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Adapting to a new culture: what are the 5 typical stages of culture shock?

| | Read : 5 min

Nowadays, adapting to a new culture is a very important and unavoidable issue if you need to travel or live abroad. Indeed, it is better to be prepared before that because everybody can have difficulties to adapt to a new culture.

Thus, in this article we will focus on the cultural shock that a traveler may encounter and describe their symptoms. Secondly, we will see the stages of cultural adjustment and finally five ways of coping with stress.

The current trends and reasons for adapting to a new culturetrends and reasons for adapting to a new culture

In this gig era (world mobility perspectives, 2017) people are assigned short term contracts and few jobs are permanent. Job seekers are obliged to find jobs all over the world and need to travel and adapt to cultural shocks. It is easier to gain a contract to work overseas which allows you to travel with all your family members, in particular with the development of Internet resources.

The fact that the world has become a global village with the Internet increases the prospects of mobility. On the web, we are also virtually faced by cultural shocks related to the ways of doing business. Some people are also forced to travel due to political of uncertainty (military coups, civil wars...).

The culture shock: definition and symptoms

Culture is a complex term that needs to be well understood. Below are three ways of defining it:

1° According to Matsumoto (1996):

“culture is the set of attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviors shared by a group of people, but different for each individual, communicated from one generation to the next.”

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2° Raymond Williams (1958):

“culture as the complex and broad set of relationships, values, attitudes and behaviors that bind a specific community consciously and unconsciously.”

3° Van Maanen and Laurent (1993)

He affirms that culture is "what goes without saying".

We are born and grow with it. It is a set of habits: gestures, tones of voices, body contacts that we have. In fact, it helps the community to recognize us as its members. However, you could be subjected to change since you were born in a place and have to grow up somewhere else due to work travel, political issues or to study somewhere else.

Someone’s culture might change with time since it depends on the community that individuals belong to. This change is due to the shocks that the new community administers to the cultural background of the newcomer. In order to survive in the new environment, you need to adapt to those shocks by either avoiding, overcoming or absorbing them.

The culture shocks are all the stimuli in a new environment that go against your cultural habits. They can either improve it or prevent you from staying in it.

An example of culture shock is: the rent aspect. In France, you need to pay your rent online using your visa card to a rental agency instead of giving the funds directly to the owner. It limits the contact that you have with the owner of the building. You may choose a rent on some websites like www.airbnb.com.

The symptoms of a cultural shock experience are: boredom, cognitive fatigue, anger, stress, willingness to return home, digestive issues, illness.

The five common stages of cultural adjustment

Step 1: The honeymoon or tourist stage: initial euphoria/excitement

The honeymoon stage is the initial stage that travelers (travelers for honeymoon, vacation or brief business trips) get when they discover the new culture. Everything is new and fresh for them. They are very excited and want to learn the new culture and languages. Even if there is an issue, it is not interpreted as a negative perception. At this stage, travelers don’t have a real contact with the local communities.

Step 2: The distress or crisis stage: irritation/hostility

The traveler's culture receives shocks from the new environment in this phase.

After a few weeks, frustrations may start arising. Due to issues such as sleep disorders, digestive problems, adaptation to the food system in the new country, robberies, accommodation issues, neighboring issues... and travelers may start making comparisons with their home town culture or way of living.

Depending on the traveler’s personality, it may lead to loneliness, anxiety, disappointments, boredom, cognitive fatigue, anger, stress, etc. They may even want to go back home.

Step 3: Re-integration stage: gradual adjustment, humor, and perspectiveStep 3 of culture shock

This stage depends on the traveler’s personality and whether the duration of their stay is short or long.

Most of the time, when the duration is short time, travelers decide to be patient for a few days and go back to their initial location (flight, road...). They don’t overcome the cultural shocks and decide to isolate themselves before traveling again.

In the case where it is a long stay, travelers may decide to better understand the culture and find ways and means to adapt to the new culture. During this phase, travelers need to develop a change in their attitude in order to adjust to the issues abroad.

Step 4: Autonomy stage: "feeling at home" - Adaptation and biculturalism

If the re-integration stage is well fulfilled, travelers have overcome their issues and have found a strategy to integrate. Then, they will manage and solve issues directly. The fact to resolve those conflicts will be a satisfaction and it will mean that they belong to this new community. Their stay would be enjoyable in this new place.

Step 5: Independence stage

At the end of their stay, travelers are supposed to go back to their native community. However, since their cultural background has been modified due to the shocks, upon arrival at home, they could change their mind about their original cultural behaviors and can notice that some of them are modified or reduced.

A new cycle restarts. It is going to take them time before they can readjust to their old cultural system. In case they can’t adjust again, the only way is to separate themselves of certain groups of people. Finally, they have two cultures after the shocks of the second culture. At the end, people having visited many places are multicultural.

How to cope with cultural stress?

To cope with cultural stress, you need to be prepared mentally and emotionally. You must also know the language that is mainly spoken in the country, keep in touch with family, friends or relatives living in the country or who have some relatives living there and inform yourself on the culture in the host country.

It is also important to know the weather, the types of food the population eat and if it is similar to that of your country of origin. Then, you should think about how to adapt to the new food culture and discuss about the accommodation issues and transportation issues.

Social supportsocial support when culture shock hits

The host community needs to understand that culture shocks are usual and can happen to anyone. They should try not to judge you if you behave strangely, since you need time to adapt to the realities on the ground.

We suggest you to ask questions or advice before acting or reacting to any issue.

If you are a student, you might ask your colleagues for advice or ideas concerning issues. Moreover, your lecturers could be of great support to you.Personal and physical supports

You also need to really learn and practice the local language. For instance, in French speaking countries, you would need to really understand the formal language. As a result, to survive in the environment, a better knowledge of the informal French language would be of great help.

The contacts with home family and friends can also be a good point since it will help overcome loneliness and will help you to develop ideas or plans. They can even give you contacts in the same area that could assist you for other reasons.

The food may be different from your native country but you can find healthy food that is not very different from your home. Otherwise, regarding the medical issues, you could find an accredited medical doctor who can assist by prescribing effective medicines in the new country.

You need to be patient and bear in mind that issues always get solved over time.

Finally, the best thing to feel good is to exercise regularly (sport club or equipment’s, exercise bike) in order to keep an acceptable level of stress within one’s body.

Before traveling abroad, it is very important to be prepared because you will be alone, and you will lose all your markers since you will have to cope with a new culture. In fact, to avoid being afraid of this change or being depressed or too shocked, it is better to know which stages you will go through before you go and how to overcome the stress in order to feel good abroad.

3 tips:

  • Prepare as many things as you can, before leaving.
  • Open your mind to a new experience with a new culture.
  • Sport and social support are the solution to avoid loneliness and reduce your stress.

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