Afraid of the unknown? Beat Culture Shock


What is Culture Shock?

Culture Shock is a normal phenomenon occurring to everyone experiencing a new culture, understanding its various stages helps you to develop a positive outcome from your experience abroad. Don’t panic!

cuture shock

In a world where travelling, migrating and studying in another country is a wide spread phenomenon, culture shock has become a construct of crucial importance. It will be  argued that culture shock, previously given negative connotations and affiliated with negative outcomes, has in fact over the years achieved a positive outlook and might actually enhance communication self-efficacy in sojourners.

In order to understand what culture shock is, firstly it is useful to look into what culture represents.

Culture is a way of life, a product of history, customs and traditions that one acquires by living in a specific environment (Oberg 1960). To say it with Geertz’s (1973,5) words, culture is “believing… that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs”.  

An individual is not born with culture and will have to learn all the signs, cues, language, customs and traditions which knit it. Once they learn, culture becomes an automatic “skill” which allows them to obtain what they want from that specific environment. Most of the times people regard their own culture as the best culture and believe their way to do things is the right way.

This attitude is named ethnocentrism; a belief, that not only the culture but also the race and country are at the centre of the universe. When individuals are suddenly transplanted into a new culture they face a general state of uncertainty as they do not know what is expected from them or what to expect from the new environment. This is when culture shock takes place. 

Culture shock effects

culture shock stage

According to Oberg there are six negative aspects produced by culture shock which are:

  1.  Stress provoked by the psychological effort of adjusting to the new environment,
  2.  A sense of loss derived from the removal or deprivation of friends, status and role,
  3.  Rejection of the host country’s culture,
  4.  Uncertainty about role expectations and self identity,
  5.  Anxiety and rejection towards the new way of living of the host country,
  6.   Feeling of helplessness for not being able to cope well in the new environment.

Furthermore, Oberg identified four stages of this “disease”: honeymoon, frustration, adjustment and acceptance

The honeymoon stage

Is characterised by the enthusiasm for being in a different environment. This stage can last from a few days to a few months and is usually experienced by those people who hold high-profile positions and do not find themselves forced to face daily life difficulties.

For example business men who are pampered in luxury hotels, showed the best places and taken to dine in fine restaurants. If the individual does not go further this stage, they describe their stay abroad as an enjoyable experience when they return home.

The Frustration Stage

Beyond this superficial stage, there is the stage of rejection which happens when, an individual of any background, is compelled to cope with daily difficulties in the host country. Conditions of living, including the weather can be hostile and in this stage the visitor does not respond well to these variations.

They feel a sense of rejection towards those problems such as language, shopping and transportation trouble.

The Adjustment Stage

They perceive the hosts of the new culture to be insensitive to their situation and seek the help of their countryman in most cases feeling a sense of dependency from them. However, the latter if well established in the new culture usually avoids their countryman suffering from culture shock.

This is the critical stage of crisis where the visitor either overcomes their frustration and sickness or leave.

The Acceptance Stage

Usually after going through a period in a new country and after struggling with the emotional stages, the final stage of culture shock is acceptance. Acceptance does not mean that new cultures or contexts are completely understood, but it means an understanding that full awareness is not necessary to function and thrive in the new environment. During the acceptance stage, foreigners are able to gather the resources they need to feel at home.

Adaptation stage

If an individual manages to overcome the stage of rejection, the adaptation stage begins. This stage is described by Oberg as an achievement as the visitor starts to communicate using the host language and interacts more with the country hosts.


At this point, the visitor perceives the daily challenges with less anxiety and is able to crack a joke over the difficulties experienced. Therefore, the adjustment stage has taken place and the visitor feels confident in dealing with daily life situations and embraces the hosts traditions and customs. Sometimes when going back home, the visitor misses the country he lived in, its people and its culture.

Other researchers such as S.O. Lesser and H.W.S. Peter (1957, cited in Pedersen 1995), developed a three stage theory regarding culture shock, identifying the first stage as the spectator phase on arrival, the second stage as when the individual cannot stand any longer outside the host culture and needs to get involved and third stage when the individual learns how to cope with difficulties in daily life activity.

More recent is the cultural shock stage theory developed by I. Torbion (1982, cited in Pedersen 1995) where he describes the first stage as the tourist phase, the second stage as the culture shock phase, the third stage as the conformist phase and fourth stage as the assimilation phase. Although there are variations in the stages described, culture shock stage theories are largely shared among those writing about this construct.

This succession of stages has been referred to a U-curve where the process of adjustment moves from a higher level towards a lower level to then return to a higher level when the ability to cope with the new culture increases. S. Lysgaard (1955) was the first to develop the U-curve hypothesis describing the adjustment process of international students sojourning in a foreign country (cited in Pedersen 1995).

This initial curve was then modified into a W-curve by J.T. Gullahorn and J.E. Gullahorn (1963) who pointed out how the adjustment process taking place when back home, resembled the initial adjustment in the host country taking the name of reverse cultural shock (cited in Pedersen 1995). In support of the U-curve hypothesis are eleven empirical studies.

However, the results of these studies, support only the general hypothesis but do not prove that a level of full adjustment, comparable to the one the individual experienced back home, can be achieved. 

The U curve hypothesis weaknesses

A. Furnham and S. Bochner (1986) identified a number of problems with the U-curve hypothesis. Firstly, they argued that the adjustment process has too many variables such as homesickness, loneliness and depression and these should be taken into account.



Secondly, they argued that the model of the U-curve reviewed in the literature is uneven as culture shock is totally subjective and people start the adjustment process at a different level of adequacy. This process also changes at a dissimilar pace for each individual. The U-curve model presents a smooth linear adjustment process which does not correspond to reality.

As a matter of fact, according to Kim (1988) the transformation takes place through a process of generation and degeneration crises or events, where the movement of change differs, according to the variables of the adjustment process and diverse individuals.

To sum up, it could be said  that, although the U-curve model is a convenient way to represent culture shock, it cannot provide an accurate measurement of the phenomenon as the latter is too complex and subjective. Moreover, the research carried out so far has been descriptive and did not look in depth at relationships among the different aspects of culture shock.

For instance, it did not analyse in which order culture shock events are likely to happen and which groups of people are more likely to suffer from certain types of culture shock.

The positive view

In contrast to the majority of early and some recent literature which see culture shock as a negative construct, a positive view is offered by Juffer (1987) who considers culture shock to be caused by a “growth experience” in which change and transition are synonym of potential growth and personal development (cited in Pedersen 2005).

Living abroad makes you a better person

As a matter of fact, Furnham and Bochner (1986) state: “The implication is that although it may be strange and possibly difficult, sojourning makes a person more adaptable, flexible and insightful”

In addition, recent empirical research about growth the potential of the sojourn demonstrate that although the visitor faces difficulties to adapt to the new environment, there is also an increase in awareness and understanding of oneself (Kauffmann et al., 1992 cited in Pedersen 1995), in the interest towards cross-culture issues, and a more critical attitude toward one’s culture (Carlson & Widaman, 1988, cited in Pedersen 1995). Kim (2001), asserts that the difficulties faced when experiencing culture shock lead the individual to make a greater effort in changing their old ways to carry out daily activities, achieving a better quality of life in the new environment.

Gudykunst and Kim (1984) identified the stress related to the initial culture shock a characteristic of the intercultural transformation theory, according to which an individual goes through a stress-adaptation-growth dynamic which over time becomes cyclic and continual. This initial stress the individual faces living in the new culture, which is named in the literature as acculturative stress, is believed to be not necessarily unconstructive and might in fact lead to positive results.

After all, the acculturation process is a step towards assimilation as the individual makes a great effort to change their cultural patterns  in order to make them suitable to the new environment.
This concept was expressed by J.W. Berry (2006) who developed four acculturation options which are: assimilation, integration, rejection and deculturation.

Berry (2006), preferred the term of “acculturative stress” to culture shock and was able to identify the acculturation process by gathering positive or negative answers to the following questions: “Is my cultural identity of value to be retained?” and “Are positive relations with the larger (host/dominant) culture to be sought?”

A. Furnham and S. Bochner (1986) took a step further and identified the potentially positive consequences of culture shock as part of the cultural learning process. The two researchers support a social skill approach to culture shock, where the sojourner learns the skills, roles, and rules in order to fit in the new environment. They also identified six classes of dependent variables which take place during the adjustment process and are able to work as a predictor in determining how and if the individual will be affected by culture shock.

These variables are:

(1) The control of conditions for initiating contact with the host culture,

(2) Several intrapersonal factors such as age, previous travel experience, language skills, personal resilience, tolerance of uncertainty, personality features and more personal factors.

(3) Physical health will also establish the outcomes of culture shock.

(4) Interpersonal variables, such as benefiting from support and having a defined role are definitively important factors,

(5) The characteristics of the host culture itself will be an important factor,

(6) the geopolitical conditions in the host culture at the time of contact will be an important factor (Furnham, 1988 cited in Pedersen 1995).

According to Furnham and Bochener (1986) the outcome of cultural contact will be negative or positive depending on these variables. In this way, learning another culture actually combines the culture-learning model with a social-skills model.

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New model of culture shock

As a result of a new pattern developed by recent research, emerges a new model of culture shock; an educational, growth model which emphasises the potential positive consequences of culture shock. An anecdotal illustration to this new concept of culture shock is the experience of a friend who came in the UK to stay only for a few months. When she first arrived in London her language skills were very low and it was the first time she had left her home country.


After the initial month, when she experienced a high sense of enthusiasm and curiosity towards the new environment, she soon experienced and came to terms with the feeling of uncertainty, ambiguity and loss. She started feeling lonely and was missing her home friends and family. She would tell me, she found people to be distant and individualistic not placing the right significance on the values of family and friendship.

In addition, she perceived the weather to be one of her main concerns as she was used to a Mediterranean climate. As she had to support her studies of the English language she had to look for a part time job. When she started looking, she felt terribly stressed as she could hardly speak the language and people did not seem to be sympathetic with her situation.

Soon she felt anger towards the host people and the new way of doing things which she had to learn in order to carry out daily life activities. She would feel totally lost when taking the bus and the underground. Sometimes, she told me the bus did not even stop because it was too crowed and she was left standing outside in the rain in disbelief as in her home country buses would stop anyway to try to get as many people on. Moreover, she did not pay attention to the queue lines and found getting shouted at for jumping the queue.

Cyclical process of adjustment

The work interviews were a complete failure as her language skills were not good enough. As a result of these incidents, she considered going back home as the stress was too much to bear. Confronted with a sense of failure, she then decided to stay and undertake the challenge of fitting in the new environment, no matter how hard it would have been to succeed.

At this stage, she focused more on her language studies and prepared a speech for the interviews. After many rejections, she was so stubborn that she found a job in a fast food chain in central London. She felt reborn, she made friends at work and felt her language skills were improving day by day. She felt part of the host country’s social life and began to embrace those cultural differences which previously made her feel stressed and miserable.

At times she would still experience a sense of loss and uncertainty but she would cope with difficulties in a much better way which did not result in major crises. Over time, this cyclical process of adjustment became more and more rewarding until when she was actually able to master the host country language and deal with people from different backgrounds.

Believing in her abilities, she decided to further her studies and ended up going to University and working in a office. Eventually, what it was supposed to be a sojourn of one year resulted in a stay of several years during when she developed valuable new skills and improved her existing ones.