In a globalized world, it seems as though culture shock is inevitable. Essentially, people “encounter culture shock whenever they uproot themselves from a familiar setting an move to an unfamiliar one,” (Ting-Toomey & Chung, 2011, p. 93). With millions of people traveling as tourists, finding work in other countries, and students studying outside of their homeland, culture shock is an experience that will ultimately affect so many. For some scholars, what it really boils down to is how a person handles their culture shock, and how their reaction to culture shock will affect their ability to adapt to a new cultural environment. However, upon inspection, it may seem that culture shock is actually much more complicated that implying that it is all about the attitude and perception of a single traveler.
There are two types of people that encounter culture shock. There are the sojourners, who are people that move to a different country for a short amount of time, such as “cultural exchange students, businesspersons, diplomats, journalists, [and] military personnel,” (Ting-Toomey & Chung, 2011, p. 93). Then there are also the migrants, who can be refugees, immigrants, and asylum seekers looking to seek a new place of residence in a different country. The threat of culture shock is where the sojourner or the migrant feels like his or her identity is threatened. In their own homeland, there was a “cultural safety net” (Ting-Toomey & Chung, 2011, p. 93) that was there to make the process of communicating with others much easier. In a new location and under a completely different cultural location, that safety net is gone. The “unfamiliarity creates perceived threat, and perceived threat triggers fear and emotional vulnerability,” (Ting-Toomey & Chung, 2011, p. 94).
All in all, culture shock is defined as something that is mainly targeted towards the perceived attack on identity. There are several aspects to culture shock, which include, “(1) a sense of identity loss and identity deprivation with regard to values, status, profession, friends, and possessions, (2) identity strain as a result of the effort required to make necessary psychology adaptation, (3) identity rejection by members of the new culture, (4) identity confusion, especially regarding role ambiguity and unpredictability, and (5) identity powerlessness as a result of not being able to cope with the new environment,” (Ting-Toomey & Chung, 2011, p. 94). These kinds of factors usually leave the sojourner or the migrant with feelings of intense anxiety, and can lead to other complicating mental health issues such as depression. Physical symptoms of culture shock include behaviors like “lack of orientation, uneasiness and anxiety feelings of helplessness and powerlessness, lack of trust and self-confidence, [and] defensive responses and withdrawal,” (Feichtinger & Fink, 1998, p. 302). For students, culture shock will “often limit their social and academic success,” (Goldstein & Keller, 2015, p. 188).
Feichtinger and Fink (1998) specifically define culture shock as an experience that deeply affects a person after spending “more than three months” (p. 302) in another country. They also describe it as a confrontation. Either way, culture shock is an experience that is full of inner conflict during the acculturation process. Acculturation is the “process of cultural change triggers by the close contact between two cultural groups,” (Portela-Myers, 2006, p. 6). This is normally a negative experience. Based on the culture learning approach, travelers will struggle with culture shock because “they lack culturally relevant skills and knowledge, such as those dealing with interpersonal communication and social relationships,” (Goldstein & Keller, 2015, p. 188). This would be the result from the constant identity problems, the anxiety, and the depression. Their lack of communication would stop their ability to make new friends and gain new experiences through new relationships.
Research on culture shock actually does not show that a prolonged stay in a foreign country results in “a constant decrease in acculturation problems or a constant increase in positive attitudes in towards the foreign culture and population,” (Feichtinger & Fink, 1998, p. 302). This means that spending more time in a foreign country does not really mean that it will get easier to adapt to the foreign culture for any person. This places complete emphasis on the person himself to be able to tackle the problem well. In fact, when a person first moves to a new country, it is very common for the traveler’s negative experiences to be “overcompensated by euphoric feelings,” (Feichtinger & Fink, 1998, p. 302), which means to say that they are distracted by happiness as they stepped into the new country.
In actuality, when a person is going through culture shock, their need to withdraw from society can make their experience worse. Based on surveys and reports from international students studying in the United States, “all variables of social support and of culture shock were found to be negatively correlated, suggesting that international students who experience higher levels of culture shock are likely not to have a good social system in place,” (Portela-Myers, 2006, p. 1). This would suggest that their tendency to be withdrawn has made their experiences much harder. Gender makes no variable difference to how a person experiences culture shock according to Portela-Myers’ research.
In contrast, “international students who identified their English levels as advanced presented both the lowest mean for culture shock and the highest level of social support,” (Portela-Myers, 2006, p. 2). Basically, with better language skills, a traveler of any sort would be able to adapt better to their new culture, since they are able to communicate their needs to other people and actually build a support group. This would make sense since international students are in high need “of practical assistance and informational support,” (Portela-Myers, 2006, p. 1), which means that they need help in starting a new life, like trying to find an apartment and picking classes for their schedule.
However, in this point and time, “studies on culture shock are limited and those on social support of international students are inconsistent,” (Portela-Myers, 2006, p. 2). This would mean that researchers are placing too much value on the little research that they have. It may be an assumption that international students should seek more social support to handle their culture shock. That could, in the end, be simplifying a problem that could be much more complicated. There are counselors working at universities that are available to help students, but it is necessary that they “need to have a better understanding of the culture shock experience,” (Portela-Myers, 2006, p. 3), which suggests that they do not have that much knowledge about culture shock to begin with.
There is also the question of how social support plays in different cultures. Essentially, “it is possible that non-Western cultures have a different perspective on [social support], (Portela-Myers, 2006, p. 5). Basically, in the West, social support is considered to be a positive experience in a person’s life. But it could be possible that social support has negative consequences, “depending on the charactersistics of those providing the social support,” (Portela-Myers, 2006, p. 5). Spending too much time with other international students from the same country can result in poorer language skills and an inability to adapt to the new culture.
Basically, for travelers of all kinds, it is vital to build up adaptability skills to help the traveler with their new interactions, such as intercultural learning and competence. When they are implementing the correct intercultural adaptability skills, a traveler can be left with several experiences that will essentially promote a better “sense of well-being and heightened positive self-esteem, emotional richness and enhanced tolerance for ambiguity [and] an enhanced optimism about self, others, and everyday surroundings,” (Ting-Toomey & Chung, 2011, p. 95). In essence, there are many benefits to be taken from being able to travel and experience other cultures. The aspect of culture shock, therefore, is a definite roadblock to being able to really experience a new culture with positivity, openness, and gratitude.
What exactly makes the difference is the expectations created by the traveler. As stated before, many refugees will carry higher expectations of the country they are moving to. This will lead to disappointment, denial, and withdrawal. So for international students traveling to the U.S., or for U.S. students going on a study abroad program, “understanding students’ beliefs about the intercultural adjustment process is of particular importance given the role that expectation-experience congruence plays in sojourner satisfaction,” (Goldstein & Keller, 2015, p. 187). Travelers who feel that their expectations are met will be happier about their traveling experiences. This would mean that experiencing pleasantness during their acculturation would depend on their expectations about the trip.
Several factors are important when it comes adapting to a new culture. A traveler would have to be self-sufficient during troubling times. A traveler would have to be open to experience, which “predicts positive relationships with members of the host culture,” (Goldstein & Keller, 2015, p. 188). He or she would also need better foreign language skills, and have the ability to understand cross-cultural differences. Ironically enough, when American students were surveyed on their study abroad experiences, they reported “difficulties in sociocultural adaptation, rather than psychological adaptation, as the source of culture shock,” (Goldstein & Keller, 2015, p. 192). Instead of blaming internal thoughts on culture shock (which include identity confusion, prejudice, and poor stress management), they blamed the differences in language and their environmental surroundings.
But culture shock is also not just experienced by an individual. For refugees, since they are usually fleeing their homeland by large numbers because of violence or hunger, end up experiencing culture shock on a society level. This is called collective culture shock. It is a “social phenomenon it is expected to take far longer than individual culture shock,” (Feichtinger & Fink, p. 302). For many of them, they carry unrealistic expectations of their new lives in a better country, which results in their collective culture shock. This is because “it has become evident that freedom does not automatically lead to satisfaction and happiness. Unfulfilled expectation and the unjustified idealization of the new system create a crisis that reduces orientation and clarity,” (Feichtinger & Fink, 1998, p. 303).
In other words, life in new countries for refugees can be extremely difficult, which makes it so much harder for them to be hopeful about the future. The culture shock will also leave them to think a lot about the past. This is because culture shock is often expressed through withdrawal and denial. There is a “cultural distance between the old and the new system,” (Feichtinger & Fink, 1998, p. 306), or a cultural gap, between the values help in the natives’ culture and the culture they moved to.
When traveling, it is easy to forget that there will be many things about a country that can be different than one’s own country. People with “realistic expectations are psychologically prepared to deal with adaptation problems more than are individuals with unrealistic expectations,” (Ting-Toomey & Chung, 2011, p. 95). A person’s attitude, in other words, can be the main source of how problems start when it comes to adapting to different cultures. On the other hand, it is possible that there will be many social factors that can make a traveler’s experience go very wrong. For example, “host cultures often extend a more friendly welcome to sojourners than to immigrants or refugees. Thus, sojourners tend to perceive their overall international stay as more pleasant and the local hosts as more friendly than do immigrants,” (Ting-Toomey & Chung, 2011, p. 95).
Considering that some scholars consider culture shock as a result of unrealistic expectations, therefore, is misleading. Culture shock, in other words, can be a very difficult and complicated issue to study. It is suggested that for some people feeling culture, specifically the migrant group, there are many other factors at play aside from insecurity and identity loss. It could be that the social environment is very unwelcome, and that they may be feeling some trauma from leaving their home. Culture shock that is felt in a whole group of people, or collective culture shock, would only prolong the negative experiences, which point to a bigger problem within society than just individual expectations. Essentially, more research needs to be made about such experiences, since there is not much research about these more specific experiences.
Feichtinger, C., & Fink, G. (1998). The collective culture shock in transition countries – Theoretical and empirical implications. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 19(6), 302-308.
Goldstein, S.B., & Keller, S.R. (2015). U.S. college students’ lay theories of culture shock. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 47, 187-194.
Portela-Myers, H.H. (2006). The Relationship Between Culture Shock and Social Support of International Students. (Doctorial dissertation). North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina.
Ting-Toomey, S., & Chung, L.C. (2011). Understanding intercultural communication. Oxford: Oxford University Press.