitor or newcomer, which have important implications for adjusting the way we would normally act:

[For the behavior component, in order for] individuals to function effectively in a second-culture setting, they have to acquire relevant skills and knowledge specific to the new culture; that is, they have to learn about the historical, philosophical and sociopolitical foundations of the target society, and acquire and rehearse some of the associated behaviors. This approach does not stigmatize those who stumble in their second-culture interactions, because the reason for their failure lies not in their personalities, but in their competencies. And it is a lot easier to learn new skills than it is to change personalities.

The third element of the model is the cognitive component, and owes its place in the theory to what has been called the cognitive revolution in psychology, that is, to the greater emphasis during the last ten or so years on cognitive processes. Again, we have taken developments within “mainstream” monocultural psychology and extended them to culture contact issues. As mentioned earlier, the broadest definition of culture is as a system of shared meanings, very much a cognitive proposition.

People interpret physical, interpersonal, institutional, existential and spiritual events as cultural manifestations, and these vary across cultures. Whenever different cultures come into contact, particularly ‘distant’ ones, such established truths lose their apparent certainty.

Interventions based on the cognitive component of culture contact involve some form of cultural sensitivity and awareness training. These techniques emphasis the cultural relativity of most values, the validity of the unfamiliar culture, and more generally the advantages of cultural diversity, including the commercial, aesthetic, and adaptive advantages of a culturally heterogeneous global system. (Bochner, p. 9)

Measuring culture shock

In the final analysis the As, Bs, and Cs of culture contact are defined operationally in terms of the constructs and procedures used to measure them. Some typical measures of B and C (behavior and cognition) include Colleen Ward’s Sociocultural Adjustment Scale, Kelley & Meyers Cross-Cultural Adaptability Inventory, and the Social Situations Questionnaire that Adrian Furnham and Stephen Bochner developed to measure the extent to which sojourners experience difficulties in their new settings (Furnham & Bochner, 1986).

In this ABC model, the behavioral domain can be considered in three sub-components: Instrumental Adjustment, Interaction Adjustment and Relational Adjustment. Bochner and his associates have also developed a scale to measure Host-LanguageProficiency, found to be a good index of behavioral adjustment.

Likewise, the cognitive domain also can be considered with three distinct components: Interest in Other Cultures, Tolerance for Cultural Differences, and Positive Attitudes Toward New or Unusual Cultural Environments.

Affective Adjustment is usually measured by means of scales adapted from the clinical literature to gauge the amount of stress and physical and mental ill health the sojourners experience, or in positive terms, the extent of emotional well-being and satisfaction. Sub-scales include measures of anxiety, confusion, low self-esteem, homesickness, and a sense of helplessness. Subjective estimates of health are also often included, using questionnaires such as the General Health Questionnaire. (Bochner, p. 10)


Bochner tends to view culture shock as a circular feedback model, unlike some other scholars, mostly in the behavorial domain: where the primary determinants of culture shock are related to negative reactions, but they are balanced by cross-cultural adaptation as positive responses.

I believe that affective (emotional) responses are essentially retrospective evaluations of inter-cultural experiences, that is, behavioral episodes, which can range from the aversive to the highly satisfactory. And I assume that the main function of cognitive responses is to rationalise these emotive reactions. If these speculations can be supported by empirical evidence, this has implications for intervening in and managing inter-cultural contacts, in particular that more weight should be given to facilitating the culture learning of the participants. (Bochner, pp. 10-11)

This reading is included to help you gain a more in-depth understanding of culture shock or the psychological process of culture contact.

In light of the ideas presented here, please consider what answers you might give to the questions that Bochner lists at the end of his article (p. 11):

  1. Why is it easier to communicate with individuals who are similar to you than with people who are different?
  2. Adapting to new cultural settings involves changes in the way in which sojourners feel, behave, and think. If you have had personal exposure to unfamiliar cultures, reflect on your experiences and share these with other learners, using the A, B, and C categories as a framework for your account.
  3. What do you believe is an effective way to prepare people for living and working in unfamiliar cultural settings? Again, use the A, B, C framework to organise your suggestions.

Original chapter by Stephen Bochner, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

Recommended Citation
Bochner, S. (2003). Culture Shock Due to Contact with Unfamiliar Cultures. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 8(1). http://dx.doi.org/10.9707/2307-0919.1073

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This article is from the free online course:

Intercultural Communication

Shanghai International Studies University (SISU)