What is culture shock?

What is culture shock?

by Leona Quigley

Updated March 31, 2023

Moving abroad can be a great way to find new opportunities for work, learn a new language and try a completely new way of life. That being said, living in a new and unfamiliar country is a major life change and can be overwhelming at first. Adjusting to your new environment can take some time and work, so you need to be prepared to experience culture shock.

We’ve all heard of culture shock, but what is it? In this guide, we’ll review some common culture shock examples to give you a sense of what to look out for. We’ll also discuss the sources of culture shock and the four phases you’ll need to overcome as you acclimate to a new home abroad.

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What is culture shock?

There is some debate regarding the exact definition of culture shock. Each person may experience it differently, but culture shock can generally be described as the sense of disorientation and anxiety caused by one’s sudden immersion in a new culture. 

The rapid change in environment that comes with moving abroad can leave you feeling lonely, lost and otherwise detached from your roots. On top of this, you may feel overwhelmed by the amount of new information and unfamiliar social norms you are being exposed to.

Sources of culture shock

A new language

The most significant cause of culture shock is immersion in a new language. If you don’t have a strong grasp of the language before moving to a new place, the effect will be particularly acute.

An inability to understand what people are saying around you, read signs or even negotiate grocery shopping can leave you feeling isolated and stressed. Even if you do learn the basics of your new language before moving, the sudden wave of new vocabulary can be overwhelming. This is doubly true if you don’t have a strong support network or if you’re starting a new job

Remember to be kind to yourself and give yourself time to pick up the local dialect. Language learning takes time and effort, but the rewards are immense. 

Cultural and social differences

Beyond language, common causes of culture shock are the everyday cultural and social differences between your homeland and your new context. You may notice these differences in the form of unfamiliar cuisine and clothing, manners and behaviors, and even different social structures (such as patterns of wealth or poverty). While these will all seem strange and hard to understand at first, you can adapt with time and exposure. 

It’s important to prepare yourself before your move to any new society, even if the same language is spoken there. If you get off to a good start and don’t “put your foot in it” by infringing on cultural norms and customs, you may end up experiencing less culture shock.

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The four stages of culture shock

The Oberg model for the progression of culture shock is divided into four stages; the honeymoon stage, negotiation stage, adjustment stage, and adaptation.

1. Honeymoon stage

The initial honeymoon stage generally lasts for the first few weeks of your initiation into a new place. This is the period when you’re excited to explore a new culture and romanticize your new way of life. During the honeymoon stage, entering a new culture still feels like an exciting adventure.

2. Negotiation stage

Eventually, the honeymoon phase comes to an end and makes way for the negotiation stage, sometimes referred to as the frustration stage. This is when feelings of anxiety, isolation and homesickness can become a real challenge. The thrill of a new place has worn off and you may begin to feel resentful towards some of the new norms and cultural values you are surrounded by. You may even long to return home to the cultural environment that was your “normal.”

3. Adjustment stage

In the adjustment stage, you begin to adjust your idea of “normal” to the new cultural context. You will no longer be caught off guard by unfamiliar social norms, and your new home will cease to feel unfamiliar or unpredictable.

4. Adaptation stage

Once you reach the adaptation stage (also called the acceptance or mastery stage), you have fully come to terms with your new environment and can participate fully in social and cultural life. This doesn’t mean you need to abandon your home culture or cut ties to it. But you should now feel comfortable in your new home and community.

Home away from home

Although culture shock can be quite overwhelming, remember that culture shock is a very normal reaction to being immersed in a new cultural environment. Once you work your way through the four stages, you’ll begin to feel right at home wherever it is you’ve chosen to plant new roots.

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Leona Quigley

Leona has her roots in the South of Ireland, where she grew up on her family farm. She went on to study World Politics at Leiden University College, The Hague and then completed her MPhil in International History at Trinity College Dublin. Leona has now settled in Berlin, having fallen in love with the city. In her spare time she is working on perfecting her German in anticipation of her doctoral studies, during which she plans to study modern German social history. Her hobbies include bouldering, dancing and reading a healthy mix of history books and corny fantasy fiction. You can find more info about her on LinkedIn.

Leona Quigley

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