Skip to content

Culture shock and how to deal with it

Every person in the world has their unique set of values. These will include some of the values of the culture they grew up in and shape what they see as ‘normal’. When we move or travel somewhere new, these values will often clash in some way with the new place we’re going to and for some people this becomes a deal breaker that they can’t overcome. 

One definition of culture shock is: “The feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes”. Sounds pretty technical, right? For most of my migrant clients it’s very real and often painful, so I thought I’d run through the 4 most common stages of culture shock and how to manage them. 

The key thing to remember through all the stages is that there will ALWAYS be some level of culture shock, even though it’s sometimes just a small one. The biggest challenge is usually peoples assumptions  that it won’t be that different (for example some of my American clients who move to Australia and expect it to be similar to the U.S. “because we all speak English”). If you come with an open mind and know that a new country will always be different, the below stages are much easier to move through! 

  1. The Honeymoon Stage: The first stage of culture shock is often overwhelmingly positive when you immerse yourself in the language, people and food in your new surroundings. This stage usually lasts for anywhere from a week to a month or two and during this stage, the move seems like the greatest decision you ever made! 
  2. The Frustration Stage: Reality will kick in wherever you live and day to day life will start to take over. Depending on how different the new culture is, many people feel tired and frustrated with not understanding gestures, signs, slang and miscommunications may be happening frequently. Small things , like dealing with paperwork or bureaucracy, will likely trigger a fair bit of frustration. I often hear clients say things like “Why can’t it just work/be as easy as we do it back home?“. Because it simply is different! This stage can be short or long, depending on your adaptability and the fastest way to move forward is usually to reach out to other expats and travellers in the area and get them to help you through the most frustrating tasks or experiences. 
  3. The Adjustment Stage: Even if it does not feel like it at the start, frustrations will ease off when you start to feel more familiar and comfortable with the people, cultures and languages of your new home. You’ll find that it’s a bit easier to get around, you might have a few social groups or hobbies set up by now and hearing the local language around you might feel more natural. 
  4. The Acceptance Stage: After a few weeks or months (or even years for some) of moving through the above stages, the final stage is acceptance. This does not mean that new cultures or environments are completely incorporated in your identity, but that you’ve found a way to live and even thrive in your new home. During this stage, you’ve mastered the basics and feel familiar with where you now live, regardless if it is for a limited time or forever. 

As people work their way through these stages, homesickness is bound to kick in at some point (for one or all people in the group or family). I’ve written before about homesickness and how to manage it – check out my previous post here

PS: If you’re not already following us on Facebook, make sure to join us here for more tips on relocations and transitions.