191. Culture Shock: The 4 Stages

Are you living in a foreign country, or planning to live abroad for a while? This episode will be vital listening for you! Listen for some key bits of wisdom to avoid being affected by cultural differences. In this episode I talk about 4 common phases of culture shock that anyone could experience when living in a new environment, and how to make sure you get the best out of a cross-cultural experience. Right-click here to download this episode.

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What is culture shock?
It’s the disorientation that a person feels when they move to or visit a new place. It’s how you feel when you are dealing with a change of environment and an unfamiliar lifestyle. It’s usually associated with adjusting to life in a foreign country but t could also happen if you join a new company, or just move to a different local area.

The Four Phases of Culture Shock
It is generally held that culture shock affects people in a variety of ways, and that there are different stages of adaptation to a new environment. Let’s look at the four stages that are often talked about.

1. The Honeymoon phase
Differences are seen in a romantic light.
You tend to see everything through ‘rose tinted glasses’.
It’s fun to identify differences between your culture and the new culture.
It can be possible to make friends based on the shared joy of experiencing someone from another culture.
It’s probably the experience most of us have as tourists in the new place. In fact, as tourists we manage to avoid or overlook the challenges of existing in a new culture, as it’s all part of the fun of a holiday experience.

*I think there’s another phase which may occur at the beginning – and that’s the FEAR phase! This is what happens when the new culture is overwhelmingly different, causing you to feel shell shocked. You might be too scared to do anything, because of the risk of getting out of your depth, or getting lost or hurt or something. This can cause you to stay inside a lot and just hide from the world! This is how I felt when I first moved to Japan. I was very concerned about getting the wrong bus, or making a big mistake because I didn’t know what I was doing. It was quite stressful, but I was also having an amazing adventure (part of the honeymoon period).

I couldn’t remember as word while recording this episode. The word I couldn’t remember is INTOXICATING, which means that something is so exciting that you feel a bit drunk on the experience.

2. The Negotiation Phase
Here the differences between you and the host culture become obvious and problematic. This could result in frustration, anger, loneliness and homesickness. Unfavourable things make you feel like the host culture is strange and offensive. This is usually brought on by a bad experience that brings you back down to earth, such as a break up. At this point the culture can seem weird, different, stupid, or confusing. It might make you think, “how can these people live like this?”
This might also involve environmental things, like your body dealing with weather changes, light cycles or levels of bacteria. It might result in you feeling tired, irritable or sick. Language and body language can play a large part in this too. It’s important to avoid jumping to false conclusions about your host culture because your limited ability to understand them can cause you to assume certain things about them. E.g. you might assume that people don’t have a sense of humour – but it’s just that you aren’t noticing their jokes.

3. The Adjustment Phase
This is when you manage to develop an effective working routine in the new place. You develop your own problem solving skills and strategies for getting by in the new country. The issues that confused you before are now more understandable as you’ve developed a finer appreciation of the way of life in this new place. You understand the people more deeply, and this allows you to enjoy and appreciate their culture more. You might suddenly realise, “Wow, these people are really clever! Their way of life totally makes sense now!”.

4. The Mastery Stage
This is when you are able to operate in the culture without any problems at all. In fact, you’ve become completely naturalised while also maintaining your original culture too. What happens is that you become bi-cultural – the sort of cosmopolitain person who is able to adapt to different cultural contexts. You might have developed a ‘best of both worlds’ approach to your lifestyle, in which you incorporate the most effective aspects of your culture and the other culture. You’re open minded enough to realise that no culture is perfect, and that you can lose aspects of your own culture and replace them with more beneficial aspects of the other culture.

The Outcomes of Culture Shock
There are a few possible ways to react to living in a new culture. You can become one of three people (although I expect it is probably more nuanced and subtle than just 3 possibilities).

So, when faced with culture shock experiences people can become:
1. Rejectors
These people are unable to adapt to the new culture, and instead become isolated. They can’t integrate, they live in their own communities, they have lots of bad experiences with the locals and they find that the local culture is hostile. They might not even realise that they’re experiencing culture shock and just jump to lots of negative conclusions about the host culture, which then prevents them from really enjoying and adjusting to life. This may also be due to prejudice on either side, for example racism on the part of the host culture towards those who have moved there. It’s often due to a lack of awareness of culture shock and the causes of it. Ironically, these people have an even harder time re-entering their own culture, because they’re not aware of how much they’ve changed.

2. Adopters
These people integrate fully and lose their original identity. They will probably live in the country forever. Ironically, they might become “more English than the English” (if they’ve moved to England, for example), becoming excessively proud and defensive of what they perceive to be true values of the host culture, in an attempt to fully integrate.

3. Masters
These are the cosmopolitain types who adapt and learn to be flexible, moving between cultures, creating a unique blend of “the best of both worlds”. They remain open minded and have a tolerant and flexible approach to change. They might become nomadic, as moving to new places becomes the norm.

That’s it for this episode. Thanks very much for listening! Please share your culture shock experiences. Have you ever experienced culture shock? Where were you, and what happened? Please leave your comments below.

  • Ptholome

    Transcribing this episode some things came out of my mind:

    I had of course a cultural shock when I went to live in France but bigger was the cultural shock I had when I came back to Spain 14 years later. But even if it is not easy it is not really hard. It’s a question of will, needs, goals, dreams… and how big they are!

    About the importance of been “well dressed” in France. They did a Documentary about this topic and send a group people to a good restaurant. When they went well dressed they had a good place in the restaurant where they could see and being see everyone and when days later they returned dressed differently they had a bad place where people couldn’t see them and vice versa… They did it in different places and had the same results.

    Big hug from Spain.

    • Thanks for the comment Antonio and the great work on the transcript project.

  • Mollie Tai

    At first,I was quite excited to visit my lover in Yemen.Then, I experienced many different things. Such as,Arabic language and ISLAMIC religion,Yemeni custom,Yemeni life-style,Yemeni
    people, Yemeni landscapes,Yemeni food,Yemeni dress
    code…..etc. A lot of dos and don’ts to be followed. People throw
    away garbages anywhere and anytime on the streets. They even
    spit ,fight,curse in public.Most drivers are rude and careless.Women
    are covered from heads to toes or wearing scarfs.Children are out
    playing with anything they find on the ground.Not too much homework
    from schools.They eat with their hands on the floor at homes.Most
    families don’t have modern furniture and facilities.Men and some women chew Qat every afternoon.So, I went through the Honeymoon
    Phase and Negotiation Phase.
    After these,I adapted myself to the new environment. For almost 29
    years,I have been trying to integrate with the people and culture.Now
    I passed the Adjustment Phase and come to the Mastery Stage. I can
    live and deal with many changes in a flexible way. From being isolated
    and becoming sociable, I have transformed a Taiwanese into a Yemeni.
    Above all, my marriage has made me understand all the meanings of
    being a rejector, then an adopter,finally a master. Yes ! It was an
    extremely difficult challenge !!!

    • Wow, you really have been through it all haven’t you. What a big move it must have been for you. Thanks for commenting ;)

  • Ida Wati

    Hello, Luke.. To be honest, l’m not sure if my comment will attract you to read as l ve noticed that my comments on couple of posts, both here and on fb seem to be too trivial to deserve even a slight attention.. But thought, l would leave some my personal thoughts here..

    I’ve always enjoyed listening to and learning from LEP. Admittedly, it carries a lot of weight to my English skill, apart from the fact that l also have a constant contact with some native Britts. and yes, we did have a problem with some kind of cultural deadly, depressing, annoying and on top of that offensive difference…

    Your posdcast ”what Londoners say” has woken me up in a way that l start to think that they are not really sincere? apologies if l’ve jumped to a conclusion.. for that is exactly what l experience in my relationship with an English guy earlier this year.. Quite really shocking to finally discover that his politeness, as he claimed as typical Brittish way, turned out to be a real heartbreaking remarks as l understand his understatements…

    Regarding to this episode, honestly, it put me off even dreaming of going overseas a bit.. l don’t think l would be able to cope with the potential shocks by which l might get dragged down..
    And now l begin to doubt my English.. and l’ll probably give up on learning this language, as what you said in this episode, l might speak only ”that kind of English” thing..

    Anyway, Luke.. l genuinely thank you so much for allowing us to learn a lot more accurate Brittish English, which honestly help me a lot with my English..

    • Hi Ida,
      First of all I’d just like to say I noticed all your comments and likes on fb and I definitely appreciate them, please be in no doubt about that. Naturally, I can’t respond to everything but I genuinely appreciate all the comments and responses I get, including yours.
      Regarding the “What Londoners Say…” episode, I must remind you that it was based on a BuzzFeed article. BuzzFeed is a largely humourous website. Their main aim is to entertain and amuse their readers, so sometimes their content is exaggerated for comic effect. So, it could be possible to get a slightly distorted view of Londoners/Brits from what was written in that article. I know you are in regular contact with Brits, but we’re not quite as two-faced as that article might suggest. Sure, we may say one thing but mean another, in order to avoid awkward or angry conflicts, but it doesn’t mean we don’t mean what we say every time. I’m sure you know that, but still I wanted to make it clear. Don’t let it put you off travelling to London and having good experiences there! Also, don’t let it stop you learning English! Most communicative situations are very straightforward and simple I promise. People usually mean what they say and it’s not as complex as you might fear. Also, some culture shock is normal but usually it’s exciting (not always negative) and character-building.
      Basically, I hope my episode didn’t scare you away from learning English and/or travelling. Your English seems really good by the way.
      Thanks again for the comment. Keep your chin up ;)

  • Donald

    Hi Luke, I found this issue very interested! I think you have described in a brilliant way the difficulties that foreigners have to face when living abroad. I lived in Brighton in two different moments and, even if I’m Italian, I can honestly say that the lifestyle in England is quite different from my Country. At the beginning I felt adrift, but English people are so supportive as well as incredibly polite! I remember one particular: saying hello to the bus driver when you get on and get off it is ” almost ” compulsory “, as it denotes a great respect towards the driver ( in Italy, we not even look at him… ). I think you English have a ” negative ” aspect of your behaviour ( don’t get me wrong, it’s not really negative… ): as you have said, English are not very direct. In my Country we are like that and it’s customary for us to tell the truth even if, you know, it can hurt sometimes. I can understand you are ” politically correct “, but sometimes if I want to know your opinion, you shouldn’t beat around the bush. I agree with you when you say it’s important to adopt the local culture when you are living in a different Country as well as the habits: you can certainly become more open minded and more tollerant ( foreigners have to bear in mind that they have to abide by the rules of the Country, so doing as the Romans do should be the most significant rule ). Thanks for the episode, I really related to what you have explained.

    • Thanks for this comment Donald. I’m really pleased that you related to what I said. It’s a complex business, living in another country, isn’t it?

      • Anonymous

        I see eye to eye with you, but it’s definitely worth spending time in another place: variety is the spice of life, isn’t it? The more you experience, the better, even if you are faced with difficult situations: I speak about the different culture, the food, habits and so on. What’s more, you can meet lots of people from all walks of life, exchange ideas etc… I particularly like this statement: ” A mind that is stretched by new experience can never go back to its old dimensions “. That’s true, because once you go on a journey, you’d like to repeat the same experience ( that’s my case ) in order to broaden your mind as much as possible, geting in contact with such a numerous events. Have a good night, Luke.

      • Donald

        I see eye to eye with you but I still think it’s worth spending time in a different place: variety is the spice of life, isn’t it? The more you experience, the better, even if you are continuously faced with difficult situations ( for instance different food, culture, strange habits and so on ). What’s more, you can meet lots of people from all walks of life and exchange ideas with them by explaining your points of view. As a result, you’ll be able to broaden your mind and extend your knowledge. I particularly like this statement: A mind that is stretched by new experience can never go back to its old dimensions “. I find it significant and it’s a vivid example of how important is to go abroad. Have a good night, Luke.

  • Elisa

    Excellent podcast. Rich, easy enough vocabulary, good rhythm and interesting topic. Enjoyable to listen to.

  • Amir

    Dear Luke. I am one your listener. I just wanted to appreciate you for all of you podcast.
    Best Regards

  • Andrzej

    Hi Luke, This is another episode which I find outstanding. Why? Because it’s so personal in many ways. Maybe it only applies to me but I find much easier to memorise things when I can find and build a personal relation between me and what I learn about. Your story is true and real and when I speak English I often catch myself on using your expressions, phrases and sometimes whole sentences and when I do it I can see you and your stories like pictures and films in my mind (Oh, yes, Luke said something like that in a similar situation. It must be correct). And despite we are very unlikely to meet in our lives I call you my acquaintance and I’d be very proud of that if you don’t mind. Have a nice weekend to you and all the LEPers.

  • Takako.Y

    Hi Luke
    It was very very interesting! I laughed a lot when you mentioned that you asked your brother to take off his shoes after you came back to London from Japan. I really understand your feeling!!
    I have lived in Oxford for a short time about 15 years ago.When my host mother served baked beans for me. I wasn’t able to eat them all at first. But recently I sometimes buy Heinz baked beans from Amazon. I miss the taste.
    I also have another memory.When I took a shower in a cold day, there was only cold water. I didn’t know that someone had run out of hot water! It was so miserable.
    However I liked English landscape and the weather so much. Flowers and the sky are very beautiful!!
    Japanese summer is tooooo hot as you know. I wish I could go to England only summer time every year to escape Japanese heat fatigue. I like your culture, too.
    Many people in England respect old things. I think it is great.

    Sick in Japan is also one of my favourite episode. I was so impressed and touched.

    Thank you, Luke.
    I am looking forward to the next one. I would be happy if you could sing again.

  • I like this episode, thanks. Despite I have been living in another country almost 3 years, I guess, I am still on the third phase…
    Oleksandr from Ukraine/Denmark

  • Anonymous

    I like this episode, thanks. Despite I have been living in another country almost 3 years, I guess, I am still on the third phase…
    Oleksandr from Ukraine/Denmark