What Is Culture Shock?

Culture shock is the feeling of uncertainty, confusion, or anxiety that people experience when visiting, doing business in, or living in a society that is different from their own. Social norms can vary significantly across countries and regions. Culture shock can arise from an individual's unfamiliarity with local customs, language, and acceptable behavior.

Culture shock can be daunting for those who do business abroad. Many international companies provide training to help acclimatize employees and reduce cultural gaffes, which can affect professional transactions, operations, and relationships.

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 Culture Shock Works

Culture shock is usually most intense at the beginning of a stay abroad—but in a good way. At first, people are usually thrilled to be in their new environment, and they see it as an adventure. If someone is on a short stay, this initial excitement may define the whole experience. However, if someone has moved to the new locale on a long-term basis, this "honeymoon" phase will eventually end.

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, habits: all the little other nuances of speech, appearance, and behavior that 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.

Culture shock can be tough to overcome, but the syndrome often does dissipate 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 gets a little more comfortable.

Following this period of adjustment comes the final stage of culture shock: acceptance. Acceptance 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.

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.

Overcoming 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.