Study Abroad


Choque Culturalen Espanol

[ What is it? | Symptoms | Stages | How to Fight It | Questions ]

What Is Culture Shock

The term, culture shock, was introduced for the first time in 1958 to describe the anxiety produced when a person moves to a completely new environment. This term expresses the lack of direction, the feeling of not knowing what to do or how to do things in a new environment, and not knowing what is appropriate or inappropriate. The feeling of culture shock generally sets in after the first few weeks of coming to a new place.

We can describe culture shock as the physical and emotional discomfort one suffers when coming to live in another country or a place different from the place of origin. Often, the way that we lived before is not accepted as or considered as normal in the new place. Everything is different, for example, not speaking the language, no knowing how to use banking machines, not knowing how to use the telephone and so forth.

The symptoms of cultural shock can appear at different times. Although, one can experience real pain from culture shock; it is also an opportunity for redefining one's life objectives. It is a great opportunity for learning and acquiring new perspectives. Culture shock can make one develop a better understanding of oneself and stimulate personal creativity.
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  • Sadness, loneliness, melancholy
  • Preoccupation with health
  • Aches, pains, and allergies
  • Insomnia, desire to sleep too much or too little
  • Changes in temperament, depression, feeling vulnerable, feeling powerless
  • Anger, irritability, resentment, unwillingness to interact with others
  • Identifying with the old culture or idealizing the old country
  • Loss of identity
  • Trying too hard to absorb everything in the new culture or country
  • Unable to solve simple problems
  • Lack of confidence
  • Feelings of inadequacy or insecurity
  • Developing stereotypes about the new culture
  • Developing obsessions such as over-cleanliness
  • Longing for family
  • Feelings of being lost, overlooked, exploited or abuse
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Stages of Culture Shock

Culture Shock has many stages. Each stage can be ongoing or appear only at certain times. The first stage is the incubation stage; the new arrival may feel euphoric and be please by all of the new things encountered. This time it is called the "honeymoon" stage, as everything encountered is new and exciting.

Afterward, the second stage presents itself. A person may encounter some difficult times and crisis in daily life. For example, communication difficulties may occur such as not being understood. In this stage, there may be feelings discontent, impatience, anger, sadness, and feeling incompetence. This happens when a person is trying to adapt to a new culture that is very different from the culture of origin. Transition between the old methods and those of the new country is a difficult process and takes time to complete. During the transition, there can be strong feelings of dissatisfaction.

The third stage is characterized by gaining some understanding of the new culture. A new feeling of pleasure and sense of humor may be experienced. One may start to feel a certain psychological balance. The new arrival may not feel as lost and starts to have a feeling of direction. The individual is more familiar with the environment and wants to belong. This initiates and evaluation of the old ways versus those of the new.

In the fourth stage, the person realizes that the new culture has good and bad things to offer. This stage can be one of double integration or triple integration depending on the number of cultures that the person has to process. This integration is accompanied by a more solid feeling of belonging. The person starts to define him/herself and establish goals for living.

The fifth stage is the stage that is called the "re-entry shock." This occurs when a return to the country of origin is made. One may find that things are no longer the same. For example, some of the newly acquired customs are not in use in the old culture.

These stages are present at different times and each person has their own way of reacting in the stages of culture shock. As a consequence, some stages will be longer and more difficult than others. Many factors contribute to the duration and effects of culture shock. For example, the individual's state of mental health, type of personality, previous experiences, socio-economic conditions, familiarity with the language, family and/or social support systems, and level of education.
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How to Fight Culture Shock

The majority of individuals and families that emigrate from other countries have the ability to positively confront the obstacles of a new environment. Some ways to combat stress produced by culture shock are:
  • Develop a hobby
  • Don't forget the good things you already have!
  • Remember, there are always resources that you can use
  • Be patient, the act of immigrating is a process of adaptation to new situation. It is going to take time
  • Learn to be constructive. If you encounter an unfavorable environment, don't put yourself in that position again. Be easy on yourself.
  • Don't be too hard
  • Learn to include a regular form of physical activity in your routine. This will help combat the sadness and loneliness in a constructive manner. Exercise, swim, take an aerobics class, etc...
  • Relaxation and meditation are proven to be very positive for people who are passing through periods of stress
  • Maintain contact with your ethnic group. This will give you a feeling of belonging and you will reduce your feelings of loneliness and alienation
  • Maintain contact with the new culture. Learn the language. Volunteer in community activities that allow you to practice the language that you are learning. This will help you feel less stress about language and useful at the same time
  • Allow yourself to feel sad about the things that you have left behind: your family, your friends, etc...
  • Recognize the sorrow of leaving your old country. Accept the new country. Focus your power on getting through the transition.
  • Pay attention to relationships with your family and at work. They will serve as support for you in difficult times
  • Establish simple goals and evaluate your progress
  • Find ways to live with the things that don't satisfy you 100%
  • Maintain confidence in yourself. Follow your ambitions and continue your plans for the future
  • If you feel stressed, look for help. There is always someone or some service available to help you. You may want to check out Information and Resources
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Questions About the Local Culture

It is recommended that all programs participants prepare for their trip abroad by reading "Culture Shock a Guide to Customs and Etiquette, " by Alessandro Falassi and Raymond Flower. There is a "Culture Shock" book dedicated to the country you will be visiting.

Students: For this group of questions, please fill in the blank to complete the question where necessary.

Why do the local people do _____________________________?

Please ask your On-Sight Program Coordinator. He or she is familiar with the culture and can explain it to you.

What does it mean when the locals do _____________________________?

Please ask your On-Sight Program Coordinator. He or she is familiar with the culture and can explain it to you.

Do many of the local people speak English?

There will be some people that speak English. However, not all Europeans have studied English and you cannot expect them to be fluent in a foreign language. If you encounter locals that speak English, please keep in mind that English is not their first language and they may not have as wide of a vocabulary as you do.Just as your vocabulary in their language may also be limited.It can be fun to speak with the locals using a combination of languages. Try it! You never know what will happen. Remember, you are here to learn a new language, part of which is conversing with others in that language.

Have many of the local people been to the United States?

Like Americans, some will have traveled more than have others. Share stories about your home, and ask about theirs.

How can I tell if I have offended a local?

Cultural differences can cause misunderstandings. If someone reacts hastily to something you have said, express your desire to clarify the matter. Be open and friendly.

A local person cursed at me (I think), what should I do in that kind of situation?

Simply walk away. Typically the best response is no response.

Why don't the local people seem very friendly towards me?

Not all cultures are as open and demonstrative, as are Americans. Be patient, people will open up with time.

What should I expect from the local culture?

There are several books available on cultural differences and cultural awareness. This is a topic worth reading about before you depart so that you know what to expect when you arrive. See the recommended "Culture Shock" reference above.

Dept. of Counseling and School Psychology
San Diego State University
Copyright 1998 - All Rights Reserved - Dr. Carmen Guanipa

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