The 4 Stages of Culture Shock (And How To Beat Them)

Culture shock.You’re lost, standing baffled in new surroundings with a heavy pack on your shoulders, unable to tell left from right, up from down, phone booths from trash cans or ripoff artists from friends.

But this image of sudden shock isn’t quite accurate.

In reality, culture shock is a much more nuanced phenomenon that can take months to develop and overcome. Culture shock will flip your emotions topsy-turvy. It will effect you in completely unexpected ways.

More than simply being surprised at unfamiliar social norms, weird new food or foreign modes of conversation, culture shock will impact you long after you become familiar and comfortable with the day-to-day customs of a new culture.

Culture shock tends to move through four different phases: wonder, frustration, depression and acceptance.

Of course, like all things that happen in our complicated little brains, it’s never really that simple or easy. Each of these stages take time to run their course, and how deeply one effects you is never set in stone. Even the order of these 4 stages can be unpredictable.

Jet-Lag and Wonder

The first stage of culture shock is often overwhelmingly positive and far from bewildering. This is often called the “honeymoon phase” – when you’re so fascinated with the language, the people and the food that the trip seems like the greatest thing you’ve ever done. You’re having an adventure!

The first stage of culture shock is often overwhelmingly positive and far from bewildering.

On shorter trips this honeymoon period can be a huge boon, as the rush of foreign stimulation makes a vacation all the better, and having a set return date can ward off the less enjoyable aspects of culture shock.

Anyone who’s visited another continent has felt this rush of excitement the minute they got off the plane, and will no doubt never forget it.

Guidebooks about Southeast Asia play on this fairly often, inevitably starting with a vivid description of Bangkok – the overwhelming smell of fish sauce, the muggy tropical air, the traffic straight out of hell – all things that contribute to the sense of having touched down on another planet.

Settling In…To Frustration?!

This is a difficult stage of culture shock, familiar to anyone who has lived abroad or traveled for a long time. You don’t understand gestures. You get laughed at, you horribly offend a little old lady without knowing why.

The usual response is anger. I often tell people that culture shock is is walking out the door, being greeted by a neighbor and wanting nothing more than to shout obscenities at them.

It is a visceral reaction that permeates every part of the experience, from misunderstanding shopkeepers, to losing your keys or missing the bus. Frustration comes and goes, disillusion comes on like a monsoon and the pangs of homesickness can become debilitating.

The first time I went to Asia I got it bad. After a month and a half of backpacking and two months teaching in Saigon, I was ready to go home.

The city began to weigh on me in ways I couldn’t have forseen. Struggling against the smog and noise felt like trying to keep my head above water while wearing lead boots. The food, the people, the language – nothing was exotic anymore. I just wanted a hamburger.

Depression: Feeling Stuck

Ah, the big one. We’ve all felt a little down before, but rarely when we’re so far from home.

Depression on the road is a feeling of hopelessness and longing, like nothing will ever be OK again until you hop on that plane home.

The worst part about this brand of moping is that it’s difficult to see the link to culture shock – the feeling can sometimes seems disconnected from travel, and often even homesickness. It can take the form of simple, implacable malaise.

It’s hard to be so far away, especially if you’re all by yourself. Frustration can bring on homesickness, but depression adds the dimension of feeling like you just have to get out.

Acceptance: Home Away From Home

After weeks and months of blindly struggling through a thousand different emotional states every hour, acceptance finally arrives like a warm bath at the end of a hard day.

Acceptance does not necessarily entail total understanding – it’s nearly impossible to ever claim complete understanding of another culture – but instead involves the realization that you don’t have to “get” it all. You find what makes you happy and content in your new surroundings.

For me, this realization happened a few months after I moved to Saigon a second time. I began to find my place in the motorbike horns, cigarette smoke and other expats floating through the fray. When Vietnamese started sounding more like a language than a fax tone and I ceased getting hopelessly lost on the potholed roads, the whole experience began to feel like a coherent whole instead of a random collection of aimless madness.

And there lies the crux of culture shock: the bad stuff, like feeling lost, hopeless and out of place, will run its course no matter what happens.

Going The Distance

Even though you can’t avoid culture shock entirely, there are things you can do to make it easier on yourself.

The first step, of course, is to recognize that what you’re going through is culture shock. If you can come to terms with wild mood swings and sad times, and recognize they’re part of the inevitable process, it’s a lot easier to convince yourself that the bad feelings will pass. And they will.

Secondly, it’s crucial to learn the language as you go. Culture shock, at its simplest, is an inability to integrate, and the biggest barrier to that is generally language. The more able a traveler is to laugh, cry and seek solace with the locals, the easier it is to deal with ups and downs.

Though it can be one of the toughest parts of traveling, culture shock is just as integral to the experience as food, people and scenery. By recognizing it for what it is and doing your best to cope, you can easily prevent culture shock from ruining an otherwise fantastic journey.

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  • Cedric Pieterse

    Great article, Ross. Having spent a long time travelling in Africa, I have seen a lot of people get despondant. I have grown up in Africa, so for me it was normal, but now the role is reversed. I have recently moved to Europe, and I am slowly getting used to a lot of new things. It is an adventure, maybe not as unpredictable as Africa, but very different. I love it!

  • squid

    And reverse culture shock?! I have no problems with culture shock, but oh, that reverse culture shock is a killer!

  • http://www.rucksackwanderer.com/ Tim Patterson

    Right on, squid – I have a much harder time with reverse culture shock. At some point, you can’t go home again…

  • Stephen Macintosh

    Thanks for a really well written and helpful article. You may be interested to know that the time I experienced the most intense bout of culture shock was when I travelled to Washington DC from Australia. In a nutshell, people could not understand my accent and everything, from turning on a light to paying bills, was different. I felt like someone who had travelled from outer Gaul to the center of the Roman empire.

    By the way, the whole culture shock experience was greatly magnified by falling deeply and passionately in love with the wonderful woman who is now my wife. So, Ross, I think you are right when you say:

    “And there lies the crux of culture shock: the bad stuff, like feeling lost, hopeless and out of place, will run its course no matter what happens.”

    Cheers

    Stephen Macintosh
    Dubai

  • http://www.scottstravelblog.com Scott

    Ha I find reverse culture shock to be killer as well. For me it helps to mentally plan your next trip before you get home from the previous one so I always have something to look forward to!

    Happy Travels!

    Scott
    scottstravelblog.com

  • http://completeandcreative.com Terry

    I must chime in and agree with what everyone’s been saying about reverse culture shock. I studied abroad several times while I was in college, and every time I had more difficulty adjusting BACK to my life in the US than I did in the foreign land. I think it’s because after several months of being on a different continent, everything at home just seems boring.

    Oh, shameless plug: http://completeandcreative.com/2008/04/03/the-whole-world-is-boring-a-mathematical-proof/

    But more importantly, I’d like to add that disappointment sometimes takes the place wonder in the case of travelers who have been seriously anticipating their trip for a very long time. I’m not just talking about reading the copy of Lonely Planet that you just cracked open after you couldn’t sleep anymore or watch any more movies on the flight. I’m talking about years of developing a certain vision of a particular country. A classic example is the American fanboy image of Tokyo: neon lights; skyscrapers; everyone playing videogames, watching anime, and reading manga; every office lady walking the streets of Shinjuku being as hot as the ones you’ve seen in J-dramas; every girl ambling in Shibuya and Harajuku as sexy as the ones you’ve seen in…other types of Japanese entertainment.

    Yeah, I was pretty disappointed when I first landed in Tokyo. Then I discovered a whole new Japan.

  • http://restaurants.uptake.com/blog/la-corneta-best-taqueria-san-francisco-california.html Sharon

    I lived for three years in Tokyo working half that time for a US company during the dot-com years, so missed them and when I returned to the US felt an intense reverse culture shock being back in San Francisco. It was really tough because no one here could understand or relate and co-workers/bosses and family expected us to pick up where we left off.

    And to CBP's point – It was only after living in Tokyo for more than two years did I begin to feel the depression kick in from being "an alien" and reminded of that status everyday – whether from newspaper articles, shopkeepers or UltraNationalists driving by yelling. From what I understand from other expats who have lived more "happily" in other countries for years at a time, a lot of the bad feelings I felt were unique to Japan more than the rest of Asia.

  • Meh

    I have been in Japan (Tohoku region) for about 5 months now on a study abroad and most of what I have read about American's experiences coming here as been a huge lie. A good portion of what is written seems to deal with how Americans come to Japan and are instantly the object of lust and fantasy of each and every Japanese person they encounter. And while I knew that was pretty much BS from the get go, I figured at least making friends with the Japanese shouldn't be that big of a deal.

    Boy was I wrong.

    The first couple weeks I was here was great. The Japanese students would come running up and want to talk to you and I really enjoyed that. But as the novelty of it wore off (which came rather quickly as I am at a pretty small school), I came to find how isolated I was. Before I left, I had envisioned that I would make a lot of Japanese friends who would show me the ropes. But by the second week, I realized that my only hope of interaction with other people was with the other foreign students here. The Japanese students quickly made up their minds who they would interact with. For most, that choice was none of the foreigners. And for those who did decide to get to know the gaijin, they quickly found themselves boy/girl friends and were too busy with that to get to know the rest of us.

    Added to that was the fact that very few in the city I am in have much desire to have us here. For every one person that will return your wave and say hi, 6 are ambivalent to you, 2 will stare at you like you are Big Foot and one will glare at you as if to say "get the hell out of my country." But you learn to deal with that soon enough.

    So at this point, I find myself in stage 3. It's hard not to feel depressed and lethargic to it all when you feel so lonely. I could have stayed at home and had no friends and saved myself a whole lot of money. And while the other foreign students I hang out with are wonderful, I did not come here to meet other Americans. Again, I could have stayed at home and done that. I came here to meet the Japanese and learn the culture through interacting with them.

    Here's to hoping that the final half of my stay here gets a whole lot better.

  • Katie

    Great article. I think you should write about reverse culture shock. I find that after living abroad I come back to the US and I think of how stupid it is to be driving and I just wish I could take the bus everywhere. Living in a city that has dismal public transit, I find that among other things the "reverse" of culture shock. Just some thoughts :)

  • Cathy

    Oh my God, this article sums up pretty much everything! I especially recognized myself in the part about going out the door and wanting to shout obscenities at the neighbour who says hello, and I am normally a very peaceful and calm person… I came to France as part of an exchange programme four months ago and nothing has turned out the way I expected. I had a relatively good command of French when I came, at least so I thought, but it turns out that I am not good enough to take part in an everyday conversation with a native, which is SO frustrating. Not that I really get that many opportunities to do so either, because the French seem extremely cold, some of them almost even hostile. When I came here, I was so positive and thought this would be a nice year (after all, when exchange students come back to their own country, they tend to describe their year abroad as "the best year of their life"), but I could not have been more wrong. As I said, the French seem so cold and unfriendly, and I must admit that I am starting to feel a certain hostility towards them and their behaviour and all that is French and all that I was so eager to explore in the first place. OK, so I do not look French, my French is not perfect and I may not laugh at the same things that they do, but I am still a nice person and not some alien from outer space. I had a very active life in my own country and I never felt lonely, here I am reduced to an invisible human being that does not fit in anywhere. The contrast is really hard to deal with, but I will cope, I have only four months left here and then I will leave France and probably never go back. I suppose it is the frustration/depression phase that has hit me with full power, and it does not seem as if I will ever get to the acceptance phase…

  • kate

    This was really helpful! Thank you :)

    This summer I’m going to Peru for 6 weeks — not only is it my first trip abroad by myself, but my first trip abroad altogether. Luckily since I at least have a host family to stay with, some understanding of spanish and a purpose for being there, it shouldn’t be too difficult, but I still can’t help but feel a wee bit anxious (buried by all the excitement.)

    I think what I’m actually worried most about is reverse culture shock. Readjusting to American culture after being in Cusco sounds pretty tough!

  • SharonV

    I can relate so much, even though I haven’t officially travelled outside Canada. I moved from home in BC to Banff, Alberta, one of Canada’s most popular tourist destinations, for a work term for my tourism course. When I moved back home to complete the course I found myself disoriented and wanting to be back in Banff. Now, years later, I’ve moved to Guelph, Ontario with my boyfriend, and I’m going through all those stages again.

  • mimi

    Thanks for this article. While I read a lot about culture shock when first arriving in my host country, 6 months down the line it has crept up on me and slapped me in the face. I say ‘crept up’ because I expected it to be an obvious manifestation – clear frustration with the local culture, not feeling part of society. Instead, the culture shock has reared it ugly head in the form of ‘sadness’ and malaise. Because I did not consider these symptoms part of ‘culture shock’, based on articles I had read, especially the sense of ‘malaise’, I thought it was simply a bit of homesickness. I realise now that I’m going through a bad case of culture shock. I have grown increasingly frustrated with the amount of time it’s taking me to learn the local language as well, but it’s getting there slowly but surely. Not wanting to return to one’s home country makes it harder to admit that you’re going through culture shock too. I had made up my mind that I was not going to return home and this was IT. This new country was going to be where I will work towards getting Permanent Residency. Returning is not an option. This is where the danger comes in, when having to admit to a bit of homesickness. The feelings of self-doubt about my decisions has been challenging, but thanks to your article, I feel like I can push through the shock and frustration I am currently experiencing.
    Thanks for your insight.

  • http://www.ottsworld.com Sherry Ott

    Great article….I think I’m officially out of the depression and into the acceptance. As I read the article it really struck a chord – especially since I relocated to Saigon 8 months ago solo…it’s been a long road. There have been two things that have helped me survive…learning how to drive a motorbike and being able to blog/write about my experiences. When you live and travel on your own, you have often find yourself living inside your head with no one to talk through some of these tough times. By being able to write about it, it’s at least a way that you can examine your thoughts, feelings and experiences without it all bottling up inside.
    If you ever come back to Saigon, there’s a pothole with your name on it waiting for you…and a bowl of pho!

  • Gaijin DJ

    Great I have been in Saitama Japan for 10 months and the newness has been wearing off and I have been screaming at my wife and kids to their amazement about stupid stuff. I like how the article described about going outside and screaming at the neighbors. I won’t do that but I have been a bit more snippy with the employee’s at the stores. I wanted to bite the head off a lady at Mc D’s as she is trying to be eco friendly and my burger was wrapped in paper then put in a small bag and then the bag in a bigger bag. My coke was the same and then she put both bags in a plastic bag this transaction taking a huge 10 minutes out of my life and all I can think of is terminator and Judgment day. So today, my wife comes to me who is in the mire of depression and wants to talk. I am a whipped dog. I am so self-centered and the sensory perception is so keen that like the article stated noise is a problem. The TV sounds like Punk rock rap music played at double speed.

    Anyway, I feel some relief to read and see I am wading through the crap like everyone else and am just a few more months away from some sunshine on the other side. I hope? Well, let me just jump back into my valley of depression and anger and enjoy some quality time with the folks here in Japan. God have mercy.

  • melody

    thanks for this article…ive ben sobbing my eyes out all afternoon, im a south african in the USA and its been 2 and a half months here for me, ive got another 9 and a half to go, im seriously in stage 3 because im english speaking so the language issue is not bad but there are some other culure shocks, im glad now i understand it better and other people are going through it, i just hope stage four comes to me quickly, because i really do feel like packing up and going home now…sniff sniff*!!! :)

  • Amanda

    Thank you for this article, I moved away 4 months ago, from my friends and family, from a man I was in love with, to a place that doesnt even speak my language. Culture shock, homesick and heart break are in my every thought, There is so much oppertunity here. To give up now, would only lead me to feel failure within myself. I must continue to fight. I am doing this for a better me. There is so much at the end of this journey.

  • http://myspace.com/silentknish Nishant

    same situation as you – waiting for adjustment phase to set in :)

  • Beth

    I am in India, and was only planning to be here 3 weeks but some unforseen circumstances have caused my trip to drag out past six weeks. I was alone for the first three weeks, except for my translator, and my husband joined me at that point. We are waiting for our babies’s exit visas to be granted, so that we can return to the US. I read a lot about India, and my first reaction upon arrival was surprise at how much the guide books airbrushed the pictures. The level of filth everywhere was worse than I imagined. The constant noise of traffic and the strange habit of honking for the heck of it, at all hours or the day and night, is so wearing. I am in New Delhi, which is very crowded. The air pollution makes the sun dim quite often. I found out pretty fast that explaining “nee” spice, resulted in food only slightly less fiery. I have stuck with bottled water, and avoided salads, and just about everyone here is a vegetarian-I am very impressed with the good diet they make of it, and plan to incorporate more vegetarian cooking when I get home, but I wish for a roast turkey. We were here over Thanksgiving-the babies were only 3 days old, and we had an omelet for dinner that day. I brought oats with me for oatmeal and almonds and apricots, fill in with peelable fruit bought here, and bread and cereals. we bought a few American brand groceries a few days ago. Kraft macaroni and cheese seemed like a treat. After weeks and weeks of this, I feel like I am so hungry for a salad and plain cooking. I feel like this sounds like whining. The great backround fear is that the Ministry of Home Affairs (in charge of visas) will trap me here alone for months. My husband has to return within a few days and we have not received the visas yet. So I am trying very hard to cope with insufficient baby clothes and supplies, we only brought the bare minimum, thinking we would leave within a week or so. I wash their six sleepers out constantly-which they spit up in regularly-I don’t know how safe the Indian version of Nestle formula is “Nan”, so I worry about that too. I had brought two giant cans of US made formula, now all gone. I enjoyed reading other peoples posts about this topic, so hopefully mine will add to the body of comments that we are in good company on this topic.

  • Chandan Dhang

    We are from INDIA, can join in your programs,Thanks

  • Grigory

    I was experienced the same thing when I immigrated to Canada from Europe! Know i live in Canada for almost 8 years, but I still experience “culture jet lag”. I think one of the best ways to beat a culture jetlag-to comunicate with people of your nationality in your native language!

  • Luc Kiporota Karidioula

    THAT GOOD

  • Marjorie Wagner

    Interesting article, I wonder how Emile Durkeim would of thought.