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Feeling culture shock – A case

Knowing about culture shock is no cure for feeling it. The accumulation of uncertainty, missed cues, and confusion of new contexts can lead to stresse

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

From culture stress to culture shock – recognizing internal adjustment processes (Summary)

Kalvero Oberg, the same scholar who called culture shock a ‘dis’-ease, also gave us a five stage model to help sojourners understand the process of shock.

Though many cross-cultural experiences create similar emotional responses, there are a great variety of triggers. This article illustrates the process of culture shock 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 our 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

Please read the full article to understand further what culture shock is and why it occurs.

Oberg 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.
You might also find Linell Davis’s definition of “losing familiar cues” helpful, and the notes that these symptoms can affect those entering marriages, changing jobs, or dealing with city moves as much as those crossing cultures. So understanding the symptoms and process of culture shock can be very valuable for one’s social and professional life.
As mentioned at the beginning of this course, the “a fish out of water” metaphor is helpful: Only when we are away our everyday environment do we suddenly start to realize how important it is 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

The article recommends thinking back on our own experiences to see if we felt any of these “symptoms”:
  • 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 ‘symptoms’ all likely indicate initial culture shock. With each new context, there is a need for new ways of doing things, and the sense of displacement can be very strong at the beginning.

Reviewing the challenges

Whether the physical difficulties mentioned before, Dr. Dong’s communicative challenges, or other situational factors, being aware of this need for heightened intercultural awareness can help us note and eventually accept differences, understand the whys and wherefores, and seek to adapt as best as we can. 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 (as Dr. Dong did – you can note the outcomes at the end of the article). The more we see culture shock as just a normal part of most transitions, the easier it will be to and ‘grow’ through its challenges.

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.

© Steve J. Kulich, Shanghai International Studies University
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