The Four Stages of Culture Shock and How to Defeat Them

by Ash Merscher Dec 22, 2017

The act of moving abroad is essentially a chaos of emotions attempting to follow a linear line. The start of the move is often filled with excitement and thrill but eventually, frustration and disappointment will force their way in. What you once found charming will take on the identity of annoyance, a reminder of the differences in your new place. This is called culture shock and it occurs in four stages. It happens to everyone, whether you want to admit it or not, but not everyone experiences it to the same extent.

Your best defense is understanding how culture shock manifests itself in your life. And if you start to notice culture shock snooping around, there are some ways to keep it from ruining your big move.

1. The honeymoon stage

If you think about it, preparing for a move abroad is similar to preparing for a holiday. There is more to it, of course, but the emotions remain the same: pure excitement, high expectations, and anticipation. You’re probably fulfilling a dream, your friends and family are most likely celebrating and supporting you, and you arrive at your new home flushed with pride and ambition.

During the honeymoon stage, everything around you is either unique, adorable, or interesting. When I first moved to Budapest, our entire neighborhood was under construction in anticipation of a new tramline. How exciting! I was entertained by the lack of safety precautions, I adored the workers’ old-fashioned blue overalls, my eyes lit up when a rusty wheelbarrow would steer past me filled with steaming cement, and I couldn’t get enough of the broomsticks made from actual sticks. It was all so interesting.

Of course, this was the norm in Hungary; but for me, it was different. My rose-colored glasses brightened this scene and transformed it into something unique and fascinating. Anything that once posed as an annoyance or inconvenience in my life back home changed during this initial stage. Essentially, you are in love and you cannot see the flaws. Everything is perfect.

Tactic: Embrace the honeymoon stage. Live it up, absorb all there is to love about your new home. The more you can appreciate, the easier culture shock will be. If it helps, start a journal, draw pictures, or snap a lot of photos. Anything that can serve as a reminder of your initial awe will help.

2. The frustration stage

Fast forward a few months (or, for some, even weeks), and that construction zone becomes nothing more than a nuisance. I was annoyed that I had to dodge this ever-changing, open construction zone as I raced to the old, overflowing buses with people constantly fighting to unapologetically squeeze in. I started to detest the steaming wheelbarrows as I choked on the stench. And don’t get me started on those inefficient broomsticks that did nothing but kick up dust!

See what happened there? The honeymoon stage is over and all those interesting, unique, and adorable scenes start to become frustrating. Anyone would get a little annoyed with this situation, but did I see the locals getting overly emotional about it, letting it ruin their days? Nope. It was still normal for them, still different for me, but I no longer had a rose-tinted perspective to paint it interesting.

This stage is especially tricky because it enables homesickness, which can infect your mind and influence your reality. No, not everyone hates you, you just miss home. You miss what’s comfortable and familiar. And if you fall down that rabbit hole, you may never resurface.

Tactic: The best thing you can do is remind yourself that this stage is temporary. And if you can make it through, you will receive a huge gift. When frustration pops up, take deep breaths and ask yourself why it’s so annoying. Is it worth your energy to be angry about it? And every single day, remind yourself that it is not personal. No culture authority is picking on you. Rather than harping on the problem, take time out of your schedule to do the things that bring you joy. Take long walks, sit at a quiet cafe, have wine with new friends. Whatever puts a smile on your face, do that over and over until this stage passes.

3. The adjustment stage

If you can make it through the frustration, you will welcome the adjustment stage. At this point, you start to fully embrace your new culture at a level much deeper than when in honeymoon bliss. Gradually, your mind starts to turn and you see the frustrations differently. I was still trudging out of my apartment, I could still smell the cement, I knew the wheelbarrows were still out and about, and most likely I would miss the bus or I’d have to fight my way through the crowds. But guess what? This was now my norm too. And, day-by-day, I started to adjust.

I left my apartment early, just in case the bus stop was moved down the street or a truck was blocking access. I started to recognize some of the workers and greet them in the morning. I became more aware of the zig-zagging wheelbarrows, easily dodging them. If I had to run to the bus, I actually felt a thrill, like I was alive again. And for the record, I even eventually welcomed back the quirkiness of the broomsticks. I was adjusting.

This stage is challenging because you have to identify the frustrations and actively move past them. But if you can do it, you really allow yourself to experience your time abroad in the most authentic way that you can.

Tactic: Keep doing those little things that make you happy, but also think of ways you can confront those frustrations. There’s a silver lining, you just have to find it.

4. The acceptance stage

You probably won’t be as elated as you were in the honeymoon stage, but welcome to relief! You made it! You have identified the frustrations, understood them, adjusted yourself accordingly, and finally accepted these cultural differences for what they are: out of your control. These deeply-embedded, historic, cultural differences are locked in place. There is no way your presence will make (or should make) any changes.

Before you even realize it, you start to accept the things you cannot change and embrace what you like in this new culture. There may still be annoyances, of course, but if you can chock them up to culture, it’s easy to shrug your shoulders, smile, and move on.

Tactic: Pat yourself on the back. This is really an emotional accomplishment and now you get to reap the benefits. When making such a huge change in your life, like moving abroad, it can be easy to feel disappointed with unmet expectations. Stop it. Stop trying to control something you cannot control. Let it go, embrace these differences, and truly try to join the culture: eat the traditional foods, make local friends, listen to the music, read in the language, take part in holiday celebrations, visit small towns and villages, drink the wine. This is why you moved abroad in the first place, right? It wasn’t ever supposed to be easy.

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