Culture shock is the emotional and sometimes even physical discomfort people feel when they have to leave everything familiar behind and have to find their way in a new culture that has a different way of life and a different mindset. Overcoming culture shock takes time and can't happen over night.
It is helpful to know, that adjusting to a new culture occurs in stages and everybody, even the most seasoned traveler, has to go through them to varying degrees.
I believe, being aware of the different stages and what you might experience can help you to move through them more quickly and with less stress. Even though you might feel like you are on an emotional roller coaster at times, this can also be a valuable time for personal growth.
The author and psychiatrist M. Scott Peck says:
"The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers."
I hope these words will give you courage and energy when you need them most in your adjustment period to your new surroundings.
Four Stages of Culture Shock
The anthropologist Kalervo Oberg (1901-1973) gets credited with naming this adjustment period "Culture Shock". He identified four stages:
The Honeymoon Stage
As you can already guess from the name, in this stage you feel excited about your adventure. The newness and differences are still a novelty. The day-to-day difficulties haven't set in yet.
Most people feel energetic and enthusiastic during this stage.
The Crisis or Cultural Shock Stage
In this stage, reality sets in as you try to make a new home for yourself and your family. You become aware of the differences between your own culture and the new culture. You try to communicate in a new language you might not know yet. You're not sure how to interact with people, where to find things, and how to help your children settle in.
In this stage many different feelings and emotions may arise, from confusion, anxiety, homesickness, and loneliness, to being unsure of yourself, feeling less competent than in your home country, feeling overwhelmed, and feeling angry for being in this situation.
Please remember – this is a stage and you will get through it! It's helpful to first acknowledge your feeling and then become pro-active. Participate in your new environment. Start out with small steps, as you feel comfortable. Read a local newspaper to get informed, find others in the same situation, and see what help is available to you. Slowly but surely you will build a new support system and move into the next stage.
The Adjustment or Recovery Stage
After having been in the new country for a while a daily routine sets in. Children have settled into their school, your new neighborhood becomes more familiar, you know where to get all your basic things, and you are able to communicate better. Your sense of self comes back and you even return to the excitement of the "Honeymoon Stage" more often.
This stage could be described as an oscillation between the two first stages, from feeling excited to being down. Be patient with yourself. Acknowledge how far you have come, from feeling out of place to being an active participant in your new environment. This is quite an accomplishment! Continue to seek support, as you need it. Community service centers or adult education programs are good place to find courses on language or local culture. Search for support groups to connect with people with same interests. Join or start a playgroup if you have small children. Get involved in school activities of your school-aged children.
The Adaptation Stage
Congratulations, you've made it through the tunnel! Your life resumes with a familiar pattern but now has a different background component from the new culture. You're ready to develop a realistic understanding of the similarities and differences between your own culture and the new culture. By comparing both, you have the unique opportunity to learn about two different approaches and can decide what fits best for you. Remember, it's not about one approach being right and the other being wrong. It's about acknowledging that there are cultural differences and that we can learn from each other.
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Lisa Velazquez is a certified personal coach specializing in Cultural Transition who helps individuals and families adjust to a new culture through one-on-one coaching, group coaching, and presentations on cultural topics to interested groups. She also supports parents who want to raise their children with more than one language.
For more information visit lisavel.com and sign up for your free "Three Simple Techniques for a Successful Adjustment to a New Culture" PDF and for the free monthly newsletter "Building Cultural Awareness".