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Culture shock

Most expats and global travelers are familiar with the term culture shock. It is not surprising, since it is a part of cross-cultural life. But culture shock is a bit like an earthquake. It can be a low rumble on the Richter Scale, or it can be a full-blown disaster. And, like an earthquake, we sometimes get cultural aftershocks later once we think it is already over.

The term culture shock was coined in the 1954 by Kalervo Oberg, a Canadian anthropologist, who described it as the emotional reaction and anxiety caused by losing all our familiar signs and symbols of social interaction, particularly when we move or travel abroad to a foreign country. Oberg’s ideas regarding our reactions when immersed in new cultures was extended by the Norwegian sociologist Sverre Lysgaard. Lysgaard showed how we progress through four phases as we move from initial exposure to adjustment. These four phases are: honeymoon, shock, adjustment, and mastery.

Integrating into a new culture is not armed combat, but it is jiu-jitsu.

Culture shock can create feelings of loneliness, depression, confusion, and frustration. It can result in a loss of identity when our familiar cultural reference points are lost or changed. Culture shock cannot be completely eliminated, but its negative effects can be softened. Co-mingling cultures does not have to be a battleground. We can turn it into an opportunity to learn, grow, and expand our worldview.

The unpleasant feelings associated with culture shock are temporary, natural, and similar to the stress we may experience with any other transition that we may go through in our lives. We can be patient and give ourselves time to work through the adjustment process. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that part of the fun of experiencing new cultures is just that – they are new and different.

Fortunately, we do not have to remain stuck in our cultural adjustment. Most people find new friends, resolve problems with daily living, and gradually understand more and more about the habits of people and the rules of life around them. Cross-cultural adjustment is a process. We are the agents of our own change. We can make the process faster or slower, or more or less enjoyable by the attitudes we adopt and the things we do.

I believe that most people are already experts at cultural adjustment. They have adjusted to new school, work, social, and living environments throughout their lives. Adjusting to life abroad is different in scale, but not in kind. We have the experience and skill to do it inside of each of us, even if we may not always realize it.

For more insights see my books and blog at

James McGinley, PhD is a professor, author, certified life coach, and licensed counselor. He is interested in cross-cultural and applied psychology, whether at work, as a part of a team, in our personal lives and in our relationships with others, or when we face adversity in life – whether from stress, addiction, or exposure to crisis.

(Image credits Unsplash)

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