Do you know about culture shock examples and its five stages?
Let’s Unpack That is a travel education series where we process and unpack our baggage of social identities, travel privileges, and hot topics to understand how they impact our travel experiences. Each post focuses on a topic or social issue to dig deeper and reflect. We will cover everything from voluntourism to cultural appreciation vs. appropriation while traveling. Whether in our own countries or abroad, understanding our impact can help us be more responsible and conscious travelers.
For this post, Let’s Unpack That is breaking down a very common occurrence in travel: culture shock. This feeling is universal as we pursue our travels and encounter people who have different customs and practices. Culture shock is an experience a person may have when they are immersed in a country that is not their own. Culture shock can yield certain emotions such as anxiety, overwhelm, and confusion. These arise due to being unfamiliar with the practices and customs of a location’s culture, attitude, and behaviors.
Alright, let’s unpack that y’all!
Culture shock examples
Culture shock examples vary based on the culture you are in and come from! Some categories are similar, but there are so many examples to process. The ones outlined below are a few of the many you can face. This is not an exhaustive list.
– Adjusting to different meal times. For example, when I studied abroad in Spain, I had to adjust to eating at 2pm or 3pm for lunch instead of 12pm. The same occurred when dinner was served at 9pm and not 6pm or 7pm. Also, lunch is the biggest meal of the day.
– Quality of amenities. For example, if you are accustomed to showering twice a day and you visit a country that does not have that same schedule. You have to adjust your way of living to that of your host country.
– Not understanding the language and words. No matter how much you study a language, some words you learn in-country. Things that are simple at home such as reading street signs, menus, directions, etc. can be more complex abroad.
– Modes of transportation. For example, in the U.S., we are heavy on car culture. In my cities and towns across the country, you need to have a car. However, in many European destinations, this is not necessary. You have more public transportation options, walk, or bike to get around.
The 5 stages of culture shock
Ahhh this is the stage where everything is excitingly refreshing! Ignorance is bliss, they say. I also call this the “rose-colored glasses” phase because this is when your host country can do no wrong. You are finding how your host country and home country are similar, and basking in the newness of your differences. The Honeymoon Stage can last for a few weeks or few months. If you are doing a short-term study abroad experience, this phase can be the entire duration of the trip.
During this stage, everything you do and experience you classify as positive. You begin a love affair with the host country’s language, culture, traditions, etc. You may adore things you would say are annoying back home. Additionally, you may be completely unaware of the social, economic, and political environment of the destination.
Negotiation and Frustration Stage
Life comes at you fast. In the Negotiation and Frustration Stage, you start to feel uncomfortable or anxious. The rose-colored glasses and excitement about everything being new is starting to wear off. You may begin to miss your friends and family back home, which can signal the start of homesickness. The more you are learning about the country you live in, the more you may find practices that offend you. And what you learn about it may make you angry or frustrated.
Furthermore, in this stage you may feel disconnected with your host country. Not understanding street signs, menus, the language, etc. may make you feel more vulnerable. Most people who live abroad long-term begin to be in that awkward tourist to expat phase. All of those feelings are culture shock examples. This stage can start around months two and three of your experience abroad.
Just know the third stage does not last forever! The Adjustment Stage is when you still have some difficulties, but the frustration has subsided for the most part. During this stage, a routine begins to emerge and you may not be 100% comfortable with it. However, it provides you some sort of stability. In this stage you may also begin to form a community of friends, both expats and locals. Everything is not perfect and some intense culture shock experiences can occur. But in the Adjustment Stage, you are not as overwhelmed and are gaining for flexibility and adaptability. This stage can last between 6-12 months.
Adaptation and Acceptance Stage
The Adaptation and Acceptance Stage is a solidifying of your feelings in the Adjustment Stage. You are more comfortable and in a routine at this stage with those friends and on your own. The homesickness has subsided and you feel “at home” in the country. While you may not agree with all the traditions and customs of the culture, you realize your opinion is not the point. In the Adaptation and Acceptance Stage you understand there will be cultural differences. You understand there will be things you do not understand – and that is ok.
During this stage, you may even begin to imagine your life if you stayed. This is when friendships can turn into something more as well. Overall, the Adaptation and Acceptance Stage is where you have a high sense of belonging. You may feel similarly to the Honeymoon Stage, however that excitement is more grounded. The feelings here are what most expats hope to feel as they integrate into another country.
Most people think culture shock ends when you hit the Adaptation and Acceptance Stage, but it does not! The fifth stage of culture shock is the Re-Entry Stage. Unlike the other stages mentioned, this stage occurs when you return to your home country. You are now comparing your life abroad to your life at home. Some may call the Re-Entry Stage “reverse culture shock” because it outlines the feelings you have returning home.
The reality is that life moved on with or without your presence. People and relationships changed. No matter how much you keep in contact with friends and family, things happen. And sometimes you are not told every little thing. The Re-Entry Stage unpacks (see what I did there?) all that. It can be awkward at first, but eventually you re-adjust. You begin to reconcile and merge who you were before going abroad and who you are now.
Assumptions about culture shock
It is wrong or bad to have culture shock
Culture shock is universal and a natural reaction to be immersed in another culture or country. For the most part, culture shock examples are not inherently bad. It is nothing to be ashamed of! To some degree, culture shock happens to everyone. But we all respond differently, with some of our responses being positive and some being negative. Yet, even in our shocked state, we still have to check and make sure we are not being disrespectful. If that fear and feelings of overwhelm festers and turns into ethnocentrism, it can become more extreme and dangerous.
Culture shock is ethnocentrism
Hmm…yes and no. Culture shock is a product of ethnocentrism, however it does not have to cause anyone harm. Ethnocentrism can be evident in those comparisons you make when arriving in a new destination. Being surprised and unfamiliar with cultural practices does not need to turn into an argument over whose culture is superior. Each one is unique and we should maintain an open mind to learn. Rebuke ethnocentrism as much as you can.
Everyone experiences culture shock the same way
Culture shock experiences vary. We all have distinct experiences before we go abroad, which will impact how we adapt abroad. Some people cry a lot or are angry during the Frustration and Negotiation Stage. Others try to process on their own. Do not compare your level of culture shock to someone else. We all process experiences differently on our own path and journey.
Tips to handle culture shock better
– Keep an open mind, even when you are feeling overwhelmed
– Write down what you’re feeling and experiencing in a journal to let it out and process it later
– Read and research as much of the country as you can beforehand. But, also understand there are things you may not understand no matter how much you read.
This is like homework, but better!
You don’t know what you don’t know. But now that you know, learn more! Check out the following resources to learn more about culture shock examples and how to handle it
– Participate Learning: If you are interested in learning more about the four stages of culture shock, this blog post is for you! Participate Learning partners with schools to provide global learning and dual language programs. This post, under the “Global Perspectives part of Medium, breaks down the four stages with culture shock examples.
– The Re-Entry Roadmap: Dr. Cate Brubaker of Small Planet Studio not only talks about culture shock, but the re-entry process when you return home. Re-entering to your non-travel or cultural immersion life With her podcast, Dr. Brubaker unpacks reverse culture shock and how to adjust when you return home. She also has a Study Abroad Re-Entry Toolkit for those interested in learning more!