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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 interpret your experiences as you encounter them.

Culture shock due to contact with unfamiliar cultures (Summary)

In this chapter, Stephen Bochner argues that culture contact can be a satisfying experience when better understood. By identifying and discussing two common types of cross-cultural contact, and outlining the A, B, C’s of successful coping strategies, he shows that “culture shock” need not be worrying, and is not inevitable or as widespread as is often suggested.

The ABC of culture shock

Bochner first frames the discussion with the ABC model of culture contact. This coping behavior model differentiates between the processes of Affect, Behavior, and Cognitions:

A: The affective approach refers to the buzzing confusion that many point out as negative affect: confusion, anxiety, disorientation, suspicion, even grief and bereavement due to a sense of loss of familiar physical objects and social relationships. But socio-cultural adjustment also has an active, adaptive response. You might benefit from the article’s emphasis self-efficacy (Bandura, 1986) and the affective-level strategies and attitudes which help transform difficult experiences into learning encounters.

B: The behavior component suggests individuals 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.

C: The cognitive component focuses on today’s increased awareness of how culture functions as a system of shared meanings and how different cultures in contact (particularly ‘distant’ ones) cause certain ‘established truths’ of one culture can lose their apparent certainty. Techniques that use cognitive interventions aim at developing cultural sensitivity and awareness by emphasizing:

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

Each domain—A, B, and C—can and have been measured (the article explains some important scales and questionnaires that you might find useful for further exploration).

Conclusion

Unlike scholars like Oberg, Bochner views culture shock as a circular feedback model, where the primary determinants of culture shock are related to negative reactions, but are balanced by cross-cultural adaptation as positive responses. Difficult encounters lead to positive growth.

Therefore it can help you to consider what answers you might give to the questions that Bochner raises (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)