By: Dr. Stephen-Claude Hyatt
Clinical Health Psychologist
Experiencing new cultures, and obtaining a better understanding of your own culture, can result in some of the most positive and life-altering experiences. When going abroad, individuals will experience differences in manners, beliefs, customs, laws, language, art, religion, values, concept of self, family organization, social organization, and behavior among many others. All these elements combine to form your host country’s rich and unique culture, which may eventually merge into our own culture.
Culture shock is a term used to describe the anxiety and feelings of surprise, disorientation, and confusion, which can develop when people have to operate within an entirely different cultural or social environment from their own, such as a foreign country or a new and different company from what they are accustomed to. It grows out of the difficulties in assimilating the new culture, causing difficulty in knowing what is appropriate and what is not.
There are three phases of culture shock: the honeymoon phase; the rejection phase; and the recovery phase. During the initial phase one may feel excited and exhilarated as they experience the newness of the environment, but for some however, the novelty soon wears off. This leads to the rejection phase where you may begin to miss your usual ways of dealing with home, work, social relationships, and everyday life. You may find yourself wanting to stay indoors and not explore the environment after a while, as you are impacted by this new culture. If there is a different language from the one you are accustomed to, speaking and listening to that language every day and trying to understand how things are done, may feel like an overwhelming effort. You may feel homesick and may idealize your life back home or in your old working environment, while being highly critical of life in your new country or company. Feeling frustrated, angry, anxious, or even depressed are not uncommon. You may also experience minor health problems and/or disruptions in sleeping and eating patterns. Your motivation may diminish, and you may feel like withdrawing from your new friends. This is a natural reaction to living or working within a new culture, which impact everyone to varying degrees.
It is important to note that naturally, as time passes you will be better able to enjoy your new surroundings. Feelings and attitudes about being in this new environment will improve, although you may never get to the high level experienced during the first phase. You may become more relaxed, regain your self-confidence, and enjoy life in your new country. A more balanced view of life within your new environment will develop. Misunderstandings and mistakes in the earlier phases of cultural adjustment, which may have become major obstacles, will be more easily understood and resolved.
However, for some people the third phase does not come naturally, and they are left stuck in the rejection phase, and this is where culture shock truly takes over. This can lead to various realities including physical and psychological illness. In order to get through this phase, you need to interact more with your environment, force yourself to get involved with organizations, people and systems within the new environment. The mistake lots of individuals make is to hold on to things from their own culture or environment, and while rejecting the new culture and environment. Many believe that the solution to transitioning is finding ways to hold on to friends from the old context, which is good initially, but should not be the focus in the long run. The problem with that is, if you spend the majority of your free time maintaining contact with those left behind, you can run the risk of retarding the development of new connections and relations. If you are transitioning to a place where you will be for a few months or years, you will need to allow yourself to develop a healthy community in this new place, without holding on to those relationships from the old environment that should naturally die. Granted, some relationships from the old context will naturally transition with you, and this is fine.
For most individuals the culture shock or what in clinical terms we often call Adjustment Disorder, usually resolves after 6 months, once the person makes an effort to connect with the new environment. However, if this does not resolve the issue, it is a good time to seek out a psychologist or trained counselor to speak with. Culture shock is a natural phenomenon, but it is usually made worse by the individual thinking there is something really wrong with them, due to the symptoms that may develop.