Living and working abroad

The 4 stages of culture shock – have you experienced them?

Culture shock has become something more and more people experience, and if we want to fully understand it – and how to cope with it in a healthy way that helps us grow – we have to look beneath the surface.

culture shock
123rf.com/Sergey Skripnikov

These days culture shock doesn’t really need introduction, right? We are living a life that involves frequently getting into contact with other cultures. This is the time of expats, business travellers, the time of international teams, business deals and after graduation gap years spent abroad. Culture shock has become something more and more people experience, and if we want to fully understand it – and how to cope with it in a healthy way that helps us grow – we have to look beneath the surface.

Culture shock is more than simply being new to a certain culture and being unfamiliar with how things work around you. And contrary to how it often gets illustrated, culture shock doesn’t occur right away. It can take months to develop, and it can surprise you in many ways.

So let’s see the four stages of culture shock, and how to cope with them!

Culture shock stage 1 – Honeymoon phase

Culture shock is not all about feeling anxious and lost in a new country. The honeymoon phase, where everything looks so overwhelmingly great is just as much part of it as the following stages.

The name says it all: in the beginning everything is just fascinating: the language, the new food, the way people behave. Everything is new and therefore exotic. You are also excited for having taken the leap, and started something new and interesting. This position in itself is something that shines a romantic light over everything around you. Perhaps you don’t need too many tips on how to cope with this stage. Enjoy it, but it’s always good to be aware that things will take a different turn eventually. Because the thing with honeymoon phases is that they always eventually end. So, what comes after?

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Culture shock stage 2 – Frustration, negotiation

This is the less fun, more anxiety part, and also the stage people usually identify as culture shock, even though it’s a more complex experience than that, and all four stages are equally important to be aware of.

With the end of the honeymoon phase, it’s not uncommon that people experience fatigue, sudden longing and homesickness. This is the stage during which depression is most common. This usually occurs when all those seemingly minor misunderstandings, miscommunications and challenges have built up. The things which are all there from the beginning, but you don’t give them much credit as everything is still new and exciting. Maybe the bureaucracy is entirely different than what you were used to, or perhaps the public transportation is hard to get used to, or the way people communicate, what they expect, etc. If you don’t speak the language, that can really add a lot to these minor everyday frustrations. It’s when the novelty starts to wear off and you find yourself surrounded by things you don’t understand, you don’t feel at home with.

The first thing that can really help you is the same as before: knowing that it won’t last forever. And make it a rule for yourself not to panic. During this stage people often start thinking “have I made the wrong decision?”, “should I move back home?”, and in general they tend to feel overwhelmed by anxiety. This only gets worse if you expect yourself not to experience any of this, and if you don’t give yourself time to adjust. Never underestimate the power of patience. And at this stage it is also very helpful not to compare the new surroundings with the one back home. That can only be another source of frustration, and easily turn into a vicious circle. Focus on what you have in the present, and be patient!

Culture shock stage 3 – Adjustment stage

You successfully got through the hardest part! Now comes the adjustment phase, when you slowly win back your sense of stability, and things don’t seem as threatening anymore.

At this point things are no longer as surprising, and day by day it gets clearer what to expect. The amount of things that still come as huge surprises, decreases significantly. By this time you’ve probably met some people you can talk to, and you have a few routines going as well. Use this time to get to know people, and don’t be afraid to ask! At this point you probably have a few colleagues or neighbours maybe, to exchange a few words, and ask them about things. People generally like it when someone shows genuine interest in their culture, so don’t be afraid to ask questions!

Culture shock stage 4 – Acceptance, adaptation

At this stage you are already comfortable in your new surroundings. But please note that acceptance doesn’t mean that you fully comprehend and understand the culture you are in. It is rather the realization that you don’t need to understand and know everything about said culture in order to lead a balanced life. You are already familiar, and you feel safe, which means that you also have a clearer view on the bigger picture. You are in the position to assess what is it that you must know and what is it that you can let go of.

At this point you will probably find it easier to see the differences between your own culture and the one you are getting used to for what they are: simply differences. It becomes easier not to compare and contrast, which is one of the most important things in finding your peace.

Eszter Szűcs-Imre

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At a glance

  • A culture shock can take months to develop, and it can surprise you in many ways.

  • In the beginning everything is just fascinating.

  • With the end of this honeymoon phase, it’s not uncommon that people experience fatigue, sudden longing and homesickness. You find yourself surrounded by things you don’t understand.

  • Now comes the adjustment phase, when you slowly win back your sense of stability. Things don’t seem as threatening anymore.

  • At the last stage, you realize that you don’t need to understand everything in order to lead a balanced life. It becomes easier not to compare and contrast, which is one of the most important things in finding your peace. 

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