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Stages of Culture Shock

The adjustment to living in a new culture comes in different stages of culture shock. Read here more about the various phases you are likely to experience when relocating or moving abroad.

Most often the term 'culture shock' is used to describe the lowest point when feeling completely uprooted and exhausted during any relocation. Everybody experiences irritation and insecurity when in a new environment and being confronted by new cultural 'cues' such as gestures and local customs. It is normal to experience a certain degree of uprootedness.

However, various quite distinct stages of change can be encountered when you live in a different cultural environment to the place you understand or in which you feel 'at home'. We experience feelings we can hardly point at and which are evolving as a process during cultural adjustment. This culture shock phenomen is usually observed over a longer period of time, such as the years of your expat posting. 

Oberg's Model of Culture Shock Stages

Kalervo Oberg was the first to describe five distinct stages of culture shock in 1958. He included the experience of a reverse adjustment to the home country in his model of adjustment phases.

Oberg described the stages of culture shock as:

  1. Honeymoon or tourist stage
  2. Irritation and anger stage
  3. Rejection or regression stage
  4. Integration or assimilation stage
  5. Reverse or reentry stage

Below we will use the common four stages of culture shock (1.-4. of Obergs stages) including two further stages referring to the return to the home country after an expatriate assignment as such adding an additional phase to Oberg's model. When relocating to your home country you will experience these two phases and you should be aware of them, therefore I will describe them below as well.

Stages of Culture Shock - Step by Step

Culture Shock is a very individual process and you will most certainly experience a variety of symptoms during your relocation. But to be informed about the different phases or stages of culture shock, is already a good start to deal with the phenomen. 

First phase: Being happy and excited

When you arrive at your new posting abroad, everything seems exotic and interesting. You are curious to explore your new surroundings. You mainly see the positive side of your relocation. You are in a state of euphoria. Here in Cape Town, it is easy to be excited as everything seems so colorful, happy, vibrant and for some it is a really cheap destination so you might shop at your heart's content. This state lasts usually for a couple of weeks, maybe some months, depending if you are starting your new expat life in a hotel or have to find your ways around the city organizing your new life and looking for a new home right from the start.

Coping Strategies

Do you want to know which strategies are useful when dealing with culture shock? Read our tips for coping with culture shock here. 


Second phase: Feeling overwhelmed

After some weeks of this euphoria, you will start to realize that it is difficult to be in constant contact with the new cultures and different customs. You feel like you lost your balance and realize how different everything is compared to your home country. You begin to miss home, it seems to you that everything you know is turned upside down and you do not understand the locals and you feel misunderstood and disadvantaged. At its lowest point, the culture shock manifests itself through the common symptoms of culture shock. You might feel you are constantly at the wrong place at the wrong time and you might start avoiding people and places. This daunting experience can actually be quite short but sometimes it might last up to several months before you realize the cause of your 'illness' or unhappiness.

Third phase: becoming more open and accepting

Slowly you will understand the new cultural cues. This happens usually during your first year of your relocation. You will feel safer and more content with your life and will become more proactive again. You will go out and take action to meet new people and maybe you try to find new ways to live and enjoy your new lifestyle. Life becomes easier and you understand more and more what is happening around you. You learn the local language, customs and way of living and will adjust slowly without loosing your own cultural identity.

Fourth phase: feeling settled

You still will compare the advantages or disadvantages of your new home with your country, but you are comparing everything in a more realistic way of seeing things. Things normalize; you know your new routine. Life is not anymore so exciting, you are not so anxious anymore and you feel comfortable with your new surroundings. You have got new friends and perhaps lead a different lifestyle which you never thought possible to live or enjoy. You do not worry about everybody and everything, you just feel at 'home' and at the right place.

Fifth phase: being excited about going home

Once your expat assignment comes to an end, you will feel anxious to leave your new found friends and your lifestyle, but on the other hand, and that will be dominating your feelings, there will be a great anticipation for being 'home again', to be back to all the people and things you missed during your time away. You plan already what you will do when you get home, but slowly have to acknowledge that people and things also changed and continued to grow or evolve back home. This stage actually relates quite closely to phase one of new expat relocations.

Sixth phase: shocked about the differences

You start realizing that the grass is not greener on the other side. Yes, it's only a different shade! You feel disappointed that things also have changed at your old home and start to miss things from your last expat assignment. But slowly as the whole process repeats itself again with usually less drastic effect as being in a foreign country, you will settle again and live comfortably again. And as said before, knowing about the stages of culture shock, symptoms and causes is already a good way forward! Wishing you all the best with your moving and culture shock experience!

Be prepared and have an easy start with our new e-book!

Living in South Africa - Expat Guide Book by Regina Graeff and Derryn Campbell

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