Culture Shock Blues

‘Culture shock’ is a word we use quite liberally these days – “moving to that part of town was a bit of a culture shock!” or “there was quite a bit of culture shock when I changed schools’. And all of these things are valid – change isn’t easy!

That said, when we throw that term around as much as we do, we can forget just how profound the experience of culture shock can be in a completely different country.

Culture shock can rear its head in the form of loneliness, tiredness, isolation, homesickness, withdrawal, irritability…the list goes on. You might find yourself missing a food you never even liked that much before – it just reminds you of home. You might find yourself getting emotional because of a smell that reminds you of your family’s cooking. You might even find yourself lacking the energy to leave the house, because being surrounded by all the new sounds, accents, and maybe languages, is draining.

4 Phases of Culture Shock

We commonly think about culture shock in four phases, and these phases will last different lengths of time and manifest themselves a little differently in every person.

I like this illustration from the Swedish for Professionals website

We start with the Honeymoon Phase: these are the golden weeks where everything seems new and exciting. The locals seem charming and the food is delicious and the weather is beautiful. This was the best choice you’ve ever made.

If you’re on a quick holiday, you might find that you never get past the Honeymoon Phase! If you stick around a little longer though, you’re going to run into some difficulties. Next up is the Frustration Phase (also known as the Anxiety Phase.)

This is the part where you start to realise all the things you don’t know about this country, and the list of things that make no sense to you is probably growing with every minute you’re there! Why do they talk to me like that? Why can’t they just eat normal food? What do those signs mean?

It might feel like you are notoriously different, chronically out-of-the-loop. It might feel like there’s no hope for you to ever feel at home here.

But there is hope, because all of these things become easier with time. That’s what the Adjustment Phase is about.

You’ll start to learn your way around, and gain independence. You’ll be doing your own shopping, maybe even chatting away in a new language. You’ll start growing friendships and building community around you, and you might start finding answers to some of those niggling cultural questions.

And then, after all the hassle, frustration, and learning, there’s one final stage. It might take months, it might even take years, but it exists: the Acceptance Phase.

This doesn’t mean you fully understand your host country, or are necessarily fluent in the language. But it means you’ve found your place there: you’re settled, and that’s where your life is now. You’re thriving, or at least, at ease in this culture that used to be so strange to you.

These phases aren’t clear-cut or prescriptive, but they are a really helpful guideline to give you an idea of what to expect, and to justify what you might be feeling. You can prepare yourself before you leave: know that there will be difficulties, and that that is completely normal.

Nobody ever said crossing cultures would be easy. It takes time and patience – both with your host country and with yourself! But it is possible, and it will get better.

Love, Dani

  • What elements of culture shock have taken you by surprise on your travels?
  • What are your tips for dealing with culture shock?

Zoë: Homebird

From age 2 to 10, Zoë grew up on two missionary/charity ships. She and her family lived with people from over 45 nations and cultures, while moving from country to country every few weeks. She moved back to the UK in 2009.

A good friend of mine was explaining why I’m such a ‘homebird’ (despite still being terrible at remembering to tell my family when I’ve arrived somewhere safely!), and why I feel most comfortable with my family. Wherever I am, whether it’s a ten minute car ride or a twenty hour flight away, I have to make myself fully at home, be fully with the people I’m with at that moment. I think it’s because I don’t know how long I’ll have with them.

As an MK (Missionary Kid), my family were the only people who understood me, and what I’ve been through. Throughout all of the moving, they have been the only stable (human) thing in my life.

I’ve always struggled to understand people that don’t get on with their families, but I’ve realised that family has a different meaning to some people. For me, they are the stability throughout the change. There’s this bond between us, an understanding that might not be there in other families.

We went through so much together – illness, university, turbulent plane rides, summer camps…there’s a bond that can’t be broken or understood by ‘outsiders’. That’s what family means to me.

Now I’ve started university, and am living away from my family for the first time. I’ve struggled a lot with having people around me not ‘get’ me. I feel this loss of something, this sense of loneliness. But I’m also learning that the people I’m surrounded by now are also the people that will experience and understand this season with me, and it’s okay that it’s not my family I’m sharing it with. I’m thankful for them, and I’m thankful for a God I can rely on through all of these changes. He’s the only other stability I’ve had in my life.

So if you’re in a similar situation, take heart. You will be okay. I will be okay. He’s got us, and in every season there’s a new opportunity for growth.