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What Is Culture Shock?

By Garry Crystal
Updated: May 23, 2024

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.

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.

culture shock

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.

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.

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Discussion Comments
By anon305043 — On Nov 24, 2012

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.

By SteamLouis — On Nov 18, 2012

@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.

By ddljohn — On Nov 17, 2012

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?

By candyquilt — On Nov 16, 2012

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.

By anon280681 — On Jul 19, 2012

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.

By anon214196 — On Sep 14, 2011

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.

By anon117549 — On Oct 11, 2010

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!

By ValleyFiah — On Aug 10, 2010

@ 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.

By Georgesplane — On Aug 10, 2010

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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