As the child of a diplomat, Isioma Ononye has had her fair share of experiences with adjusting to a new culture. She’s Nigerian and spent much of her childhood living abroad. At different points in her childhood, her family lived in New York City, Budapest, and Mexico City.
Each time her family moved, adjusting to a culture so different from her own (and equally different from the last one) was hard work. Ononye tells HealthyWay she experienced a difficult transition in each new location—and that the adjustment was difficult for its own unique reason everywhere they went.
In Mexico City, being African set her apart from everyone else. So few families like hers lived there. Going to school was difficult because she felt her differences were blatantly obvious. In both Budapest and Mexico City, not knowing the language or understanding the culture made it difficult to immerse herself in social activities. In New York, she faced a different set of challenges.
“Having to adapt to a new environment with a different climate can be difficult and affect your mood,” she says. “I prefer to be in environments with warm climates. I’ve never been a fan of winter. At college in New York, the winter season would sometimes bring my mood down.”
What Ononye was experiencing was culture shock. It’s an idea we’ve all likely heard about before, but we might not be all that familiar with what it entails. Not many people know what it’s like to experience setting up life in a location where the language, social norms, and daily customs or climate are so different from what they know. Here’s what you need to know about making a transition to a new culture, what to expect, and how you can cope with this massive change. And even if you’re not planning on relocating any time soon, understanding more about culture shock can help you be a more supportive and informed community member wherever you are.
What is culture shock?
At its most basic, culture shock is any experience of difficulty or struggle while living in a new location or culture. While culture shock is most often experienced when living in a new country, some people report experiencing the phenomena after making a move to a region of their country that is vastly different from where they grew up. For example, if you grew up in a bustling city and relocated to a small, rural community, you might experience culture shock.
InterNations, a resource for individuals moving or living in new cultures, describes culture shock as an “emotional roller coaster.” Symptoms of culture shock often include anxiety, depression, and homesickness according to a resource created by Kalamazoo College. This Simon Fraser International Students online resource also cites excessive sleeping, boredom, loneliness, and even aches and pains as symptoms of culture shock.
Certain individuals might see their culture shock play out in more unusual ways. They may become anxious about their surroundings, like the cleanliness of the water or environment, and indulge in compulsive handwashing or rigidity about what they eat. Some people may even experience extreme anger over the difficulties the language barrier represents.
Culture shock looks different for each person. but it’s fairly normal to feel uncomfortable when you move to a new environment. With an understanding of what to expect and an acceptance that it is normal to struggle with adaptation to a new environment, you can take the first step toward a comfortable life in a new location.
What You Need to Know: The Stages of Culture Shock
Culture shock comes in stages; it doesn’t all hit you at once. In fact, you might not feel any effects of culture shock at first. It takes time to process how monumental a change like moving to a new country is for your lifestyle and wellbeing.
Researchers have differing opinions on how many stages of culture shock exist—four or five. However, they do agree on the general shape or cycle of culture shock. Things start out well, maybe even amazingly well, then a crash or crisis takes place, followed by a slow but steady recovery. According to research published in the Journal of Travel Medicine, even with differing views on culture shock and the varying lengths of time over which the process occurs, experts in the field almost always agree that it is a U-shaped experience. You’re up, then you’re down, and then you work your way up again.
For the sake of simplicity, we’ll focus on four stages of culture shock. This is what you might experience during the first days, weeks, or months in your new home abroad.
1. The Honeymoon Phase
Changes are fun and exciting. Even if you’re nervous about making a big move, there’s a good chance you’ve been looking forward to and planning for your new lifestyle in a new culture, and now the time for adventure is finally here!
Once you arrive at your new destination, you will probably experience what is commonly called the honeymoon phase. According to the aforementioned piece published in the Journal of Travel Medicine, this phase is characterized by excitement and wonder. Some individuals may experience the honeymoon phase for only a few days, while others will feel this way for months. It is also common for phases of culture shock to overlap, according to a write-up in Anthropology Matters.
During this phase of adjusting to a new culture, you’ll see everything with rose-colored glasses. Everything around you will seem fascinating and exciting. You might go non-stop, anxious to experience everything new in your environment. Much like the first days, weeks, or months of a new relationship, you’ll probably overlook any faults in your new location.
2. The Crisis Phase
Next comes the crash. That new culture you fell in love with might not be quite as perfect as you believed in the honeymoon stage.
During the crisis phase, much of the frustration you experience might be associated with the differences in language or cultural norms. You’re a stranger in a strange land, and keeping up with day-to-day tasks will probably feel incredibly difficult during this phase.
During the second phase, you’ll likely see the bulk of your negative symptoms appear. This might be when you start to feel depressed or experience extreme frustration. You might even start to feel negative about the culture you once adored. Locals may seem incredibly different from you and your family, and you may long for what you’re used to.
During the frustration phase, some people isolate or think about heading home.
As pointed out in the Anthropology Matters piece, most tourists are lucky enough to avoid this phase altogether. Short-term travelers head home long before the honeymoon phase comes to an end in most circumstances. It’s people who have permanently or semi-permanently moved to a new culture who can expect to experience this difficult part of living in a new place.
3. The Adjustment Stage
The good news about culture shock is that the worst of the symptoms typically fade away with time. Although some individuals do return home or even deal with mental health crises when their honeymoon phase comes to an end, most long-term travelers and expats learn to adjust after their crash.
The adjustment stage occurs during the first year, according to the Travel Medicine Journal piece, and is characterized by an acceptance of the new culture. This is the point in the experience when you’ll buckle down and learn the language well enough to interact on a daily basis. Getting the things you need and forming relationships certainly won’t be easy, but you’ll feel encouraged enough by the small progress you’ve made to keep at it.
What really sets this stage apart is improved wellbeing. You won’t be riding the high of the honeymoon stage, but you certainly won’t be in the depths of despair associated with the crisis stage. You’ll be able to carry on with your life without an excessive amount of discouragement or frustration, and you’ll slowly but surely feel like a healthier individual.
4. The Acceptance Stage
Consider this the “you have arrived” phase of rebounding from culture shock—a whole four stages in. While during the adjustment stage you were soldiering on, the acceptance stage is a more comfortable place to be. In this stage, you’re not merely learning how to interact in a new culture for survival’s sake, you’re accepting that new culture in a way you never have before.
In the crisis stage, you likely felt your culture was better because it felt more natural to you. This is the point in your cultural adjustment when you’ll (hopefully) realize that the two cultures are merely different, that one isn’t better than the other, and that both have their pros and cons. If you’re unable to reach this conclusion as part of your cultural adjustment, you might return home at this point or continue to struggle with depression and anxiety during your time in the new culture.
Who is most likely to experience culture shock?
Although it is true that anyone can experience culture shock when transitioning from living in one culture to another, some individuals are more prone to culture shock than others.
According to the Travel Medicine Journal piece, people with less control over their circumstances will likely experience culture shock to a great degree. Take, for example, someone who moves into a school, organization, or even hotel where they are surrounded by people speaking their native tongue and are able to eat foods they ate at home. This individual is less likely to notice the impact of culture shock when compared to someone who is fully immersed in a neighborhood or community where the local culture is more predominant—where they’re surrounded by people who do not speak their native language, who have different rules about social interactions, and who eat differently.
The severity of the differences between the two cultures also impacts the severity of the culture shock experienced. For instance, individuals who travel from America to another English-speaking country will likely experience fewer symptoms of culture shock than someone who moves from South America to North America.
Length of time is also a factor to consider. If you only plan to be in a culture for days or weeks, the impact of the cultural adjustment might not be extreme enough to be considered culture shock, and it almost certainly will not be as intense as it will be for someone who knows they will be living in a new country or region for a year or more.
One interesting note made by the Travel Medicine Journal is that children often get forgotten when considering culture shock. The truth is, a big move to a new country is very difficult for a young child and their adjustment should be taken into consideration, too.
Preparing for a Cultural Adjustment
“Culture shock is normal! Once an individual realizes this, then they are able to work through it,” says Adriana Smith, founder and blogger at Travepreneur. “More than anything, a cultural adjustment improves soft skills, such as flexibility and adaptability, curiosity, communicativeness, and open-mindedness.”
It is possible to prepare yourself for a big change like moving to a new country. Since having a better understanding of the geography of the location and basic knowledge of the language and cultural rules can lessen the impact of culture shock, it makes sense that educating yourself might help prepare you for a less jarring cultural adjustment.
Smith also suggests finding activities or hobbies to engage in regularly after your move. She specifically points to exercising, joining clubs, and blogging as great ways to ease tension and boost mental health. The Travel Medicine Journal article also suggests finding ways to continue the hobbies you are accustomed to engaging in at home after you settle into your new country. Give a nod to your old routine while forming new and healthy habits.
For Ononye, keeping an open mind was one of the most important ways she coped with culture shock. She knew it would be difficult, but mentally preparing herself to be accepting of the culture was so helpful.
“It sounds too simple, but it makes a difference,” she tells HealthyWay. “By being open in Mexico City, I was willing to form friendships with the locals that helped me to find my way. By being open, I was able to explore my environment.”
GoOverseas, an organization for students studying abroad, also suggests reaching out for support from individuals who are experiencing culture shock as well (or who have in the past). Being able to talk about your experience and get advice from someone who understands could be invaluable to your adjustment.
Additionally, they suggest putting forth the effort to adjust. Don’t just expect it to happen with time! Try to make friends, don’t isolate yourself, and work hard at learning the language. You’ll be glad you did.
Ononye also attributes forming friendships as a big part of her success each time she adjusted to a new culture.
“When I was in New York for college, I interacted more with Americans than international students,” she explains. “That made the adjustment process easier because it helped me to quickly learn how to navigate the suburbs and the city area.”
A Note on Re-Entry
While returning to your home country will be a relief for many, re-entry isn’t always easy. In fact, so many people struggle with adjusting to being home that the term “reverse culture shock” is a common part of conversations among international students and expats.
Specifically, you may notice you’re feeling misunderstood because you now have a set of experiences that friends and family who weren’t with you abroad are unable to identify with. According to the U.S. Department of State, if your re-entry was unexpected or sudden, it will likely be hard to re-adjust because you haven’t had time to prepare emotionally for the transition. If you were immersed in the new culture for quite some time and feel you are really invested in the community where you lived, you might also experience more severe symptoms of reverse culture shock, including depression, loneliness, and disorientation.
If you struggle to move past the crisis stage and into the adjustment and acceptance stages, you may need extra support. It isn’t uncommon for individuals to experience depression, isolation, and anxiety during a cultural adjustment. Remember, just because these experiences are typical, that doesn’t mean they should be ignored.
For Ononye, this looked like joining the international students association at her university in New York. She tells HealthyWay that these relationships meant she had people in her life who really understood what she was going through and who would be anxious to explore their new environment with her.
Reach out and find help if you’re struggling in your new home. If you’re a student who transferred for school or an expat moved by your workplace, these organizations likely have resources at your disposal. Most workplaces have employee assistance programs and most students have access to counselors, even if only via email. This is a good place to start.
If this isn’t an option for you, look for a counselor in your new location who speaks your language. You might be surprised to find that there are more resources available to you than you initially expected.