Culture shock. What is it?

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What is the definition of culture shock?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, culture shock is defined as:

Noun: the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.

Culture shock is a condition that affects expats when they move overseas. Or rather, it’s something that may affect you when you move abroad. And it may affect you when you least expect it, in a country you don’t expect it.

In reality, it’s hard to define as the symptoms present differently for everyone and for every move. Typically, culture shock peaks at around six months after your arrival in a new country. After the initial rush of excitement and change has worn off you may be left with a sort of “is that it?” feeling. The ‘culture shock graph‘ indicates the generalised process of acclimatisation, and where I have charted my own culture shock journey.

Depending on too many factors to list in this post, you may pull out of this very quickly or it may take a few more months. Alternatively you may not experience culture shock at all, or it may not ever leave you while you remain in that country.

And then to top it all, you can experience ‘reverse culture shock’ when your return to your home country!

Psychological symptoms of culture shock

Here is a rather long list of psychological and emotional symptoms you may experience while in the depths of culture shock.

  • Sadness
  • Loneliness
  • Homesickness
  • Depression
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability, resentment
  • Crying
  • Imbalanced emotional state
  • Dissatisfaction with life in general
  • Idealising your home country and culture
  • Stereotyping your new culture’s nationals
  • Confused sense of humour; taking everything too seriously or not taking anything seriously
  • Generalising that all problems happen in the new culture and none happened back home
  • Sense of isolation, personal withdrawal from society
  • Overwhelming and irrational fears related to the host country. Not feeling safe and secure
  • Loss of identity
  • Feelings of inadequacy or insecurity
  • Negative self-image. Lack of confidence and feeling insecure
  • Developing obsessions (health, cleanliness)
  • Cognitive fogginess, lack of concentration
  • Not wanting to understand/ follow new behaviour/rules/etiquette in your new culture
  • Becoming over identified or obsessed with the new culture (forgetting who you are)
  • Finding it impossible to fit in. Feeling foreign, different and therefore misunderstood
  • Closing up (not talking to others)
  • Small problems become big worries (making a mountain out of a molehill)
  • Being overcautious in everything/ over thinking

Not all these many symptoms will apply to you and not all these necessarily indicate you have culture shock. You need to take into account your own personality too. For example, if you are generally a ‘homebody’ without much of a social life regardless of where you live, not being sociable now may not bother you. However, if you had a good social life in your previous home, it will be much harder for you to cope in your new life.

Physical symptoms of culture shock

As if the long list above wasn’t enough to cope with, there are certain physical symptoms that can be attributed to culture shock too. Generally, these can be related to the physical exhaustion of trying to get used to your new life and disruption to your circadian rhythms (jet lag). Others may be connected to getting used to the food and water in your new area; waiting for your internal flora to adapt to the different ingredients (including chemical levels and bacteria) in food and water.

Some symptoms can include:

  • Sleeping too much
  • Not able to sleep enough (insomnia)
  • Increase in illness or accidents
  • Non-specific stomach upsets
  • Generalised aches and pains
  • Overeating or lack of appetite/excessive dieting

Not every physical problem can be attributed to culture shock, of course, so seek help where necessary.

Culture shock and the trailing spouse

Culture shock seems to affect the non-working partner in the move much more than it affects the rest of the family.

Those that work have a distraction and sense of community in the workplace; they meet new people, some become friends and life continues almost as normal. Children go to school or kindergarten. Again, this provides excitement, interest and lots of distraction. For the person left behind, it is a sometimes a struggle to just get out of the house, let alone make a new life for themselves.

We’ll look further into how to cope with culture shock in later articles.

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  1. Pingback: Coping With Culture Shock
  2. I’m so thrilled to find your blog and am glued to both the content of this one and the comments as I’m about to launch myself into the expat lifestyle in May. Thanks for this!

  3. Oh, and I forgot to ask: You are moving to South Africa, or did move recently? Where to? I returned from there end of 2012 and have been missing it since then. Wonderful place, and safe to say no one really ever wants to leave. Or, no expat I should say. Plenty of locals want to leave, even today…

  4. I agree with Nicole – reverse culture shock upon repatriation is far worse than any culture shock I’ve experience before. Before, there was the excitement about living in a new country, coupled with the benevolence you feel towards a people you don’t completely understand. You give them the benefit of the doubt. Then you return “home”, and you feel like you understand everyone far too well, and you don’t like what you think you know about their psyche. They’re all too shallow, too pampered, too full of their First World Problems, you think, and there can’t possibly be anything worthwhile in getting to know them. You have to overcome your own snobbishness to realize there are wonderful people everywhere in the world, and only then can you make new friendships and move on with your life.

    At least that’s how it was for me.

  5. Pingback: Culture shock. What is it? | Expatriate Careers...
  6. Pingback: Culture Shock in Children - Globiana
  7. Hi Judi (yes, I read both comments!)

    Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. You have been through it, haven’t you?! Yet you’re still able to see the funny side of your life and identify how to deal with it, even if the actual ‘dealing with it’ proves tricky sometimes.

    I LOVE your post about culture shock, and particularly like your new definition of “Life Turned Upside Down Condition (LTUDC)” as this definitely applies to me right now! Off to read more of your blog now.

  8. Now I have signed in as myself 🙂 The post above (from Christopher Fox) was from me – Judi Fox 🙂 I just wanted to sign in and make sure that if anyone had any comments or support – they knew it was me 🙂 PS – good luck on your move to South Africa – it sounds pretty overwhelming and intense. Hugs!

  9. Great post and great summary. I just found your website from navigating around Expat blogs. We live in Germany (in the country side / middle of no where part of Germany) and I have written two posts on culture shock. One post was about how the word “culture shock” doesn’t really describe how I feel. I don’t really feel shocked. But your list above helps people understand what those words really describe. I also love the trailing spouse part too. We have a whirlwind story of getting married and then moving international (and I left my job) in 2008. We then did 7 moves in 5 years. Talk about exhausting. I feel like I don’t have any honeymoon period left for a new culture – I just miss being able to speak English fluently with people and now with a baby it feels kind of isolating. I have made lots of friends, but no one lives near by that really “get” what I am going through and I don’t feel like I can open up to too many people because then they think I am just complaining. I “might” be complaining some 🙂 but my husband just can’t be the only person I talk to and the people I really want to talk to on a regular basis live in the US – with the time change and the fact that they have a life – it just makes it hard to feel like I have outlets for communicating my feelings and what I am going through. Thanks for listening 🙂

  10. Good post! I had training when I was 16 on culture shock and what to do with it. I was so surprise about the impact on me – that I still tell everyone new to a country about it (20 years later). It helped me a lot – about the different steps one goes through. I have moved/lived/worked in over 10+ countries and ever time culture shock is a huge thing I need to be aware of. I experienced it most with repatriation – as the excitement of a new country helps me with a new life. After so many years abroad I have difficulty with the positive new expats that come into a country, who think that life is so great in their new destination – knowing that after 4-6 months they will be totally different… something I have culture shock with 😉

    1. Thank you, Nicole. What a fascinating comment.
      I’ve often heard that repatriation culture shock is the hardest although I’ve not properly experienced it (yet!).
      I find it interesting that culture shock can hit at any time during the new expatriate life. It may be 4-6 months in or 4-6 years, as has happened to someone I know.

  11. I moved to USA while seven months pregnant which looking back was a bit crazy because as well as adapting to the new culture and feeling isolated I had to deal with a newborn. But on the other hand it kept me busy and once I had the baby blues behind me I was off to the nearest playground to make friends with other mums and this eventually gave me a new lease on life as it connected me into the culture effectively so I was no longer on the outside looking in.

    1. That’s an extremely good method for fending off culture shock! May be a little drastic for some, though 😉 And babies are such fabulous ice-breakers and a great way of getting to know people and make new friends.

  12. Don´t want to scare anyone out there but I have to say that coming back “home” has been the toughest culture shock to me. Reentry is often said to have the longest culture shock curve and this proved to be true! I wrote a blog post on it I had a baby at the time of repatriation so I was sort of still a “trailing spouse”. I knew it was going to be hardest on me, and I knew it would take time. After a while I took a university course on creative writing. One of the assignments was to write a poem. I wrote, very emotionally, about the horrible dark, wet and windy winter we suffered. My professor praised the poem. But she thought it was about suicide 😀 .

  13. When we moved to Ecuador, the first few months were the hardest on our daughter. After a month here we bought a puppy for her – and it almost took it away. Sometimes the little things make all the difference. Thanks for this great post!

    1. Aww, Chica looks gorgeous! And any excuse to buy a new pet is fine by me 😉
      My daughter doesn’t seem to get too affected by culture shock – well, not in it’s listed symptoms above. But she does look back at our time in Tokyo with great fondness (as do I) and experiences homesickness for there rather than our native country.
      We also got a dog while in Japan…! She’s a fabulous distraction.

  14. I think that the most important point that you have made is that it is the non working partner (usually the wife/mother) who is most affected. The main problem with this, I thnk, is trying to make your other half understand. The amount of times that people have told me how ‘lucky’ I am to have been able to give up a fulfilling career in the UK in order to stay at home in a foreign country. Meanwhile my husbands life has improved in leaps and bounds, he has no housework/DIY to do as his wife is now a ‘homemaker’, he has a job that he loves and follows a very similar routine to the one that he had in the UK, different people and better weather but otherwise almost the same. If I told him that I wasn’t happy he struggled to understand at first. I had to really labour the point to make him understand adn I still think that he sometimes thinks that I moan for the sake of it!

    1. Oh yes, I get you! I snuck that bit in as it’s something I feel very strongly about – I was trying to keep this piece short (hah!) and impersonal, but I couldn’t help it. I’m trying very hard not to sound bitter but we do have it so much harder as the ‘trailing spouse’ yet nobody every acknowledges it – apart from others in the same boat.

      I shall be writing more on this subject over the coming week so please look out for more posts.

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