Culture Shock Meaning, Stages, and How to Overcome

Map reading female tourist with sunglasses in Rome, Italy Solo retirement
Getty Images/iStockphoto

What Is Culture Shock?

Culture shock refers to feelings of uncertainty, confusion, or anxiety that people may experience when moving to a new country or experiencing a new culture or surroundings. This cultural adjustment is normal and is the result of being in an unfamiliar environment.

Culture shock can occur when people move to another city or country, such as when retiring abroad. Culture shock can also occur when people go on vacation, travel in retirement or for business, or study abroad for school. For example, international students studying abroad for a semester in another country may experience a cultural adjustment due to an unfamiliarity with the weather, local customs, language, food, and values.

Although the timing of each person's adjustment process can be different, there are specific phases that most people go through before they adjust to their new environment. Culture shock can be quite stressful and lead to anxiety. However, it's possible to overcome it and grow as a result.

Key Takeaways

  • Culture shock refers to feelings of uncertainty, confusion, or anxiety that people may experience when moving to a new country or surroundings.
  • Culture shock can occur when people move to a new city or country, go on vacation, travel abroad, or study abroad for school.
  • A cultural adjustment is normal and is the result of being in an unfamiliar environment.
  • Culture shock is typically divided into four stages: the honeymoon, frustration, adaptation, and acceptance stage.
  • Over time, people can become familiar with their new surroundings as they make new friends and learn the customs, leading to an appreciation of the culture.

Understanding Culture Shock

Culture shock occurs when an individual leaves the comfort of their home and familiar surroundings and moves to an unfamiliar environment. The adjustment period can be fairly intense, particularly if the two locations are completely different, such as going from a small rural area to a large metropolis or moving to another country. People can also experience culture shock when moving from one place to another within the same country.

Typically, no single event causes culture shock, nor does it occur suddenly or without reason. Instead, it gradually builds from a series of incidents, and culture shock can be difficult to identify while struggling with it.

The feeling is particularly intense at the beginning and can be tough to overcome. It's important to remember that the cultural adjustment usually dissipates over time as a person becomes more familiar with a place, the people, customs, food, and language. As a result, navigation of surroundings gets easier, friends are made, and everything becomes more comfortable.

The adjustment process due to culture shock can get better over time, leading to growth and an appreciation of the new environment.

Symptoms of Culture Shock

Culture shock can produce a range of symptoms, which can vary greatly from person to person in terms of scope and intensity. These may include:

  • Being homesick
  • Feeling helpless
  • Feeling isolated
  • Disorientation
  • Lack of concentration
  • Irritability
  • Sadness
  • Sleep or eating disturbances
  • Paranoia

The 4 Stages of Culture Shock

People who experience culture shock may go through four 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. However, the honeymoon phase for those on a longer-term move eventually ends, even though people expect it to last.

The Frustration Stage

People may become increasingly irritated and disoriented as the initial glee of being in a new environment wears off. Fatigue may gradually set in, which can result from misunderstanding other people's actions, conversations, and ways of doing things.

As a result, people can feel overwhelmed by a new culture at this stage, particularly if there is a language barrier. Local habits can also become increasingly challenging, and previously easy tasks can take longer to accomplish, leading to exhaustion.

Some of the symptoms of culture shock can include:

  • Frustration
  • Irritability
  • Homesickness
  • Depression
  • Feeling lost and out of place
  • Fatigue

The inability to effectively communicate—interpreting what others mean and making oneself understood—is usually the prime source of frustration. This stage can be the most difficult period of cultural adjustment as some people may feel the urge to withdraw.

For example, international students adjusting to life in the United States during study abroad programs can feel angry and anxious, leading to withdrawal from new friends. Some experience eating and sleeping disorders during this stage and may contemplate going home early.

The Adaptation Stage

The adaptation stage is often gradual as people feel more at home in their new surroundings. The feelings from the frustration stage begin to subside as people adjust to their new environment. Although they may still not understand certain cultural cues, people will become more familiar—at least to the point that interpreting them becomes much easier.

The Acceptance Stage

During the acceptance or recovery stage, people are better able to experience and enjoy their new home. Typically, beliefs and attitudes toward their new surroundings improve, leading to increased self-confidence and a return of their sense of humor.

The obstacles and misunderstandings from the frustration stage have usually been resolved, allowing people to become more relaxed and happier. At this stage, most people experience growth and may change their old behaviors and adopt manners from their new culture.

During this stage, the new culture, beliefs, and attitudes may not be completely understood. Still, the realization may set in that complete understanding isn’t necessary to function and thrive in the new surroundings.

A specific event doesn't cause culture shock. Instead, it can result 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 minimize the impact and speed the recovery from culture shock.

  • Be open-minded and learn about the new country or culture to understand the reasons for cultural differences.
  • Don't indulge in thoughts of home, constantly comparing it to the new surroundings.
  • Write a journal of your experience, including the positive aspects of the new culture.
  • Don't seal yourself off—be active 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.

What Is the Definition of Culture Shock?

Culture shock or adjustment occurs when someone is cut off from familiar surroundings and culture after moving or traveling to a new environment. Culture shock can lead to a flurry of emotions, including excitement, anxiety, confusion, and uncertainty.

Is Culture Shock Good or Bad?

Although it may have a seemingly negative connotation, culture shock is a normal experience that many people go through when moving or traveling. While it can be challenging, those who can resolve their feelings and adjust to their new environment often overcome culture shock. As a result, cultural adjustment can lead to personal growth and a favorable experience.

What Is an Example of Culture Shock?

For example, international students that have come to the United States for a study abroad semester can experience culture shock. Language barriers and unfamiliar customs can make it challenging to adjust, leading some students to feel angry and anxious. As a result, students can withdraw from social activities and experience minor health problems such as trouble sleeping.

Over time, students become more familiar with their new surroundings as they make new friends and learn social cues. The result can lead to growth and a new appreciation of the culture for the study abroad student as well as the friends from the host country as both learn about each other's culture.

What Are the Types of Culture Shock?

Culture shock is typically divided into four stages: the honeymoon, frustration, adaptation, and acceptance stage. These periods are characterized by feelings of excitement, anger, homesickness, adjustment, and acceptance. Note that some people might not go through all four phases and might not reach the acceptance phase. They might experience difficulties adjusting, which could create permanent introversion or other forms of social and behavioral reactions.

The Bottom Line

If you've travelled abroad for a while or moved overseas, you may have experienced a bout of culture shock. Things that people in other places take for granted or habits and customs that they practice may be so foreign to you that they "shock" your system. While this could put an initial damper on your international travels, remember that culture shock can be overcome by being open-minded and accustomed to the way things are done that differ from back home.

Article Sources
Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
  1. Bureau Of Educational And Cultural Affairs. "Exchange Programs."

  2. Brown University. "Office of International Programs, Culture Shock."

  3. University of the Pacific. "Common Reactions to Culture Shock."