The American Heritage Dictionary defines culture as “the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought characteristic of a community or population.” It can also be viewed as “a system for creating, sending, storing, and processing information. It is how we talk, behave, understand and act.” (Edward Hall, Anthropologist).
It is perhaps no wonder, then, that we experience culture shock when we are transplanted from one culture to another! Culture shock, the sense of disorientation and the resulting anxiety and stress, is a normal reaction to adjusting to a culture other than the one in which we were raised. Familiar cues, including general behavior, customs and norms, word usage, facial expressions and body language, are gone and we feel insecure as a result. In essence, we feel like a child again, having to relearn almost everything we took for granted in our home culture.
The culture shock curve involves feelings of excitement, alternating with dread, in a roller coaster of extreme ups and downs. At the highest points of mood and energy levels, we may view the new situation too optimistically. For example, if we expect to get our house organized and functional in a few days, learn e new language rapidly, make good friends in the first month or find meaningful ways to spend our time, we may be disappointed! Although it is important to be positive, we must also be realistic by recognizing what is possible and what is not. In our lowest moods and energy levels, we may be viewing the new situation too pessimistically. Although situations may be difficult, they are only temporary and we should try to see the unique features of each situation and avoid stereotyping. The culture shock curve follows several stages. The first stage involves leaving our familiar environment. We experience the physical stresses of planning, organizing, executing the move, and preparing for our new environment, and the psychological stresses of saying good-bye to friends and family, leaving our jobs, and perhaps dealing with unsettled children. It may include significant time and energy spent researching the new envlronment, taking language courses and cultural training, which in turn may lead to a sense of detachment from our familiar environment even before moving.
The second stage is referred to as the Honeymoon or Tourist phase. It encompasses the period of time right after arrival in our new culture, when our mood and energy levels are high, and everything seems exciting, charming and positive. This stage can last from a few weeks to a few months in duration.
The third stage is the actual “shock” part of the culture shock curve! Our mood and energy levels drop like a stone, we may experience an increase in physical ailments (such as colds, rashes, and extreme tiredness), and everything is perceived as negative. Feelings of depresslon. confusion and a sense of loss are common at this stage. This stage is usually experienced between 3-6 months after arrival.
The final stage, enjoying our new life, generally occurs between 6 months to a year after the move. The swings in our moods and energy levels stabilize and the sense of disorientation and insecurity are gone. This success of this stage depends on the type of cultural adaptation we choose to use.
J.W. Berry, a Cross-cultural Psychologist, has proposed four types of cultural adaptation to describe our experiences in trying to adapt to a new culture: assimilation, integration, separation, and marginalization. His model describes the balancing act that goes on between our original culture and a second culture.
Assimilation, or going native, is an onqoinq process of total absorption into the new culture. The goal of the assimilation process is to become socially accepted by members of the new culture.
Integration, or having a foot in both worlds, describes maintaining a positive relationship with both cultures without having to choose between them. We maintain connection with our original culture (e.g. joininq a club based on our nationality) while also choosing to get involved with the new culture (e.g. taking local culture and language lessons).
Separation, or keeping a distance, occurs when no substantial relationship is initiated with our new culture. The choice is to keep up our traditional way of life without participating in the new society. People who move often may not have the energy or desire over time to significantly integrate into each new country, and thus maintain a separation.
Marginalization or being left out and alone, describes the situation in which we lose cultural and psychological contact with both our traditional culture and the new society. Many people who stay on the move or who relocate permanently can identify with the feeling of being “marginal” at least temporarily. The goal is to not let the feeling become permanent.
Assimilation, integration, and separation can all be viewed as successful methods as long as they allow us to manage and enjoy our daily lives. The type of cultural adaptation we choose depends on multiple factors, including life stage, occupation, income, length of stay and cultural norms of the new country. At different stages in our lives, we may choose to use a different method to adapt to the new surroundings.
Adapting to and living in a new cultural environment can be a rewarding and enriching time. Because we can view events from a multi-dimensional perspective based on the sum of our cross-cultural experiences, our world- view becomes larger and more encompassing. We learn how to respect, observe and learn from cultural differences, and thus we become more flexible, tolerant, and compassionate towards our fellow human beings. In the words of Barbara Schaetti, PhD, from Transition Dynamics, we learn to “engage cultural differences so that they, themselves, transform from walls of separation into bridges of connection.”
Some material excerpted from “Beyond Expatriate: Exile or Resident Abroad”, by Drs Maria Trepp and Ann Houston Kelley, MA, from Nomadic Life