In today’s world, many of us can easily move from one place to another. Thanks to globalization and advances in technology, we can move to another country to live, work, study or simply visit. As a result of this, people often experience “culture shock”. In this article, I will explore the concept of culture shock from a socio-cultural perspective. I will focus on the origins, causes, effects, and solutions to culture shock and its cultural significance in anthropology.
Culture shock – definitions and origins
Social scientists have attempted to formulate a concise definition of culture for hundreds of years. Today, culture is defined as our orients, grounds, supports, frames, values, norms, and beliefs in daily life. Our cultural beliefs are a reference point for understanding the world and others. Our norms and values guide our behaviors and interaction with others.
Culture shock is a complex phenomenon defined as an experience an individual may have when one moves to a new and different cultural environment. As a result of travel or moving to a new social and cultural setting, we lose all our familiar signs, symbols, and cues of social intercourse. These signs are ways in which we navigate ourselves in everyday situations. For example, when to shake hands and what to say when we meet people, when and how to give tips, how to make purchases, when to accept or refuse invitations, or when to take statements seriously or not. Therefore, the cues include words, gestures, facial expressions, customs, or norms that are normally acquired in our early socialization as we are growing up. They are part of our culture, just like the language we speak and the beliefs we have. However, when we enter a foreign culture, all or most of these cues are removed. This often leads us to feel lost and we may experience personal disorientation, depression, and anxiety and we are experiencing and transitioning to a new unfamiliar way of life.
Despite the fact that this concept is increasingly and more often experienced by people (particularly migrants) around the world, as well as many anthropologists who research cultures and different ways of living around the world, the subject is rarely discussed in anthropology or social sciences (such as sociology and psychology) as a whole. Culture shock is a subcategory of transition shock and affects most transplanted people. As we move to an unfamiliar environment, we lose hundreds of familiar cues, leading to frustration, irritability, stress, and shock.
The first use of the term
Manuel Gamio, a Mexican anthropologist who wrote about immigrants from Mexico adjusting to the US culture, used the term ‘cultural shock’ back in 1929 by saying:
“The civilization of the larger part of the immigrants is originally of native or mixed type and consequently different in form and background from that of the American people, all of which, together with the climatic differences between both countries, make the cultural shock sharp and the biological adaptation for the newly arrived Mexican painful. From this situation, a selection results; some individuals go back to Mexico not to return to the United States, while others gradually become adjusted to the new environment.” (Manuel Gamio, 1929, 63-69)
Similarly, a year later, H. Ian Hogbin uses the same words while writing and discussing the arrival of the Europeans and the cultural shock they experienced and brought to the South Pacific tribes. Later on, in 1938, Myrtle R. Phillips talks about “cultural shocks” in “Abstracts and Digest”. Then the term “cultural shock” was replaced by “culture shock”, which is the term that is mostly used nowadays, although the sporadic use of “cultural shock” still remains.
Symptoms of a culture shock
Culture shock can have an immediate impact, but usually, it is much more common that the culture shock symptoms are delayed. It can be difficult to identify symptoms of culture shock within oneself, as we might be unable to understand, communicate and function effectively due to culture shock (Relojo-Howell, 2016). However, it is quite easy to identify some of the common symptoms of culture shock, from the outside, as they include:
- Feelings of frustration, loneliness, confusion, melancholy, irritability, insecurity, and helplessness
- Unstable temperament and hostility
- Criticism of local people, culture, and customs
- Excessive concern over drinking water, food dishes, and bedding
- Fear of physical contact with locals
- Oversensitivity and overreaction to minor difficulties
- Changes in eating and sleeping habits
- Loss of sense of humor
In 1960, in “Culture Shock: Adjustment to New Cultural Environments”, Kalervo Oberg described the symptoms as:
“… excessive washing of the hands; excessive concern over drinking water, food, dishes, and bedding; fear of physical contact with attendants or servants; the absent far-away stare; a feeling of helplessness and a desire for dependence on long-term residents of one’s nationality; fits of anger over delays and other minor frustrations; delay and outright refusal to learn the language of the host country; excessive fear of being cheated, robbed and injured; great concern over minor pains and eruptions of the skin; and finally that terrible longing to be back home…”
Causes of culture shock – how does it happen?
Some migrants move to a different culture to simply start a life in a new country. They are pulled by the country’s attractiveness, similar to tourists. Refugees, however, are forced to migrate due to a single or combination of factors such as political, social, economic, and environmental. They flee conditions, including, “war, revolution, ethnic conflicts, religious prosecution, genocide, political upheaval and the formation of new states, widespread human rights violations, economic crises and collapse, drought, famine, and other natural disasters”. They are pushed into a foreign environment and relocated involuntarily (Ward et al, 2001).
Whether people are forced to live in a foreign culture or do it voluntarily, they often face anxiety, disorientation, and confusion caused by interaction with local people and facing different norms and values. There are four basic causes of stress known as culture shock:
- The clash of internal cultures: behaviors, values, and worldviews
- The breakdown of communications: New language; gestures have new meanings; different social customs; values-affecting behavior
- The loss of cues or reinforces: food, climate, music, clothing
- An identity crisis: we lose our cultural pattern of interpretation
Oberg’s 4 stages of culture shock
Oberg referred to the issue of culture shock by highlighting four stages that determine the process. His model focuses on the honeymoon, crisis, recovery, and adjustment phases.
The honeymoon is a stage where the person is fascinated by the new culture and perceives it with curiosity, openness, and readiness. In the honeymoon phase, the person experiences the initial euphoria and concentrates on the nice things. The relationships with the local people are friendly but superficial.
After the honeymoon stage, the person moves onto the crisis phase, which is the essential culture shock. The individual becomes more aware of the differences and starts concentrating on them. Begins to compare the foreign language and culture to their own, becomes overwhelmed, starts feeling uncertain about oneself, develops anxiety and frustration. Some people feel so homesick, that they develop depressive behaviors, withdraw from society and find it difficult to function on a daily basis.
The initial culture shock is followed by recovery. The person accepts the problem and starts working on improving language skills, while relationships with locals are improving as well. The environment is not so confusing anymore, and the adjustment to the new culture begins.
In the final adjustment phase, anxiety vanishes, and the values, norms, and habits of the host society are accepted.
Reverse culture shock
After adjusting and becoming accustomed to a new culture, and returning to one’s home culture, people may experience the reverse culture shock. This is the process of re-adjustment to the primary culture. It is often experienced more intensely than the original culture shock and it is generally more difficult to cope with.
Reverse culture shock is a process involving idealization and expectations. After experiencing original culture shock abroad, we create an idealized version of our own culture, and we assume that the setting we are familiar with has not changed. We have expectations that things will remain the same as we left them. After returning to our own culture from abroad, we realize that life is different and the world continues without us – leading to distress and anxiety.
The Effects of culture shock
As previously explained, culture shock is a process that people have to go through to reach the adjustment phase. It varies in effects, length and severity. Many people suffer from it long after migrating to a new country and are unaware of what is bothering them. Overall, however, there are three main outcomes of that process:
- Some people struggle to integrate and accept a foreign culture. They feel alienated and isolate themselves from the rest of society because they perceive it as hostile towards them. They find that the best solution for them is to return to their own culture, often withdrawing from the host culture by becoming part of their own “ghettos”.
- Other people integrate with the new culture completely and lose their own identity. They successfully become culturally assimilated and remain in the host country forever.
- Finally, some people adapt to most aspects of the new culture, while maintaining their own. They don’t struggle with reverse culture shock after returning home or moving elsewhere (Lumen Learning)
Remedies to culture shock
It can be difficult to adjust to a new culture and cope with culture shock. However, there are certain strategies that can help ease the severity of a culture shock by coping with anxiety and rebuilding their identity. This helps people face the issue as they adjust to a strange culture.
Xia (2009) suggests five solutions that could help reduce psychological stress and would be useful while going through the process of cultural transition.
The first two of the strategies should take place pre-departure. Preparation for culture shock before people go abroad can help decrease the stress and anxiety of a culture shock.
Understanding the process of culture shock
Understanding the stages of the culture shock process can help people predict the difficulties that they may experience in a new environment. People should understand what the problems that they may face during the transition period are, and that they can solve them. As people learn about each stage of the process, they can predict the next stage. This reduces uncertainty and helps them face obstacles calmly.
Becoming familiar with the new culture
Familiarity with a new culture can help people imagine possible obstacles, which makes the new environment more acceptable and easier to adjust to. Knowledge of the new culture reduces the psychological stress and disorientation as people are better prepared for how to behave. Today, information is easier to access, and we can learn about other cultures from books, journal articles, and the internet.
Self-confidence and optimism
During the experience of moving into a new culture, self-confidence plays the main role in decreasing anxiety and overcoming obstacles. It is important to find self-efficacy – the belief that we have the ability to perform tasks well and confidence that we will succeed. Similarly, it is important to explain negative events optimistically while transitioning from one culture to another, because that is what essentially helps reduce depression and anxiety. This strategy is especially easy for people who are naturally confident and optimistic, but will be difficult for those who are not capable of it. However, extremely optimistic people may experience more serious culture shock as they are often entering a new environment without any preparation. Therefore, a moderate self-confidence and an optimistic mood are necessary for people to cope with culture shock.
Acceptance of new culture
Xia suggests that accepting other culture’s norms, values and behaviors should not be good or bad, but just different. Accepting the differences helps minimize the psychological stress and makes it easier to cope with the process of culture shock. Interest, curiosity, and willingness are also essential factors in coping with cultural stress. Although it is normal not to accept all aspects of the new culture, tolerance, and respect towards local customs and beliefs is an easy way that can be used as a strategy of coping with cultural stress, because it can help people communicate better with host nationals.
Finally, Xia suggests seeking social support as another effective remedy to culture shock. Other people can help us feel more encouraged and confident, as friends and family can help us analyze the situation and give suggestions about how to deal better with certain problems. Keeping in touch with friends and family may reinforce people’s sense of security and therefore, reduce the feelings of anxiety and depression (Xia, 2009).
Cultural significance of culture shock in Anthropology
Nowadays, more than ever, people are able to experience foreign cultures. Culture shock is a process that every individual who moves to another culture goes through. According to anthropologists such as Oberg, the time at which we experience culture shock and the severity of it differs. However, everyone goes through the process at some point while traveling or migrating.
Thus, culture shock is significant because it is relevant to all of us. Social scientists should focus on the concept and how we experience it to provide more solutions to it and make it easier for foreigners to adjust to new cultures. Moreover, studying and understanding culture shock, helps to understand what culture is.
For a long time, anthropologists thought that culture shock was an occupational disease that affected them as they studied foreign cultures. Polish-born social anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, posthumously published a diary in which he provided examples of loneliness and discontent he experienced as a fieldworker and the originator of the research method known as participant observation.
However, today, it is clear that it is not a medical condition, but a process that is experienced by most transplanted people. It is a common way of describing the process of transition, changing our environment, and the emotions and feelings we experience during that transition. Struggling to adjust to a new culture is natural and should be talked about more. Exploring the issue further could help us understand it more.
Gamio, M. (1929) Observations on Mexican Immigration into the United States. Pacific Affairs. 2 (8)
Lumen Learning. Cultural Anthropology: Culture Shock. Available: lumenlearning.com
Oberg, K. (1960) Culture Shock: Adjustment to New Cultural Environments. Practical Anthropology. 7 (4). Sage Journals. Available: sagepub.com
Thompson, C. (2021) The Origins of “Culture Shock”, Part 1. Available: The Origins of “Culture Shock,” Part 1 – Clearing Customs
Ward, C., Bochner, S., Furham, A. (2001) The Psychology of Culture Shock. 2nd Ed. East Sussex: Routledge
Xia, J. (2009) Analysis of Impact of Culture Shock on Individual Psychology. International Journal of Psychological Studies. 1 (2). Available: scinapse.io