Culture shock – in brief

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Brian Hennessy. An Australian in China. January, 2016. Psychologist.

All change is stressful, and although we may not think so at the time, culture shock is a normal reaction to change. With a little self-knowledge it can be managed successfully. This article looks at the nature, stages, and causes of culture shock; and provides guidelines for managing culture shock experiences.


Culture shock


If we hope to adapt to life in a foreign country, we need information on the external realities which may confront us. We also need information on the internal reactions we may have as we make the transition from one culture to another.

These reactions may include uncomfortable physiological sensations, and uncharacteristic changes in emotions and behaviour. There may be outbursts of anger, episodes of anxiety and depression, and brief periods of self-protective paranoia. Interpersonal relationships may be put under stress.



Culture shock is a reaction to the stress of living in an unfamiliar culture. It usually occurs when we are overwhelmed by too much information from our new environment, and when our responses to this overload are reactive rather than adaptive. 

Note that some degree of culture shock is a normal reaction to living in a foreign country. Some people also adapt better than others. Adaptation is easier however, if we are aware of typical reactions to culture shock and are willing to learn new ways of coping. 



The phases of adaptation to a new culture do not necessarily follow a fixed course. They can recur as new situations force continuing adjustment.

Honeymoon. The first phase is typical of people who enter other cultures for vacations, business trips, and so on. It is characterized by interest, excitement, and ideal impressions of the new culture.

Crisis. This second phase may emerge immediately, or it may escalate over time as negative experiences and reactions accumulate. It usually occurs within a few weeks after arrival.

Adjustment. People in this third phase make their own adjustments. For example; some retreat into the safety of a foreign enclave. Other folk embrace the challenges and move forward. These people learn from past experiences and maintain a positive attitude while acquiring new coping skills. They analyse situations, identify problem areas, and use a problem-solving technique to resolve difficulties.

Adaptation. The fourth phase is reached when stable patterns of adaptation are demonstrated. Although full assimilation is improbable, it is likely that this process of adaptation will change the way we think and behave. We enjoy a new bi-cultural identity.



Dealing with cultural differences every day can be difficult. Here are a few things to be aware of: 

Stress. Exposure to any new environment is psychologically stressful. This can wear us out and make us vulnerable to illness.

Cognitive fatigue (difficulty thinking). In the new culture, we have to make an effort to understand things which are normally processed unconsciously back home. This change from automatic functioning to deliberate effort can be exhausting.

Role changes. Roles which are central to our personal identity may not exist in the new environment. Self-esteem may suffer.

Personal shock. The many changes in our personal life take their toll. We may be upset by aspects of the new culture which may violate our standards and values. We become acutely aware of cultural differences.



It is possible to manage culture shock without making major changes to our behaviour or our lifestyle. For example:

Preparation. Self assessment of our ability to adapt to a new culture is a good first step before we get on the plane. Not everyone can cope with the rigors of adapting to a foreign environment. Some people should never leave home.

Remember the five Ps: Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. An open-minded attitude about the new culture, and a willingness to change, are vital survival skills. 

Transition. Cultural adjustment will be easier if we organise our basic needs either beforehand, or soon after we arrive.

Personal relations. Maintain a supportive network of family and friends. Invest in new relationships and learn how social relations are conducted in the new culture. 

Social interaction. Learning the local language is helpful – at least the basics such as greetings and so on. Focus on non-verbal behaviour patterns also. Do your best to participate in the daily life around you.



Sir Edmund Hilary prepared for his goal of climbing Mount Everest by learning everything he could about the mountain’s environment beforehand. He also understood his own strengths and weaknesses.

Facing the challenge of living in a foreign culture requires a similar attitude and approach. Sunzi’s “Know your enemy” and Plato’s “Know thyself” are timeless words of advice for those who would consider stepping outside their comfort zone.



Buy our eBook, Get China Ready: Understand Chinese culture. Manage cultural differences, from Amazon Kindle eBooks (download their free App for your computer, laptop or tablet). Authors: Hennessy & Li. $9.99




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