What is Culture Shock?

What is culture shock exactly? Everybody experiences culture shock when moving and living abroad. But do you know what it is  and how it can affect your relocation?

A multitude of new experiences will await when living abroad. Make sure you know how to deal with culture shock!

Culture shock describes the reaction people experience when adjusting to a new culture. It is usually characterized by different stages and includes a certain period of the feeling of not belonging when moving and living in a foreign country. Also in your expat assignment culture shock is the phase of transition in the acculturation process which makes you recognize the cultural differences between your home country and the new home. Have you ever felt like a 'fish out of water'?

What is Culture Shock? Is it a normal reaction?

Yes, this is a completely normal reaction to being confronted with new cultural cues such as languages, gestures, customs. You will experience certain culture shock symptoms until you come to understand the new culture and learn to adjust to these new cultural values and customs without denying your own cultural upbringing. Culture shock is experienced by everyone starting a new life abroad regardless of the knowledge of the new country, the individual’s maturity, social position or former exposure to other cultures.

Culture shock is often wrongly referred to as a mental illness, as culture shock manifests itself like any mental illness when the suffering person does usually not realize by him/herself that he/she suffers from it. The length of time a person might suffer from culture shock depends on the individual and the strength of the reactions varies too.

Culture shock comes in many disguises. Now find out which symptoms and causes relate to the question: What is Culture Shock? There are positive signs and negative signs which may suggest you experience that special feeling of transition.

What is Culture Shock? - Symptoms

Here our listing of the psychological or physical symptoms you might experience when living in culture shock.

Physical Signs of Stress

  • Headaches
  • Backaches
  • Stomachaches
  • Only little appetite or eating too much 
  • Feeling down, tired and drained
  • Sleep problems

Psychological Signs of Stress

  • Feeling of being alone and of being an outsider
  • Feeling misunderstood, being easily irritated
  • Fear of getting in contact with the locals
  • Refusal to learn the local language
  • Feeling to have to adjust to others with loosing your own identity
  • Increased self-awareness
  • Feeling of growing with new challenges
  • Fighting against everything new
  • Building your own safe haven and staying indoors having excuses
  • Not trusting anybody
  • Being preoccupied about being cheated or robbed
  • Criticizing the culture and people in the new country
  • Being preoccupied about own home country, feeling
  • Praising everything from your own culture, while denying any good in the new culture
  • Complaining most of the times about almost everything


What is Culture Shock? – Causes

Culture Shock is caused by an anxiety when experiencing new unfamiliar surroundings. The different cultural cues like gestures, customs, idioms, language, beliefs etc. in you new surroundings and which are used in everyday situations and in communication with the locals have to be learnt and understood.

You feel like an outsider because you do not understand the facial expressions, traditions and routines of the locals for example. This however makes you aware of your own culture and upbringing. At home you knew how to behave and function in your own cultural settings. Being transplanted into a new culture uproots all you know about getting around without creating any trouble or problems and everything you know and makes you feel safe. And then your familiar cultural cues have been taken away and you have to struggle to acquire a new set of cultural cues to regain that feeling of belonging.

Kalervo Oberg (1901-1973), world-renowned anthropologist, spoke about that reaction when moving and living abroad and he explained that there is a high dependence on these familiar clues, if they are not there we feel like “He or she is like a fish out of water. No matter how broad-minded or full of good you may be, a series of props have been knocked from under you, followed by a feeling of frustration and anxiety.” Citation from: Kalervo Oberg: Culture Shock 1954 - read the full article in: www.smcm.edu/academics/internationaled/pdf/cultureshockarticle.pdf

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