The four stages of cultural shock

IMG_0115.JPGMy new neighbor was not at all happy with her life in Shanghai. She had been here for a month and found everything dirty and different. Her young children hated it at school and were crying every morning. She had no friends and wondered what on earth she was doing here. That exciting, adventurous life she had expected was not appealing at all. She just wanted to go home.

Because it’s my second time moving, with three years in Istanbul and now four months in Shanghai, I stopped by the playground trying to comfort her. “This is just the way it should be. Your feelings are following the culture shock schedule exactly. After 2.5 month, or so, you and your children will enter the next phase and everything will be better”, I told her, hoping that this information would make her feel that she was not alone in this, that there was actually an end to this stage in her transition.

1.5 months later I got a message from her: “Yes, it turned out exactly as you said. Just suddenly at 2.5 months it was as if all problems started to dissolve. Unbelievable! And so incredibly GOOD! We are now 6 days into this new phase!”

Finnish anthropologist Kalervo Oberg was one of the first to do research on “culture shock”. He stated four stages; honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment and mastery. Below are some explanations, “translated” from academic language into my own words.

Everything is new and exciting. Perhaps you are staying in a hotel and live more like a tourist in this new fascinating culture.

Now you start to notice how different everything is, how strange people behave, how dirty and insecure it feels everywhere. You don’t know how to buy and cook proper food or get around doing everyday life tasks. You’re alone and disconnected. Your children are switching from hysterical unhappiness to excitement about their school life every second day and your working partner is busy with his/her new job. If you find some people from your own nationality you will feel extremely dependent on them.
(This is just where my neighbor was when I met her!)

After some more months (maybe 6-12 months) you get into a more normal life. You have found your ways around and have even got some new friends. The children have become accustomed to the language and the school system much better. You are getting more and more used to the strange behaviors of the host country people and are even starting to see the charm about it.

When you come back after the summer break (not everyone is moving at that time of the year of course), your home in this new country feels much more like a true home. This is your life now. You might even have missed some parts of it when you were away! You don’t feel like you and your family have become a complete part of your host country, but you have found a sort of bicultural level.

My experience is that the three first levels can go a bit back and forth if something new is introduced in the everyday life. And the rest of the family members might not go from one phase to the next at the same time as you do. But I think it is pretty good to have some understanding of the different stages, knowing that it is a very natural series of reactions. Later I will write more about what you can do to feel better in each phase.


I’d be happy to hear your comment on this! And if you like what you’ve read, please share it!


One thought on “The four stages of cultural shock

  1. Jorgen 7 March, 2016 / 23:57

    After a week in home land and home city it is easy to start jumping between the stages [again].


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