What is culture shock?

What is culture shock?Culture shock is the state of disorientation that results from exposure to an unfamiliar culture. (Repatriating expats are affected by a variant known as reverse culture shock.) Its symptoms are both physical and psychosocial. Culture shock affects us in two ways:

Interpersonally, it negatively affects our perceptions of the new culture and its people. It also indirectly affects the reactions of people toward us when we behave in ways that are unacceptable in their culture.

Intrapersonally, it negatively affects our self-perception. The inability to function effectively in our new environment leads to an identity crisis fuelled by self-doubt and uncertainty.

Culture shock stages

Many models of culture shock have been proposed since Canadian anthropologist Kalervo Oberg outlined his theory during a presentation to the Women’s Club of Rio de Janeiro in 1954. Oberg’s version encompassed four phases:

  1. Honeymoon: In this stage, the expatriate views the new surroundings with a tourist’s perspective. There is a sense of euphoria because everything is new and exciting.
  2. Rejection: Oberg referred to this as the “crisis” stage. The expat begins to notice things in the new culture that don’t make sense. This disorientation leads to animosity toward the culture and its people, because nothing is the way it “should” be, and the expat feels confused and helpless.
  3. Regression: Once the host culture is rejected, the expat reverts to the familiar comfort of the home culture, which is now seen through rose-coloured glasses. The expatriate complains constantly, and chooses to remain isolated from the host culture.
  4. Recovery: Finally, the feelings of isolation begin to decrease. The expat feels more comfortable and in control of life in the new environment. With equilibrium restored, acceptance of the situation is now possible.

It is in the recovery stage that expats start to adjust and grow attached to their new culture. “When you go on home leave you may even take things back with you,” Oberg said, “and if you leave for good, you generally miss the country and the people to whom you have become accustomed.”

[Note that these stages are theoretical, and not everyone experiences them in the same order or to the same degree.]

Causes and effects of culture shock

It’s easy to see how sudden immersion in a new culture can cause disequilibrium. We naturally use our own cultural norms as the point of reference for interpreting behaviours we encounter elsewhere, and are confused when these interpretations don’t fit. Similarly, we’re disturbed to discover that our own behaviours, which were received positively back home, are met with disapproval or outright hostility.

The loss of the familiar cues that guided our interactions in our home culture leaves us feeling anxious, frustrated, and incompetent. Interpersonal communications, which were so effortless before, are suddenly fraught with uncertainty. Much of what was taken for granted is no longer valid.

Loss of identity is also an outcome of culture shock, since identity is inextricably tied to the values and experiences of our home culture. If what is important back home holds no value in the new country, a crisis of identity can result, especially if a change in social roles or status is involved. Being a stranger in a strange land has a way of forcing many expats to ask “who am I?” and “who do I want to be?”

Culture shock is an ongoing condition, not a single event

The term “culture shock” is a misnomer, as it implies a single sudden, traumatic event. In fact, as my friend Deborah points out, culture shock is more like a constant barrage of mini-shocks. Speaking of her seven years in Belfast, she says, “it wasn’t the big things that caused culture shock — it was the details of everyday living.”

One of her first mini-shocks involved a typically mundane aspect of daily life: recycling. She was surprised to find that the system of community recycling she was used to in her native Toronto didn’t exist in Belfast.

“Every time I used a tin [in Belfast], I would carefully take off the label … and then would have no idea what to do with it,” she says. “It took me ages not to feel guilty about just tossing it in the garbage. But even then, I was still ripping off the labels, because I couldn’t help myself.”

The lack of familiar cultural cues caused Deborah to stumble many times as she tried to navigate the social norms of her new environment. She questioned her own identity as she struggled to fit in. Once she was able to adapt her behaviour to her cultural surroundings, she began to feel comfortable in Belfast. She was finally able to relax and enjoy her life overseas. And yes, she eventually did stop stripping the labels off of tin cans.


A longer version of this article appeared on Suite101.com on April 19, 2010 © Maria Foley.

About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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5 Responses to What is culture shock?

  1. debdundas says:

    As you know yourself, coming back (repatriating) and having to readjust creates culture shock that you weren’t expecting – in this case I was lucky: recycling technology had changed and I didn’t have to start stripping the labels off cans again when I returned!

    • Maria says:

      You got lucky there! But there were plenty of other shocks waiting for you, I’m sure. And I’m glad you’re back. 🙂

      • debdundas says:

        One thing I’ve found is that I can’t get used to missing a place that’s not home (i.e. missing my expat home). But I’m glad I’m back – and you’re back! – too…

  2. Joburg Expat says:

    Funny, I just posted about the same topic. Or, rather, a guest post by someone else. I’m really nervous about the culture shock awaiting me upon repatriation, so I’ve been going around trying to list all the positives awaiting me back in the US that I can look forward to. Today’s sample: Paper towels that don’t tear the wrong way:-)

    • Maria says:

      When I’m done writing about culture shock I’ll post some stuff about re-entry shock. I can’t help you with the paper towel situation, though. 🙂

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