What Is Culture Shock?

The term culture shock refers to feelings of uncertainty, confusion, or anxiety that people experience when they are transplanted into a society that's different from their own. Culture shock sets in when people vacation, do business, go to school, or move to another city or country. The syndrome arises from an individual's unfamiliarity with local customs, language, and acceptable behavior.

Companies often provide training to help employees acclimate and reduce cultural gaffes, which can affect professional transactions, operations, and relationships when doing business abroad.

Key Takeaways

  • Culture shock is a sense of anxiety, depression, or confusion that results from being cut off from your familiar culture, environment, and norms when living in a foreign country or society.
  • Those experiencing culture shock go through distinct phases of euphoria, discomfort, adjustment, and acceptance.
  • While time is the best antidote for culture shock, people can take proactive steps to alleviate it as well.

Understanding Culture Shock

Culture shock happens when an individual leaves the comfort of their home and goes to a completely foreign location, whether that's for work, school, a vacation, or for a permanent move.

The shock can be fairly intense if the two locations are completely different, such as going from a small rural area to a large metropolis in another country. People can also experience culture shock when they move from one place to another within the same country.

The feeling is particularly intense at the beginning of a stay abroad and can be tough to overcome, It's important to remember that the syndrome usually dissipates over time. As a traveler becomes more familiar with a place, the people, customs, food, and language become more palatable and comfortable. Navigation of surroundings gets easier, friends are made, and everything becomes more comfortable.

The 4 Stages of Culture Shock

People who go through culture shock tend to go through four different phases that are explained below.

The Honeymoon Stage

The first stage is commonly referred to as the honeymoon phase. That's because people are thrilled to be in their new environment. They often see it as an adventure. If someone is on a short stay, this initial excitement may define the entire experience. But the honeymoon phase for those on a longer-term move eventually ends, even though people expect it to last.

The Frustration Stage

As the initial glee of being in a new environment wears off, people grow increasingly irritated and disoriented. Fatigue sets in with the misunderstanding of others' actions or conversation, ways of doing or operating things. Local habits also become increasingly frustrating—all the little nuances of speech, appearance, and behavior that are instinctively understood at home.

The inability to effectively communicate—to interpret what others mean and to make oneself understood—is usually the prime source of frustration. This, the most difficult period of culture shock, is when depression or homesickness and longing for the familiar and comfortable become most prominent.

The Adaptation Stage

Once the frustration and feelings of anger subside, people will start to adjust to their new surroundings. Although they may still not understand certain cultural cues, people will become a little more familiar—at least to the point that interpreting them becomes much easier.

The Acceptance Stage

Following this period of adjustment comes the final stage of culture shock: acceptance. This doesn’t mean that new cultures or their values, beliefs, and attitudes are completely understood. Rather, it signifies a realization that complete understanding isn’t necessary to function and thrive in the new surroundings. During the acceptance stage, travelers have gained the familiarity they need to feel more comfortable with life in a foreign society.

Culture shock isn't caused by a specific event. It results from encountering different ways of doing things, being cut off from behavioral cues, having your own values brought into question, and feeling you don't know the rules.

How to Overcome Culture Shock

Time and habit help deal with culture shock. But individuals can take some shock-absorbing steps to speed recovery.

  • Try to learn about the new country/culture and understand the reasons for cultural differences.
  • Don't indulge in thoughts of home, constantly comparing it (favorably) to the new land.
  • Don't seal yourself off—try to meet and socialize with the locals.
  • Be honest, in a judicious way, about feeling disoriented and confused. Ask for advice and help.
  • Talk about and share your cultural background—communication runs both ways.

Culture Shock FAQs 

What is the definition of culture shock?

Culture shock refers to a whole flurry of emotions that someone experiences when they move to a completely foreign location. These feelings include excitement, anxiety, confusion, and uncertainty.

Is culture shock good or bad?

Although it may have a seemingly negative connotation, culture shock is normally considered to be a positive syndrome. While it can be challenging, those who are able to resolve their mixed feelings may find it a favorable experience.

What is an example of culture shock?

Let's say an American phone company decides to outsource its customer service department to India. The company's management team decides to send a manager, who works in the Kansas City office, to Bangalore for two years. This time helps them establish the new office, train new employees, and oversee the operations. The manager will likely experience culture shock because of the language, lifestyle, culture, customs, food, among other things.

What are the types of culture shock?

Culture shock is normally divided into four common stages. They are the honeymoon stage, the frustration stage, the adaptation stage, and the acceptance stage. These periods are characterized by feelings of excitement, anger and homesickness, adjustment, and tolerance.