Settling into a new country or city isn’t always easy. It generally starts off well: every day feels like a holiday; all those funny and strange things you experience in your new city are welcomed as quirky and unsual; and everything seems fresh and exciting. But after a while, things can start to take a downward turn. Those funny quirks start to be downright annoying and the things you were once able to laugh off start to make your life miserable. Some might even start to think it’s time to pack up and go home.
If you’re feeling like this, don’t give up yet. Chances are you’re sufferring from the very normal phenomena of culture shock. And there’s hope, because after a while, it goes away.
Anthropologist Kalvero Oberg was one of the first people to identify the five distinct stages of culture shock. He found that all human beings experience the same feelings when they travel to or live in a different country or culture. He found that culture shock is almost like a disease: it has a cause, symptoms, and a cure.
Phase 1: The honeymoon phase
You’re excited about being in a new place where there are new sights and sounds, new smells and tastes. You may have some problems, but these are put down to “foreign differences”. New acquaintances want to take you out and “show you off. Everything feels new and each day feel like a holiday – even when you’re working. Unfortunately, like any honeymoon phase, it inevitably comes to an end.
Phase two – rejection phase:
The problems begin – shopping problems (can’t buy your favourite foods), communication problems (you don’t speak the language well enough to join in conversations), people no longer care about your problems (you’re not “new” anymore), they may help, but they don’t seem to understand your concerns. You might even start to think that the people in the host country don’t like foreigners. You start to feel aggressive and start to complain about the host culture/country.
It is important to recognize that these feelings are real and can become serious. This phase is a kind of crisis in the ‘disease’ of culture shock. It is called the “rejection” phase because it is at this point that the newcomer starts to reject the host country, complaining about and noticing only the bad things that bother them. At this stage the newcomer either gets stronger and stays, or gets weaker and goes home.
Phase three – regression phase:
The word “regression” means moving backward, and in this phase of culture shock, you spend much of your time speaking your own language, watching movies from your home country, eating food from home. You may also notice that you are spending more time with a group of people who speak your own language and are frequently complaining about your host country/culture.
In the regression phase, you may also reminisce about the good things from your home country. Your homeland may suddenly seem marvellously wonderful; all the difficulties that you had there are forgotten and you may find yourself wondering why you ever left. You may start to think of your home country as a wonderful place where nothing ever went wrong for you. Of course, it’s not true, just an illusion created by your culture shock ‘disease.’
Phase Four – recovery phase:
If you survive the third stage successfully (or miss it completely), you will move into the fourth stage of culture shock called the “recovery phase” or the “at-ease-at-last phase.” In this stage you become more comfortable with the language and you also feel more comfortable with the customs of your host country. You can now move around without a feeling of anxiety. You still have problems with some of the social cues and you may still not understand everything people say (especially idioms). However, you are now 90% adjusted to the new culture and you start to realise that no country is that much better than any other – there are just different lifestyles and different ways of dealing with lifes problems.
With this complete adjustment, you accept the food, drink, habits and customs of your host country, and you may even find yourself preferring some things in your host country to those at home. You have now understood that there are different ways to live your life and that no way is really better than the other, just different. Finally, you have become comfortable in your new home.
It is important to remember that not everyone experiences all the phases of culture shock. It is also important to know that you can experience all of them at different times: you might experience the regression phase before the rejection phase, etc. You might even experience the regression phase on Monday, the “at ease” phase on Tuesday, the honeymoon phase on Wednesday, and the rejection phase again on Thursday.
Phase Five – reverse culture shock:
This occurs when you return home. You’ve been away for a long time, become comfortable with the habits and customs of a new lifestyle and you may find that you are no longer completely comfortable in your home country. Many things may have changed while you were away and it may take a little while to become at ease with the cues and signs and symbols of your home culture.
There is a risk of sickness or emotional problems in many of the phases of culture shock. You need to remember to be kind to yourself through all of these phases and give yourself time to adjust. Seeking help may seem a little over the top – but if you are going through a particularly bad rejection phase and don’t really know why you’re feeling quite so miserable – it might help to talk to someone who understands.
So what’s the cure? Work through the phases. Now you know what it is you’re feeling you can start to see a light at the end of the tunnel. Get professional help if you need it – find other Expats to talk to. Most of all, remember to be kind to yourself. It’s not an easy process so pat yourself on your back every now again. And if you’ve managed to get through to stage five: congratulations, you are now a fully fledged citizen of the world!