What is culture shock?
We seem to reiterate quite a bit about the exciting experiences awaiting you when you move to Europe. There is, however, an adjustment period that nearly all people face once they begin to settle into a new environment. The change that confronts people in new cultures usually triggers culture shock on some kind of level.
Every society’s set of customs, or culture, is a reflection of its people’s values, gender roles, beliefs and attitudes. While there may be likenesses between their culture and your own, there are bound to be many differences. Even moving from one state to another creates some form of culture shock as you reflect on different values, customs or changes in the new environment. Therefore, moving to a new country, on a different continent, can certainly amplify its effects.
Merriam Webster defines culture shock as “a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation.” A recent study published in the International Journal of Psychological Studies (IJPS) notes that preparing for the different culture, customs and environment can help alleviate some of the shock, but not all of it. Even with research and preparation prior to your move, you will still have an emotional response to the changes you encounter, and will feel some symptoms that culture shock produces. Read on to learn more about culture shock’s four stages, its common symptoms and ways to counter the effects.
Stages of culture shock
So what can you do? The study in IJPS also states that becoming familiar with not only the new culture but also the stages of culture shock will help you identify and understand symptoms from each stage. Studies have also shown that people with strong self-esteem and confidence who are open to learn, adapt and try new things will have an easier time at overcoming psychological discomfort caused by culture shock. Social support (such as groups for newcomers or people who share similar interests, even a new friend) can also lead to a faster adjustment and acceptance of a new environment.
Although there are four distinct stages, or phases, of culture shock, everyone experiences them in varied degrees and time frames; each individual may also experience stages differently from one move to the next. Therefore it is impossible to give definite time frames for each stage.
Stage one: Honeymoon
From toilet seats to door knobs, light switches to electrical outlets, nearly every detail in your new home is different from what you are accustomed to. The refrigerators and ovens are really small. When you go out into the community, you notice more differences. The homes are really, really old; the little rock gardens are neat. Dogs aren’t allowed in parks, but sit beside you in restaurants.
On a much larger scale, the cultural changes are different. People speak a new language, or drive on the other side of the road. They wear different clothing styles, strange hats and shorter haircuts. They have different sodas, candy bars and food at the grocery store. It’s all new, shiny and different. You may even think it’s better than what you had back home. You feel exhilarated by the newness, the change and the discovery. This is considered the honeymoon stage.
Stage two: Distress/disillusionment
At some point, you may start finding the changes or differences difficult. You don’t understand banking procedures, their ATMs, the new cellphone, or how to pay for your train ticket. You stumble through trying to speak the new language, and receive negative feedback. Even ordering in a fast food restaurant is hard. Some of the easiest, most basic processes from your home country are now completely difficult in your host country. There will also be behavioral or cultural differences that may also have you questioning their (and your own) morals, values, beliefs and attitudes with great difficulty. You may start to feel tension, confusion, anxiety and depression. This is the beginning of the second stage of disillusionment and distress.
Psychological symptoms may have you feeling angry, irritable, lonely, homesick and sad. You might also feel lost, insignificant or overlooked, even exploited. You may be sensitive to mood swings, become pessimistic and isolate yourself from others and activities that you once enjoyed. You may also feel distrust and hostility toward your host country, and develop negative stereotypes of host nationals.
Some physical symptoms may include general aches, headaches, or Irritable Bowel Syndrome. You may also suffer from either excessive sleep or insomnia, and develop poor eating habits.While culture shock can lead to both psychological and physical symptoms of depression, other environmental or chemical changes can cause depression and increase its severity. For more information on a cold weather-related disorder called the winter blues, or seasonal affective disorder, see “Beating the Winter Blues”. If your depression worsens, don’t wait; talk to someone about your symptoms and please seek medical help as soon as possible.
Stage three: Adjustment/acclimation
At this point, you’ll start to figure out a lot of those processes that were so different. You are more familiar with the new environment and are not feeling as alienated as you did before. ATMs are a breeze. Catching a train is not a problem. You now know that stores close earlier on certain days or times of day, and you have adjusted to their schedule. This stage is about adjustments; as you begin to learn more about the history and culture of your host nationals, you start to understand their values, beliefs and behaviors, and can adjust to the differences.
Stage four: Acceptance
Things are definitely getting much easier. You have picked up some of the language. You like the “quiet hours” because your baby naps during this time. You enjoy the laid back nature of your village, and their family values. You have not only accepted your host nationals’ values and beliefs and behaviors, but some of them you’ve even adopted as your own. You have successfully navigated your way through culture shock, and have accepted your new environment, and may even feel a strong sense of belonging within the culture.
Going home: Reverse culture shock
Once your assignment in Europe is done and you’re heading back to the U.S., be aware of side effects of re-entry to your former environment. Sometimes called the fifth stage, reverse culture shock can be even more difficult to adjust to; once you arrive home, you may feel initial exhilaration or euphoria that soon leads to disillusionment and crisis. This happens because most people are blind to small details of their own cultures or environments until they return home with experiences in new or different cultures.
After living in a new country and adapting your way of life to new customs and values, your old “way of doing things” may not fit your new expectations. You may feel like you don’t belong. You may find that you need to evaluate, adjust and once again, learn to accept the values, beliefs and attitudes from your previous place of residence or environment.