What Is Culture Shock, And How Can You Avoid It?

Living abroad is an exciting experience: It’s filled with new food, new people, new customs and it can completely transform your life. But did you know that alongside these positives, there can be a negative side to all this newness?

What is Culture Shock?

While it’s difficult to agree on a concrete definition, “culture shock” describes the confusing or unpleasant emotions that a person might experience when exposed to a new cultural environment. Culture shock usually only sets in after someone has spent several months in a new culture (so tourists are fortunately spared), but the experience is surprisingly common. Symptoms of culture shock can vary widely — from mild fatigue and irritability to depression and psychosis — but the effects are often greater when someone moves to a society with very different social rules from their own.

The first use of the term is attributed to anthropologist Kalervo Oberg, who coined it in 1960. When talking about culture shock, people typically reference Oberg’s four (later adapted to five) stages, so let’s break them down:

  1. Honeymoon — This is the first stage, where everything about your new home seems rosy. Any differences between your home culture and the new culture seem fun and exciting because you’re experiencing a new place. You might even idealize this new culture and believe it’s superior to your own.
  2. Negotiation — At the second stage, you begin to experience the negative aspects of culture shock. Typically you’ve been in this new culture for a few months, but instead of feeling charmed by your environment, you feel irritable and frustrated. Simple things, like mailing a letter or renting an apartment, which were straightforward in your home country, can be a real headache after your move. Even simple cultural differences, like whether or not people in your new home line up (or “queue”) when waiting for services, can make you feel exasperated. You’ll also likely believe that your home country is the better, more logical place to live — not because it is, but because you know all of those rules and customs.
  3. Adjustment — After a few more months (up to a year), you start to find your own kind of routine in your host country. You’ve successfully negotiated most of the social rules and reached a state of “normalcy.” You may not feel completely comfortable, but you know what is expected of you in your new home. In this stage, you might reach a more objective view of your host culture (and even your home culture), where it is not fully bad, nor fully good.
  4. Adaptation — The last stage is where you finally feel like you have a mastery of this new culture. This doesn’t mean that you’ve completely assimilated or that you’ve given up all of your previously held social beliefs — but that you feel comfortable navigating all aspects of your new home.
  5. “Reverse Culture Shock” — While not part of the original list, reverse culture shock can be just as real for some people. This step is brought on by returning to your home culture after adopting your new culture’s social rules and establishing a new normal for your daily life. This, paired with the fact that your home culture also typically goes through changes in your absence, can make for a very rough re-adjustment. Many expats feel that after adapting to new cultures, they can never really “go home.”

It should also be noted that not all individuals go through all the stages, especially those that choose to leave — they never come to terms with their host culture. Some people also move through the stages at different times, or hop between stages on their journey.

How To Ease The Effects Of Culture Shock

Cultural shock is one the primary reasons that people choose to leave their new overseas lives early. When they feel isolated and disconnected from their environment, it’s easy for them to want to go back home. Spousal dissatisfaction is another common reason for early departure. For many people, a new job in another country means the whole family must say goodbye to their homeland. Here are five tips that can lessen the negative impact of culture shock for you and your loved ones:

1. Prepare ahead of time

This is perhaps the most obvious tip, but taking time to learn about the new culture ahead of your arrival can make a real impact on your ability to feel comfortable in your new home. If your future workplace or educational institution holds formal trainings to help prepare you, do them! These seminars will often give you information on local customs so it’s not so jarring when you first encounter them. Furthermore, preparing beforehand and participating in formal trainings have been shown to decrease the likelihood of early return.

2. Learn the local language

This one is probably a given because it’s the key to unlocking so many other helpful tips and tricks. Making friends with the locals is 100% easier when you can understand their jokes and take part in their conversations. Sure, many people worldwide speak English (and your workplace or program may be in English), but you’re missing out on a whole other dimension of culture by not engaging with the local language. Besides, it would be a shame to waste the best opportunity you have at language immersion.

3. Make friends in your new home

Of course, making new friends is always easier said than done, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a vital part of integration. Having a social network is one of the most important aspects to avoiding culture shock because these groups can provide emotional support when things get tough.

There are actually clear psychological benefits to maintaining different types of friendship groups while abroad. By keeping the friends you have from your home culture, you can gripe about the things that bother you while also maintaining contact with those that share your values. But making friends with locals is even more important. These friends will make you feel like you’re a part of your host society and provide you with the support network to work through the logistical challenges of resettling abroad.

4. Follow your interests

Most of us have activities outside of work (or school) that give our lives meaning and dimension. Some of us love sports, or we make art, or we volunteer for organizations that we care about. It can be easy to forget when starting your life as an expat that these activities are great for stress management. Once you get down all the basics of your new home, you should start building up your leisure activities. If you love sports, you should join a team or sports club; if you always went to church, you should find a local congregation; if you loved to volunteer or be involved politically, find an equivalent in your new country! Not only will these make you feel more at home and less stressed, but you’ll probably make some new friends, too.

5. Get in tune with your needs

As already mentioned, symptoms of culture shock can sometimes be severe, causing hyper-irritability and depression. Even for individuals that are readily prepared and adaptable, culture shock can bring on feelings of stress and exhaustion. For this reason, it’s important to be conscious of what you need emotionally and to be proactive — not reactive — in your approach. Find people in your host country and from home that you can talk to. For many people, finding a counselor that specializes in expat issues is especially helpful.

It’s also okay to let yourself feel overwhelmed by your new home sometimes. You can’t be zen about the changes all the time. Enjoy things from home and find activities to de-stress, like preparing family recipes, watching a favorite movie or TV show, or doing whatever else calms you down. Just keep in mind that you shouldn’t take this as an excuse to lock yourself inside for your whole stay!

So don’t go at it alone, and don’t try to tackle expat life without learning the local language. Speaking like a native will make integrating and forming friendships that much simpler!

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Claire Larkin

Claire Larkin was born and raised in Arizona before jumping ship and moving to Berlin in 2017. While she studied political science and history in university, she now spends her time writing and editing for Babbel Magazine. In her free time, Claire likes to watch all kinds of science fiction, give astrology readings, and hoard wool to stay warm during German winters.

Claire Larkin was born and raised in Arizona before jumping ship and moving to Berlin in 2017. While she studied political science and history in university, she now spends her time writing and editing for Babbel Magazine. In her free time, Claire likes to watch all kinds of science fiction, give astrology readings, and hoard wool to stay warm during German winters.