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Culture shock: What is it and how to handle it

Culture shock is caused by an unfamiliar culture or way of life – an often inevitable part of the process of living overseas.

Anyone that has moved to another country will understand culture shock – even if they’re not aware they have experienced it.

It’s something that can creep up on people, usually after the initial honeymoon phase is over.

After a promising start, the high of living in a new environment disintegrates and everything starts to appear foreign, confusing and irritating.

For most people, culture shock is temporary and a natural part of adjusting to a new place. But for others it can lead to a change of heart and returning to the safety of their home country.

As some form of culture shock is inevitable for most international residents around the world, it makes sense to understand what it is and how to handle it.

What is culture shock?

In a nutshell, culture shock is a feeling of disorientation caused by an unfamiliar culture or way of life.

It can be triggered by a number of things, both big and small, such as food, the climate, greetings, language or by making a cultural faux pas.

Culture shock can be experienced as mild frustration and confusion, or become more severe and lead to anxiety, loneliness and homesickness.

Hayley Maguire, a British writer who has lived in five different countries, has experienced culture shock overseas and is now familiar with the triggers.

“Last year, I relocated to Austria with my partner after a couple of years back in the UK,” she said.

“I had lived in Austria before and the memories of struggling with the language and culture were still quite fresh, so I expected to experience culture shock again at some point.

“It hit me around three months after moving back when I became frustrated with the system at the Post Office – such a small thing, but it was enough to make me want to run away back to the UK.”

Experiencing culture shock can be an unpleasant time – especially after previously enjoying living in a new place and soaking up the new culture.

But, as with most things in life, it’s usually temporary and a natural part of the process of living overseas.

Hayley said: “It’s now several months after moving back to Austria and I’m enjoying being here again.

“It’s not without its challenges and I still miss home from time to time, but by taking German lessons and staying connected to a British community in Austria, it’s certainly getting easier.”

The Culture Shock Curve

Culture shock is so common that researchers have developed the Culture Shock Curve and the four stages of culture shock.

The image shows how people start at the top of the curve in the honeymoon phase before dropping down into anxiety and moving into adjustment and acceptance.

The honeymoon phase is just like in a romantic relationship – everything is wonderful and the new environment is stimulating.

But once that wears off at around three months, internationals can experience anxiety as they realise they really are in a foreign place.

This can be accompanied by the realisation that there is so much to learn and adjust to, which can be overwhelming and frightening, especially without any support.

Typically, most people move out of the anxiety stage into adjustment. This is when people take action to acclimatise to their new home and develop a routine. Usually at around six to 12 months.

Acceptance is the final stage and involves integrating into the new culture. This could mean understanding and speaking the language, socialising with new friends and starting to feel a sense of belonging.

Hayley said: “I’m probably in the adjustment phase right now but there are moments when I also experience a sense of belonging, which is a good place to be.”

How to deal with culture shock

As culture shock is inevitable for most people that embrace a new life overseas, the key lies in knowing how to deal with it.

A big tip is to understand that it’s normal to feel disoriented. Moving to another country is a brave decision but not without its consequences. Give yourself time to adjust and accept.

Next, make an effort to be a tourist in your new home. Get to know the local area, meet new people and try new food.

But most importantly, keep an open mind and enjoy the ride. Living overseas is an amazing life-changing experience – the type that money can’t buy.

Get in touch at hello@elsewherepeople.com to share your story about living overseas.