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Culture shock is experienced by a majority of people, radically changing their environment. It is of two-folded nature: it makes you learn new things, however, the way it happens is quite aggressive and stressful. Culture shock is almost inevitable, unless you come to live in a foreign environment for a period of time, that is longer than an average vacation. To deal with it successfully, one has to be ready for it and think of the ways of changing the situation for the better.
Culture shock is theoretically divided into 5 stages. They are reminiscent of the stages of grief and loss, and represent human way of getting used to dramatic changes. However, there are certain features, applicable only to this transition. Each stage is characterized by certain symptoms along with the change of emotional state a person goes through.
The first stage is best characterized by the word ”honeymoon”. Usually, people tend to enjoy new experiences: meeting new people, tasting local food and learning about different habits. However, later on excitement changes for despair: there’s no way back. Local peculiarities have to turn into new routine. Then comes the next stage.
Here comes realization that the honeymoon is over. Everything is terrible: starting from the water quality, ending with being frustrated by circadian rhythms, acceptable for the locals. Quite often this stage is accompanied by a number of physiological symptoms: one may experience insomnia, daytime drowsiness, even problems with digestion (for the reason of unusual water and food, that turns from a local specialty into a regular diet). That’s a pivot point: a person may either stay here or proceed to the next stage.
Being firm in the decision to stay in the host country, one usually comes to the negotiation stage. It means engaging into “peace talks”, trying to convince yourself in situation being normal. That’s when an individual pays the most effort to make peace with the circumstances they’ve found themselves in. Asking questions about the new environment, comparing the answers they would give at home, a person eventually finds solutions to a number of problems that could have seemed fatal. Once this stage is over, the most troublesome period of getting used to the life in a new environment is completed.
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Negotiations stage is followed by adjustment. You slowly but surely learn how to perceive your new way of life as a regularity, not a stress factor. Usually, people form new habits and standards of behavior to become an integral part of society they are to live in. The next stage differs only in degree of assimilation: that is the mastery of all the components of a new life. Having acquired the necessary knowledge and skills, individual gets completely blended into the culture, that seemed to be impossible to adapt to. Ideally, a person learns how to balance between staying faithful to their roots and loving new place they live in.
Duration and intensity of the assimilation period may vary from person to person. There’s no a universal recipe that makes transition between environments smooth for everybody. However, there’s a couple of principles one could follow to make the whole process less harsh. The first one is not to lose your own identity: staying connected with family and friends from a home-country may bring the sense of comfort, that expatriates often lack. The second is quite demanding. Generally, it would require one not to give up. Maintaining cultural identity and assimilating with the new social situation means a lot of work. You’ll need to constantly ask questions and seek answers both inside yourself and people around. Maintaining sense of humor is also beneficial: smile is a cure for a number of problems, including homesickness.
Going through a culture shock is challenging. However, taking steps to make it a little milder, it is possible to reduce the levels of worry and anxiety. What is more, the skills you learn as a result will increase cultural intelligence and transform one into a more flexible person, ready to adjust to new circumstances, when it’s needed.
Oberg, Dr. Kalervo. “Culture Shock and the problem of Adjustment to the new cultural environments”. World Wide Classroom Consortium for International Education & Multicultural studies. 29 Sept 2009.
Pedersen, Paul. The Five Stages of Culture Shock: Critical Incidents Around the World. Contributions in psychology, no. 25. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1995
Winkelman, Michael (1994). “Cultural Shock and Adaptation”. Journal of Counseling & Development 73 (2): 121–126.