The Four Stages of Culture Shock (My Experience)
What Is Culture Shock?
Culture shock is a phenomenon that occurs to people who move to another country and confront different customs, ways of life, social organizations, eating habits, and social norms.
It is estimated that 85% of expats will suffer culture shock during the onset of their living abroad, and it can be severe enough to impair one’s ability to function.
What Causes Culture Shock?
There's no one trigger for culture shock, but it does have a few main causes, such as:
- language barriers,
- the presence of irrational, inscrutable or offensive aspects of the host culture and
- the absence of the comfort and familiarity one’s own culture provides (which often leads to the inability or unwillingness to adapt to the host country).
What Are the Stages of Culture Shock?
There are four phases of culture shock that expats will experience.
- The Honeymoon Stage
- The Frustration Stage
- The Adjustment Stage
- The Acceptance Stage
The following is the story of our experience with culture shock, with a deeper explanation of each stage as well as some tips on how to settle into your new home country a little more easily.
My Story of Surviving Culture Shock
Totally mesmerized by the idea of faraway Caribbean islands, Egyptian pyramids and African villages, I joined my high school's International Club as soon as I had the chance. Although my brother and I already spoke Spanish with our mother, I took Spanish and Italian classes. I also became friends with Hans Pieter, a classmate originally from Germany who would tell me about his culture. I was hooked.
I Knew I Wanted a Career in International Business
By the time I was a senior in high school, there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to pursue a career in international business. This was the perfect combination of working for large corporations that paid well and provided the opportunity to travel all over the world for free. Some four years later, I graduated from college with a bachelor's in international business and a minor in marketing.
Within a couple of months of graduating, I was hired to work in the European division of a large multi-national corporation based in Manhattan. Although I started at the bottom of the totem pole, I was extremely excited to be working in an international environment—an office where my co-workers spoke many foreign languages and originated from different parts of the world. It was absolutely a dream come true.
Finally, an Opportunity to Work Abroad Arose
Slowly, I was given more responsibility, and two years later I was able to take my first overseas trip to a trade show in Frankfurt, Germany. Eventually, after seven years of commuting from New Jersey and getting off at the Park Avenue and 39th Street station, a possible overseas assignment surfaced. Throwing my name in the hat was a forgone conclusion.
After lobbying everyone in sight, my transfer to a newly acquired company in Barcelona, Spain, was approved. By then, married but with no children, the decision to pursue a transatlantic adventure was an easy one to make. My wife was all for it.
Although much preparation needed to be undertaken—sell the car and furniture; get visas; do research on culture, food and finances—time flew by. Before long, we found ourselves in our new apartment in La Salut, a neighborhood in the District of Gràcia in Barcelona. Surrounded by the slopes of the hills Carmelo and Rovira, our one-bedroom flat was just a few blocks from the famous Park Güell designed by iconic architect Antoni Gaudí.
It would be an understatement to say that we were fascinated. Labyrinthine and narrow cobblestone streets with small shops and family-owned restaurants in almost every corner. Cafes where you could get an expresso, a small Iberico-ham baguette sandwich and a glass of orange juice for breakfast with a few pesetas. Easy access to the tranvía, or tram, and the metro lines. And then, of course, Park Güell within walking distance of the apartment. Barcelona was a dream come true.
However, was this great feel-good sensation destined to last long? Enter culture shock!
Stage 1: The Honeymoon
We were undoubtedly in what psychologists call the honeymoon stage of culture shock, a period in which we saw the new country in very romantic terms. We were mesmerized by Spain's long and interesting history, great food and amazingly friendly people with fascinating habits.
At First, Everything Went Smoothly
We couldn’t believe we were so lucky as to be able to take a walk through streets with buildings considered works of art, and where the pace of life was a third of that in the northeastern USA. The realization that people moved at ‘human speed’ was comforting. As my wife would often say: “People here work to live, not live to work.”
Interestingly, of all the research we did before moving to Spain, we did not investigate or even realize that there was such a phenomenon as culture shock. Had we known, we would have been more prepared, as it typically occurs to people like us who move to another country and are exposed to different customs, social organizations, strange eating habits and seemingly undecipherable government regulations and laws.
Then the Cultural Clash Began to Show
In our case, especially with my wife, the honeymoon phase lasted about three months. The difference between our fast US culture and Spain’s slower, more family-centric approach to life began to show. What we already considered a slow pace came to a grinding halt at lunchtime. This was the time grocery stores, government offices, retail outlets and businesses of all types would close from two to three hours, depending on the establishment.
While today the two-hour lunch break in Spain is slowly dying, back in those days, it was a mainstay of the local culture. At first, this practice seemed inconsequential, perhaps even somewhat novel. After a while, however, it became irritating and cumbersome. In my case, since I lived some 45 minutes from the office, going home for lunch was impractical. But going out for a three-course meal every day of the week was out of the question.
Time, in general, was a difficult issue in Spain. Americans and Canadians, as well as many other Northern European cultures, are monochronic. This means tasks are performed one at a time. Southern European countries—particularly Spain—are polychronic, meaning many assignments are carried out at once.
In addition to these two approaches, Spaniards are synchronous while Americans are sequential in their time management. Synchronous cultures view the passing of time in an elastic, cyclical and interconnected fashion. Consequently, appointments and deadlines are not adhered to in strict time frames.
In my case, I view and adhere to time within a sequential structure. My day is subdivided into time segments ending at predetermined intervals. Once a segment expires, it is time to move on to the next task. If the initial job is not finished, time is allocated for it to be concluded at a later interval.
These disparately different approaches to managing and viewing time created a great deal of anxiety for me. At work and socially, appointments were hardly ever followed, meetings never started on time and deadlines were rescheduled. Finding myself at the office until 10:00 or 11:00 PM was not uncommon, most of the time because I was in meetings that should have been held on schedule or waiting for co-workers to complete their jobs.
Stage 2: Frustration (or Culture Shock Itself)
As these types of complaints accumulated, our excitement gave way to feelings of frustration and anger. In many cases, we perceived some of these events as not only strange but as offensive to our values. In my wife's case, language barriers exacerbated her frustration. Missing family, friends and the overall familiarity with our regular doctors, grocery stores, pharmacies and other services were also contributing factors.
This was the point at which we were experiencing the effects of culture shock, or the negotiation stage.
We Began to Feel Helpless and Angry
It wasn’t just the frustration and anger we felt over these issues; there were also secondary effects that we felt which challenged our decision to have moved to Spain. We experienced feelings of helplessness, withdrawal, irritability coupled with anger, mood swings, homesickness and boredom. A lot of these feelings led us to stereotyping the locals. At times we saw them as all the same—people who fit certain patterns we had arbitrarily assigned to them. This resulted in us feeling hostile toward most nationals we encountered.
To some degree, we were fortunate. The economy in post-Franco Spain was improving. We had access to good healthcare services, excellent sanitary conditions, many of the same freedoms we enjoyed at home and a Western culture which ultimately was not that different from ours. It could have been worse.
Years later, we heard stories of expats who went to less developed countries who in addition to our frustrations developed other negative feelings. Some became obsessed with cleanliness, developed phobias of germs, viruses, close contact with others and even harbored thoughts of suicide. In some countries where freedoms of speech, religion and association are oppressed, foreigners, especially Americans, experience additional frustrations.
Stage 3: Adjustment
Approximately a year after we had arrived and nine months after we had experienced culture shock, our anger and frustrations began to give way to some degree of adjustment to our environment. Many of the routines we had in the U.S. returned. We joined a tennis club that offered a swimming pool, exercise classes and many other activities. While my wife was still struggling with the language, she became friends with a few Spaniards with whom she could communicate in English. She also met some other foreigners, including two American women who shared similar pleasure in hiking and biking.
Establishing a Routine Was Hugely Helpful
Although we still missed many of our friends and family members back home, we began to feel at home in our host country. We knew what to expect, and most importantly, we began to develop strategies for coping with situations that caused anxiety. Additionally, Spain’s culture began to make sense. This allowed us to see our environment as more normal.
For many other expats, this stage becomes impossible to navigate if they are not able to integrate into the new culture. They become isolated and withdraw from the local environment and see a return to their home country as the only way out of this quagmire.
Stage 4: Acceptance (and Adaptation)
Sometime after celebrating our one-year anniversary of living in Spain and experiencing the emotional roller coaster of culture shock syndrome, we began to adjust. We knew we were not going to be in Spain forever. The assignment I was fulfilling was not meant to go beyond four years. Most likely sometime after our second or third year, I would be offered a spot in another division in the U.S. or another country.
Finally, We Adapted and Felt at Home
The point at which expats begin to accept and integrate into the host country is called the adaptation stage. In our case, we were able to participate comfortably in our host country. While we did not give up our own culture and customs, we felt immersed in Catalan society. This was the point at which we felt we had become bi-cultural.
The routines we developed kept our lives organized. We would meet regularly with friends for tapas and drinks. They would come to our home or we would be invited to theirs. But most importantly, our understanding of the world broadened substantially. Barcelona began to feel like home. We felt a sense of attachment not just to our immediate surroundings but to the Catalan region and even to the country of Spain as a whole.
Culture Shock Can Be a Good Thing!
As it turns out, culture shock was a good experience for us. Experts say turning from the familiar to the unfamiliar keeps the mind alert and nimble. It helps get rid of prejudices, stereotypes and preconceived notions. It even fosters humor.
In his 1762 treatise Emile, or On Education, Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau said:
I hold it for an incontestable maxim, that whoever has seen but one people, instead of knowing men, knows only those with whom he has lived.
Tips on Avoiding Culture Shock
Most people who move to other countries experience culture shock. But it is not completely unavoidable; there are strategies that expats can use to reduce its effects. Some of these are:
- Learn as much as possible about the country to which you will move. This includes time zones, traffic patterns, climate, foods, political system, medical services, culture, religions. Potential risks such as crime, potable water, food safety and taboos.
- Be open-minded and willing to learn about the local culture.
- If a different language from English is spoken, try to learn it as much as possible.
- Don't withdraw. Travel within the country. Participate in local celebrations. Visit historical sights.
- Meet people and make friends.
- Bring articles that remind you of home. Photos and videos of friends and relatives. Bring souvenirs from home.
- Keep in touch with people at home. Skype, email, phone or whatever is convenient for you.
- Be patient. While you will feel like a stranger at first, it will pass. Culture shock, and the anxiety associated with it, will disappear in due time.
- Expect weirdness. Understand social norms are different all over the world. Some cultures will undoubtedly be patently different from yours.
- Most importantly, maintain a sense of humor and make the most out of your experience.
Why Did I Want to Live Abroad in the First Place?
We were a bunch of teenagers sitting around the living room smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. My parents were out and not coming back for a few hours, so it was natural to take advantage of the opportunity.
My cousin Leah, a self-appointed clairvoyant, tarot card reader and the oldest in the group at the ripe old age of 18 was holding court. With a Newport Menthol burning on the ashtray next to her and a Budweiser at the edge of the coffee table, she told each of us our future. We all took turns and listened to her tell us about the person we would marry, how many children we would have and the type of adventures we could expect in our lifetime.
Her shtick was quite polished. First, she would ask the recipient of the upcoming divination to provide her with a personal item; a wallet, scarf, winter glove or anything in use at that moment. After holding the item in her hands for a minute, she would shuffle the tarot cards and begin the reading.
When my time came, I was quite excited. My cousin was cool. She had a certain bohemian air. She possessed that avant-garde look of someone not inhibited by conventions. To a 16-year-old, she seemed larger than life. A sage.
“It’s your turn, cuz,” she said. “What are you going to give me?” “My wallet,” I said, as I took it out of my back pocket and handed it to her. After a minute of holding it with both hands, she gave the wallet back and started to flip the tarot cards.
Half of what she said was such nonsense that I don’t remember many of the details, except for one declaration she made: “You will travel all over the world and meet people from many different countries.”
I never imagined she would be so right!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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© 2019 JC Scull