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What is Culture Shock?

Culture shock is the disorientation and emotional upheaval one experiences when entering a new environment with unfamiliar customs, language, and norms. It's a natural part of the adaptation process, reflecting our innate response to change. As we navigate through these feelings, we often discover resilience and a deeper understanding of the world. How have you coped with culture shock in your travels?
Garry Crystal
Garry Crystal

Culture shock is a condition that affects people who travel to a country different from their own. The term describes a traveler's feelings of bewilderment when the environment and culture change from the one that he or she is familiar with. The unfamiliar surroundings, foreign language and strange habits of a new country can all contribute to a feeling of uneasiness and confusion.

It is not only those who who travel and live abroad who get Culture shock. Any change in surroundings can bring about these feelings. If a person leaves home for the first time and goes to college, for example, then the new environment and new experiences may be a shock to the system.

Any change in surroundings can bring about culture shock, and many college students experience this after leaving home for the first time.
Any change in surroundings can bring about culture shock, and many college students experience this after leaving home for the first time.

Although culture shock is a state of mind, it can result in many symptoms, both physical and mental. Anyone who has moved from home for the first time or to a new city is probably familiar with the immediate feeling of bewilderment and sometimes loss. Sadness and loss, however temporary, are only natural when living in a new place far from home. The mind needs time to familiarize itself with new surroundings and new ways of life.

Most people experience the greatest culture shock when traveling from the developed Western world to Third World countries.
Most people experience the greatest culture shock when traveling from the developed Western world to Third World countries.

Some people experience physical symptoms as well. They may feel ill or suffer from sleeplessness or mood swings. Although homesickness is considered a state of mind, it can bring about symptoms such as irritability and a short temper when confronted with confusion over a new culture.

If living in a new country, the best way for someone to deal with culture shock is to integrate slowly. He should be aware that everyday tasks may be completely different from the way they were back home. A simple task, such as ordering a meal in a restaurant, may require learning a whole set of new social skills. The feeling of excitement upon entering a new country can soon dissipate as a whole new set of life skills must be acquired.

Some people suffer from sleeplessness caused by culture shock.
Some people suffer from sleeplessness caused by culture shock.

The biggest shock most people receive is when traveling from the Western world to Third World countries. Most people are only used to seeing images of shocking poverty through their television screens. Once a person have driven along a road to find an entire family living on the roadside, however, the poverty becomes incredibly real. The realities of the lives of people in the developing world, when compared to conditions in the Western world, are likely to bring about the biggest shock a traveler can experience.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is culture shock, and how does it manifest?

The unfamiliar language and surroundings of a foreign country can cause culture shock.
The unfamiliar language and surroundings of a foreign country can cause culture shock.

Culture shock is a common reaction to the disorientation many people feel when experiencing an entirely new way of life. According to the American Psychological Association, it can manifest through symptoms like confusion, anxiety, and even physical discomfort when adjusting to a new cultural environment. People may struggle with language barriers, social norms, and different daily routines, which can lead to a sense of isolation or frustration.

How long does culture shock typically last?

Culture shock might occur when traveling to an impoverished community.
Culture shock might occur when traveling to an impoverished community.

The duration of culture shock varies from person to person. As outlined by the U.S. Department of State, it often follows a U-curve pattern, starting with a honeymoon phase, followed by a negotiation phase (where culture shock peaks), and gradually leading to adjustment and adaptation. This process can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months, depending on individual resilience, previous travel experience, and the level of cultural difference encountered.

Are there different stages of culture shock?

One of the best ways to deal with culture shock is to integrate slowly into the new environment.
One of the best ways to deal with culture shock is to integrate slowly into the new environment.

Yes, culture shock typically unfolds in four stages: the honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment, and mastery stages. Initially, travelers may feel excited and fascinated by the new culture (honeymoon). As daily challenges arise, feelings of frustration and disorientation can set in (negotiation). Over time, individuals learn to navigate these challenges (adjustment), eventually becoming comfortable and adept at functioning in the new environment (mastery), as described by the Canadian Bureau for International Education.

Can culture shock have any positive effects?

Absolutely. While challenging, culture shock can lead to personal growth and a deeper understanding of one's own cultural biases and global perspectives. It can enhance adaptability, problem-solving skills, and empathy towards others. According to research published in the International Journal of Psychology, successfully navigating culture shock can also increase cultural intelligence and the ability to communicate effectively across cultures.

What are some effective strategies for coping with culture shock?

To cope with culture shock, experts recommend maintaining an open mind, learning the local language, and seeking out familiar activities to create a sense of home. Building a support network with locals and other expatriates can provide emotional support. Mindfulness and stress management techniques can also be beneficial. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that travelers prepare by researching their destination's culture and customs before departure to set realistic expectations.

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Discussion Comments

anon305043

I've been living in another country for a bit more than one year. Every day, I feel like I'm going crazy. I have faced many people-related problems since I arrived, and now I don't really trust anyone. The slightest remark or comment upsets me. I used to think I was a world-savvy person, since I've visited many different countries in the past, but this is just too much for me sometimes.

To make things worse, I live in a small town full of close-minded people. There are almost no socializing options. The ones I have are with people who are nothing like me and I feel so insecure because in my craziness I've come to believe they will judge me.

Everything is easier said than done. I just hope time will help me through.

SteamLouis

@ddljohn-- Yea, I think it would help to read about China, their customs, traditions, food, rules of etiquette and so forth before going. If you know what to expect, you won't have as much of a shock, although some shock is inevitable.

Breaking through culture shock takes time, so don't rush it. I think our mind deals with it on its own but it helps to stay positive and be open-minded about whatever it is we're experiencing.

I've lived in more than four different countries for my job as well. The first couple of times was difficult but then it started getting easier and easier. Now I don't have much trouble when I go somewhere new.

ddljohn

My husband's company will be sending us to China for several years. I am really worried about culture shock because I have never lived outside of the United States.

Is there anything I can do to prepare myself so that the change is not as difficult?

candyquilt

I think the hardest part about culture shock is not things like food and clothes and maybe not even language, but the way people think.

It's so hard to understand what is going on and why misunderstandings happen when you can't think like someone or understand the way they think. It's just so confusing.

anon280681

Most people are only used to seeing images of shocking poverty through their television screens.

So, what about the others, who were shocked by those who look at them with contempt and scorn? No way you are leaving your own world.

anon214196

Really, the thought of not being home is a culture shock on its own, and that everything in your new country (mine is China) is not exactly what you expected.

Even though it may seem like a great, daring idea to learn about life in a third world country, there is another thing to actual live it. I also believe life is short. If your experience of culture shock is too strong, just go back if you can. Life is already physically stressful; you don't have to endure the mental tortures.

anon117549

About the family on the roundabout: Honestly, that cannot be the only example you can give for culture shock.

There's more culture shock for a Westerner than poverty when they arrive in these third-world countries. They realize that there are cars, brick houses, and there's more to this nation than poverty/disease. People don't live on trees, they don't have lions as pets, they don't walk around half naked, and neither do they speak in clicking tongues!

ValleyFiah

@ Georgesplane- Your experience with culture shock is interesting. I always thought of culture shock as something study abroad students experienced when they traveled to desolate countries. Your perspective is interesting. It must be different for people who come to the states and see everything that the average American takes for granted.

Georgesplane

I experienced what many would call reverse culture shock when I first moved to the United States. I was born in Jamaica (I was a US citizen born abroad). I flew back and forth between Miami, Montego Bay, and Lucea for the first five years of my life, but my home was in Jamaica.

When I finally moved to the states, I moved from a tiny house in Lucea to the Pacific Palisades. I had trouble adjusting to my new school, and I had trouble making friends. Most kids could not understand my accent, and I did not know all of the American English words that they knew. I ended up getting into fights, and becoming depressed. TO adjust I went to counseling, participated in team sports and martial arts, and switched to a private school. It was a lot of hard work to assimilate, but 23 years later, there is no trace of an accent and my grammar and syntax has improved.

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    • Any change in surroundings can bring about culture shock, and many college students experience this after leaving home for the first time.
      By: WavebreakmediaMicro
      Any change in surroundings can bring about culture shock, and many college students experience this after leaving home for the first time.
    • Most people experience the greatest culture shock when traveling from the developed Western world to Third World countries.
      By: lilia_kopyeva
      Most people experience the greatest culture shock when traveling from the developed Western world to Third World countries.
    • Some people suffer from sleeplessness caused by culture shock.
      By: bramgino
      Some people suffer from sleeplessness caused by culture shock.
    • The unfamiliar language and surroundings of a foreign country can cause culture shock.
      By: adisa
      The unfamiliar language and surroundings of a foreign country can cause culture shock.
    • Culture shock might occur when traveling to an impoverished community.
      By: TheFinalMiracle
      Culture shock might occur when traveling to an impoverished community.
    • One of the best ways to deal with culture shock is to integrate slowly into the new environment.
      By: TheFinalMiracle
      One of the best ways to deal with culture shock is to integrate slowly into the new environment.