Culture Shock: Definition, Stages & Examples

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Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Information Technology, and Literacy and has a master's in counseling psychology and business administration.

Culture shock refers to the feelings of confusion and uncertainty that you experience when you come into contact with a new culture. Explore the five stages of culture shock, learn about reverse culture shock, and more.

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Imagine that you are an American college student going to study abroad in Australia for the summer. You are excited to take your first trip overseas and cannot wait to go. You figure that since it is an English-speaking country, it won't be that different from America.

Once you step off the plane, reality sets in. You realize that although it was summer when you left home, it is winter in Australia. You have trouble following the language and find it hard to fit in. You feel alone and lonely, especially on the 4th of July when you would normally have a huge party with family and light fireworks. You cannot connect with any of the locals and feel like no one understands what you are going through. You cry at night and wish you were at home. What you are feeling is culture shock.

What Is Culture Shock?

Culture shock is the term we use to describe the feelings of confusion and uncertainty that are experienced when you come into contact with a culture that is vastly different from your own. Culture shock can be commonly seen in foreign students, immigrants, and refugees. Even students who stay in their home countries suffer from culture shock as they make the transition into the foreign environment known as college.

Stages of Culture Shock

There are five stages of culture shock. Each stage has its own unique characteristics. The length of each stage varies depending on the individual. You may find that it is easier and quicker to move through some stages than others. There are several factors that can affect how fast you move through the stages, including:

  • Mental health
  • Personality type
  • Previous experiences with other cultures
  • How familiar you are with the language
  • Support systems you have in place
  • Education level

Stage 1: Honeymoon Phase

Try to recall the last time you experienced something new. Maybe it was a new restaurant or a new clothing store. You probably experienced a rush of euphoria and excitement at the prospect of getting to try something different. This is the same type of high that people get when they first experience a new culture. The honeymoon phase, also known as the incubation stage, is characterized by feelings of excitement and fascination about your new culture. You have a romanticized view about the new culture, but it doesn't last for long.

Stage 2: Distress

Once you come down from your high, the differences between your home culture and the new culture become apparent. As you make the transition between the old ways of doing things and the ways of the new culture, you may experience some crisis or difficulty in your daily life. For example, you may find that there is limited public transportation and have trouble getting where you need to go or you have difficulty adjusting to driving on the left side of the car and road. You experience feelings of anger, sadness, frustration, and dissatisfaction during this stage. This stage is also referred to as the negotiation phase.

Stage 3: Reintegration

You start to understand some aspects of the new culture and your ability to function increases. However, you are not happy with the changes. You view the new culture as inadequate and inferior to your home culture. You begin to blame the new culture for causing difficulties and feel resentment and anger toward it. You may even show hostility toward the locals. It is believed that this is the most important and common stage of culture shock.

Stage 4: Autonomy

In this stage, you finally move toward acceptance of the new culture. You start to accept the good things that the new culture has to offer and find effective ways to deal with the problems that you encounter. You find a sense of balance and develop feelings of belonging.

Stage 5: Independence

You have finally reached biculturalism; in other words, you feel just as comfortable and competent in the new culture as you do in the old culture. You have a realistic view of the new culture and no longer feel isolated. You begin to feel at home.

Reverse Culture Shock

When you return to your original culture, you may be surprised to find that returning home after growing accustomed a new culture causes disorientation. You notice yourself re-experiencing the stages of culture shock. This is known as reverse culture shock, which is usually more troublesome and difficult than the original culture shock that you experienced. It is important to note that not everyone who returns to his or her home culture experiences reverse culture shock.

Lesson Summary

Culture shock is the feelings of confusion and uncertainty that you experience when you come into contact with a culture that is vastly different from your own. There are five stages of culture shock: the honeymoon phase, distress, reintegration, autonomy, and independence. Some people experience reverse culture shock once they return to their original culture. So remember: the next time that you find yourself somewhere new feeling sad and alone, it won't be like that forever. Although you may not know it yet, you may have just found your new home!

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