CULTURE SHOCK: What it is and how to handle it

Stained Glass Window: Quito, Ecuador

Stained Glass Window: Quito, Ecuador

I’m almost at the 4 month mark living here in Ecuador and quite frankly, I’m surprised to learn that the feelings I’ve been having since I got here actually have a name: “Culture Shock.”
For real. Culture Shock. I even  looked it up on Wikipedia.
If you are currently feeling a bit of personal disorientation from having moved recently to a different culture or place in the world, then you might find this blog useful.
If you are thinking about moving soon or in the future to another culture very different from your own, I hope that this blog will to prepare you just a little bit.
Culture Shock: What Is It?

Culture Shock is defined as the personal disorientation a person may feel when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life due to immigration or a visit to a new country or foreign environment, a move between social environments or simply their travel to another type of life.

Culture Shock Has 4 Distinct Phases

Culture shock can be described as consisting of at least one of four distinct phases:

  • Honeymoon
  • Negotiation
  • Adjustment
  • Mastery

Most Common Symptoms Of Culture Shock

The most common problems I’ve experienced include: a sense of information and new stimulis overload, stress of trying to learn the new language fast enough, homesickness for my friends and family and my familiar routine and even dealing with my own boredom at times.

There Is No Way To Prevent Culture Shock

Apparently, there is no true way to entirely prevent culture shock. And it’s also good to learn that individuals in any society are personally affected by cultural contrasts differently.

My dear friend Laurie, who had spent seven years in Holland as an Ex Pat had warned me about this but I thought she was making more of it than was necessary or that I would personally experience everything differently than she warned. Wrong

 The Four Phases of Culture Shock

1. Honeymoon Phase

During this period, the differences between the old and new culture are said to be “seen in a romantic light.” For example, in moving to Ecuador, an individual such as myself might love all the new food, the slower pace of life and observing the locals’ habits different from my own.

During the first few weeks, most people are fascinated by their new culture. For me at first, there was so much new stimulus coming my way, I hardly knew where to focus next. There was so much new to learn and see and experience! I was, except for the hundreds of mosquito bites and one bad jelly fish sting, just delighted to be here.

And, like most honeymoon period, this stage eventually ends.

2. Negotiation Phase

After some time (usually around three months, depending on the individual), differences between the old and new culture become apparent and may create a strong sense of anxiety.

Excitement may then eventually give way to unpleasant feelings of frustration and anger as one continues to experience unfavorable events that may be perceived as strange and offensive to one’s cultural attitude.

Language barriers, stark differences in public hygiene, (such as men here peeing in public without any regard to who is around them?!) traffic safety (See my blog:  Driving In Ecuador: Just. Don’t. Do. It), food accessibility and quality may heighten the sense of disconnection from the surroundings.

Practical Difficulties To Overcome

While being transferred into a different environment puts special pressure on communication skills, there are practical difficulties to overcome, such as

  • Sleep disruption
  • Adaptation of your gut flora to different bacteria levels and concentrations in both food and water
  • Difficulty in seeking treatment for illness, as medicines may have different names from the native country’s and the same ingredients you are normally familiar with might be hard to recognize or obtain without a doctors prescription.
  • Communication: People like me, adjusting to a new culture, often feel lonely and homesick.  I have to admit, I’m not yet entirely used to my new environment and I get tired sometimes dealing with new people and situations every day.
  • The language barrier may become a major obstacle in creating new relationships. It’s actually been exhausting to me to always be paying special attention to my own and others’ culture-specific language signs, my linguistic faux pas, the tone of my and other’s conversation, trying so hard to learn ALL the linguistic nuances and customs. In addition, it’s been difficult to learn that someone who appeared to be my new friend, was, in fact, not my friend at all and actually talking behind my back to boot!

3 Adjustment Phase:

Again, after about 6-12 months, one grows accustomed to the new culture and develops routines. One knows what to expect in most situations and the new country no longer feels all that new. One becomes concerned with basic living again and things begin to seem “normal.”
One also starts to develop new problem solving skills for dealing with the new culture and you begin to accept the culture’s ways with a more positive attitude. The culture begins to make some sense and negative reactions and responses to the culture are reduced.
4. Mastery Phase

In the mastery stage individuals are able to participate fully and comfortably in the new host culture. Mastery does not mean total conversion; people often keep many traits from their earlier culture, such as accents and languages. It is often referred to as the bicultural stage.

There are three basic outcomes of the Adjustment Phase:

  • Some people find it impossible to accept the foreign culture and integrate.  They isolate themselves from the host country’s environment, which they come to perceive as hostile, withdraw into a “Ghetto” and see return to their own culture as the only way out. These “Rejectors” also have the greatest problems re-integrating back home after return. Approximately 60% of expatriates behave in this way. I have seen this a lot all over Ecuador where Ex Pats from the US stay in their Ex Pat Communities in walled off compounds. It appears to make them feel safe but it doesn’t stop robberies from happening.
  • Some people integrate fully and take on all parts of the host culture while losing their original identity. This is what is called, “Cultural Assimilation.” These folks normally remain in the host country forever. This group is sometimes known as “Adopters” and describes approximately 10% of expats.
  • Some people manage to adapt to the aspects of the host culture they see as positive, while keeping some of their own and creating their unique blend. They have no major problems returning home or relocating elsewhere. This group can be thought to be somewhat “Cosmopolitan.” Approximately 30% of expats belong to this group.

Culture shock has many different effects, time spans, and degrees of severity. Many people are handicapped by its presence and do not recognize what is bothering them

Transition shock

Culture shock is a subcategory of a more universal construct called transition shock. Transition shock is a state of loss and disorientation predicated by a change in one’s familiar environment which requires adjustment. There are many symptoms of transition shock, some which include:

  • Excessive concern over cleanliness
  • Feelings of helplessness and withdrawal
  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Mood swings
  • Glazed stare
  • Desire for home and old friends
  • Physiological stress reactions
  • Homesickness
  • Boredom
  • Withdrawal
  • Getting “stuck” on one thing
  • Suicidal or fatalistic thoughts
  • Excessive sleep
  • Compulsive eating/drinking/weight gain
  • Stereotyping host nationals
  • Hostility towards host nationals

There Is Also “Reverse Culture Shock”

I am going back to the US for a visit in a few months and I was surprised to learn that there is also something to keep in mind that is referred to as Reverse Culture Shock.

Reverse Culture Shock (a.k.a. “Re-entry Shock”, or “own culture shock”) may take place after returning to one’s home culture after growing accustomed to a new one. This “reverse Culture Shock” can produce the same effects as outlined above.

The affected person often finds this more surprising and difficult to deal with than the original culture shock. This phenomenon, the reactions that members of the re-entered culture exhibit toward the re-entrant, and the inevitability of the two are encapsulated in the saying first coined by Thomas Wolfe in his book ” You Can’t Go Home Again.”

Thanks Wikipedia for your help in explaining all of this to me!



Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 2.37.38 pm

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5 thoughts on “CULTURE SHOCK: What it is and how to handle it

  1. Excellent! I am approaching two years living in New England, transitioning from Europe. And while some more basic comfort challenges you are describing do not really apply, I have not fully adjusted to my host culture and am moving in and out of “bicultural awareness”. I never thought that the Big Pond could feel that big!


    • Thanks for your comment Urs. YES! That “Big Pond” is huge isn’t it?! I’m glad to hear that you are also in the process of that challenging transition to the new host culture. I am too.

      You raise a good point about “bi cultural awareness” and how we each move in and out of that. I am always aware that I am in two cultures at once here in South America. One is inside my own head, comparing and contrasting everything I see and hear. The other is in my heart, wanting so much to be a part of things here and be folded into a sense of “Family.” It’s challenging!

      Today, I was asked if I would like to teach English to native Spanish speakers, kids ages 5-15. I will be very curious to observe my reactions to teaching them. I have a feeling I may split into “Tricultural Awareness!?” Yikes. Will keep you posted.

      Again thanks for your insights and feedback on this post. I think if people don’t know how to “name” their experience of Culture Shock, it can be very very disorienting as you flounder around in this Big Pond! ~Mary Anne


      • Mary Anne ~ I had a rush of joy at the news of your teaching English to Ecuadorian children. These kids are in for the time of their life – you will be so much more than just a language teacher. I wonder if they have any idea that they have just lucked into the most creative, playful, skilled & compassionate teacher possible for their children? Your relaxed sense of self may be quite a curious thing to lots of these kids – an adult woman able to be ageless and also so wise and comforting. I know among my kids’ friends, I am a popular mom because I am still so playful and not defined by my age ~ they seek me out to talk to as I can see these children do with you as they begin to understand that you, too, are ageless and boundless in your energy & curiosity of our world. As for coming to visit the USA soon, it might well be worth reading L. Wolfe’s, ‘You Can’t Go Home Again,’ to best understand what he means beyond the superficial. I imagine your children and your city (or the Bay Area) will anchor you pretty quickly and help equalize the return culture shock. One thought for the English class (and tried by a former co-worker & her sister, whose father brought them along on his high-level CARE trips to 3rd world countries), is to write and stage a play, giving everyone a part in English. My friend/her sister were doing it to bring joy and relief to a very poor village in Guatemala by way of putting on a theatrical production together with the children. But, it could be way for you to get the kids and their English studies up on their feet, in their mouths, walking their talk! Hmmm…sounds like a title of a book you would write! “Walking your Talk! How to give 15 key speeches of Life”…but I digress. Cheers for now! Julie


    • Hi Peter. Will you please come back and let us know how it goes for you when you return to Ireland? I’m thinking that perhaps you will have some good tips for us all on how to manage “reverse culture shock!” Thx for your comment! ~Mary Anne


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