So, You’ve Moved to Another Country – Are You Ready for Culture Shock?
You’d been waiting for this day for months, even years. You compiled your documents assiduously (that damn administration!), applied for and got your visa, booked the tickets, and finally arrived in your destination country. Everything was perfect, but now you’re starting to feel a bit weird. Things are not as simple as they were at home, people have different habits, and overall, you’re just a tad too anxious. These symptoms, among many others, may mean you’re suffering from culture shock.
Why Do We Need a Culture Shock Definition?
When people find themselves away from home for a longer time, they might find it difficult to accept and adjust to all aspects of the host culture. The sense of unfamiliarity and disorientation when moving into a different environment or even stepping between social classes is referred to as culture shock.
Defining the phenomenon and its stages is particularly important if you intend to move away from home, even if you’re doing so out of pure, unmitigated desire. Wherever you’re going, you’ll find that people have different lifestyles and outlooks (and some of them may irritate you). Common issues expats face include language barriers, public and personal appearance, socio-economic shifts, different educational systems, differences in safety levels and legal procedures, and information overload. Yikes! It sounds overwhelming, but the best way to deal with culture shock is to be prepared and well-informed about what it’s actually like.
Look Out for Culture Shock Symptoms
Owing to steadfast psychological work and candid confessions from people who have experienced it, many symptoms of culture shock have been identified, along with how they manifest in individual lives. The most common symptoms of culture shock include:
- Feeling isolated and lonely.
- Interrupted sleep patterns due to nightmares or time-zone changes.
- The sense of rejection by the new country.
- Frustration, anxiety, and aggravation around public life.
- Homesickness and an unwillingness to face the unknown.
- Consistent tiredness, no matter how much sleep you get.
- Stomach issues or the development of allergies.
- Communication difficulties due to language barriers.
- Inability to make friends due to cultural differences.
- Increased insecurity and doubt.
- Misinterpretation of social cues and ensuing awkwardness.
These symptoms can emerge randomly, subside, and reappear, sometimes in isolation and sometimes combined. They can also last for varying amounts of time. Learning to recognize them can make coping with them easier.
The Merry Stages of Culture Shock
Most theories agree that there are four distinct stages of culture shock, and usually, at least one of them hits every person living abroad. The way you deal with them determines whether you’ll be able to stay happy in your new country.
1. The Honeymoon Stage
When you relocate abroad, you make a commitment – physical, emotional, and social. It sounds like a new relationship, and in a way, it is; you are giving more or less all of your life to this new place. And as it tends to happen, each new relationship has a honeymoon phase. In culture shock, this stage happens in the first couple of months. It is characterized by being enamored with the new country.
During these months, everything seems far better than it is at home. There are plenty of places to explore, new hobbies, trips, adventures, and foods to be tried. New friends are pouring in, and everything is exciting. For many students, this is often the first time they’re completely independent and free to do as they please, which adds to the overall sense of elation.
2. The Irritability, Rejection, and Hostility Stage
Most people hit this mark around their third month in the new place. The novelty has started to wear off, and you might start running into your first problems (most likely administration again). Students realize half the semester is already over and that it’s time to start catching up, which can increase stress.
On a more dramatic note, this is usually the phase when you may become aware of glaring differences between your home country and the new one. Racist and classist attitudes may become more apparent, injustice all expats face can surface, and each confrontation can send you into days and even weeks of depressed mood.
Did I mention the language barrier? Yeah, this is when it really starts getting on your nerves. Many people find themselves romanticizing their home country and start seeking solace in diasporic communities while avoiding the locals. Many expats seem to get stuck here, constantly torn between the two places, never quite here nor there. While it may be tempting to pack your bags and start planning your journey home, I have bad news for you – that won’t be easy either because you might get hit by the re-entry shock.
The best way to deal with this stage is to learn the new language as quickly as you can. Take it from me (I took my time with the language because my work and university were in English); put some effort into it. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but you should be able to get along with basic needs like doctor’s appointments, shopping, and basic administration (tall order, but Duolingo’s insistence on asking what kind of tea your horse likes is not the best way to go).
Another thing you need to do is actively reprogram the way you think about your newfound issues. I suggest some meditation, yoga, and practicing the art of acceptance that not everything can be perfect. You need to tell yourself, no matter how hard it is, that you’re here now, and the only way to feel well again is to accept that some things are different. It’s irrational, sure, but different, and that’s just how it is. The sooner you accept this, the sooner you’ll be able to adjust to the new place.
3. Gradual Adjustment
After around six months (and sooner if you accept your situation with grace), you’ll start to feel more relaxed where you are. You’ll have learned a bit of the language, met some new people, started a few hobbies, and survived your first semester abroad. You’ll also know your town better and have formed some daily routines that keep you going and help you feel more in control than before. During this stage, you may still feel a bit lost about what to do next and how to go about it.
Getting the first positive experiences is encouraging, so I suggest taking them in as they come and using them to motivate you to explore further. Buy a few books on your new place’s culture (lots of funny books) and read up on it. If you show a willingness to integrate, people will welcome it and help you through it. For example, if you’re moving to Germany, you can start complaining about how slow administration works or discover the beauties of Grillenwetter (Barbecue weather™ is the German habit of grilling as soon as the first sun appears early in March. No, it’s not all about Oktoberfest and beer).
After about a year of living abroad, you should be able to feel like yourself and fully realize that you’re living your life there. When this phase hit me after some time abroad, the very thought that crossed my mind as I was having a walk was, “Wow, I actually live here.” And I was so grateful for that. I felt like I had accomplished something great, and even though I still had (and have) ways to go to full integration, I felt happy.
This stage can have two outcomes: deep assimilation and integration. Those who assimilate completely tend to cut cords with their home country, culture, and national identity and fully embrace the new place (sometimes, they’re called Adopters). On the other hand, the other group will pick and choose positive aspects from both cultures and make their own unique blend to live by. When you’re here, it’s time to start making plans for the future. You’ve gotten to know your host culture, and you can consider staying (and how you’re going to achieve that) or relocating again. Both options will be completely reasonable and feasible if you’re fully integrated.
5. The (Shy) Fifth Stage – Re-Entry Shock
The culture shock model does not always address this stage, but I think it’s worth mentioning. After a prolonged stay abroad, people return to their home country and may face the re-entry shock of being there again. It is a reverse culture shock experience where your home feels alien and not quite ideal. To deal with this stage, I suggest getting in touch with your friends and family and starting a routine to ease yourself into your old life. For more tips on re-adjusting, check out our article on reverse culture shock!
My Personal Culture Shock Travel Experience – I Did Warn You!
If you have no interest in my own story, feel free to skip ahead. Otherwise, I’ll keep this short.
I am from the Balkans, currently living in Western Europe. After moving abroad to study, and I must admit, my Honeymoon stage was quite long. I loved everything about this place to the point that I didn’t want to go home. My experience with the rejection phase was more directed towards my own country, as whenever I visited, I felt terribly out of place and, quite honestly, hated it there. Disorder, noise, rampant rule-breaking – all of it felt overwhelming, and I didn’t save my breath in criticizing it.
Now that some years have passed. I love it here, but I have not assimilated completely – I’ve rather integrated. My cultural blend includes many culinary traditions from home, my favorite music, and regular trips to specialized supermarkets where I can buy our imported snacks. Otherwise, I am more or less westernized and no longer feel at odds with either culture. When I go home, I feel at home, and I rest and enjoy my time and interactions. When I come back, I also know I am at home where I have a job, daily routines, friends, and projects. The two co-exist peacefully (for the most) part, and I am grateful for that.
If You’re Wondering about Biggest Culture Shock Countries …
… I have no proper answer for you. The further away from home, the more intense the culture shock you’ll experience. Differences in life philosophies, religion, systems of value, and language will hit you the hardest, but it all depends on how open-minded and accepting you can be towards your host culture. The fact is that not everyone can adjust to the new lifestyle, and that is okay. For instance, I know that I couldn’t handle some relocations, but I do not wish to try them either. If you’re going somewhere out of personal desire, interest in the culture, family shifts, and similar emotional reasons, you will find ways to accept your new circumstances.
Moving abroad is a life-changing decision, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly.
PS I am talking about deliberate relocations. If you find yourself fleeing abuse, war, poverty, and general adversity, my virtual support goes out to you, and I wish you the best of luck. It won’t be easy, but do try to learn a bit of the language and just take each day as it comes. Things will get better.
How to Avoid Culture Shock
To reiterate, no matter where you go, you’ll likely experience culture shock in some way, shape, or form. So, if you’re pre-emptively trying to avoid it, don’t. Consider healthy coping strategies like building a support system, expressing your emotions, and creating a positive mindset. If you feel overwhelmed, try to seek professional help. After all, culture shock is hardly a new concept, and help is ALWAYS available. Otherwise, don’t run from it. Prepare for dealing with it instead to make your life easier.
Culture Shock – Adjustment to New Cultural Environments
The key takeaways from today’s lengthy article are:
- Culture shock is the feeling of unease people experience when they move abroad and change their lives drastically.
- It has four stages: the honeymoon stage (everything is perfect in the new country), the rejection/irritability stage (the host country seems hostile), the adjustment stage (learning to accept the host culture slowly), and the adaptation stage (actually feeling like oneself again and building a life in the new place).
- Culture shock cannot be avoided, but you can deal with it with careful coping strategies.
Ultimately, culture shock is an enriching experience. Not only do you get to learn about the new culture, but you also learn about yourself – about what you like and what you’re not willing to compromise. It gives you a cosmopolitan perspective and makes you that much wiser.
So, what are you waiting for? Pack your bags, and off you run!