The 5 Stages of Culture Shock: A Path to Independence

5 stages of culture shock

Culture shock is primary a set of emotional reactions to the loss of perceptual reinforcements from one’s own culture, to new cultural stimuli which have little or no meaning, and to the misunderstanding of new and diverse experiences (Alder, p. 13).

Regardless of how many times we’ve traveled or moved to a new location (or even familiar locations), culture shock is usually following close behind. Once it hits, and if can’t identify what we’re going through, we can become very confused, leading us to believe that things are spiraling out of control. If we have an understanding of the process, however, and realize that it’s a normal and healthy process, our awareness and acceptance of our struggles increases; we are able to make sense out of the mountain of symptoms. It also gives us a light at the end of the tunnel, encouraging us to persevere to the next stage and ultimately become more integrated with our new environment.

Alder explains that culture shock has two sides: alienation and personal-growth.

Alienation comes from not fitting in and brings with it feelings of isolation, confusion and awkwardness. It’s like showing up to a party where all the social rules have changed. Simple things like introducing yourself or asking for another drink can become surprisingly confusing and frustrating. You feel like you stick out and begin to feel a lot of eyes on you everywhere you go, or perhaps the exact opposite, you feel invisible.

Personal-growth, is the other side. It’s the inner reward we harvest from all the pain that comes with foreign living and travel. It goes far beyond simply gaining a deeper understanding of another culture or learning how to survive in a foreign land. It’s about gaining new insights about yourself. It’s about being exposed to our hidden values and assumptions,which often go unnoticed in our home culture.

This personal growth process is slow and steady, and continues even after we return back to our home country (i.e., reverse culture shock). Just like anything worth doing, it doesn’t come easy.

This leads us to the five stages of culture shock:

Culture Shock Stage 1: Contact

Fresh off the plane and still very much connected to our own culture, we start to only recognize very surface level differences (e.g., cars driving on the opposite side). These differences are very exciting, causing excitement and a high. On a deeper level (e.g., our values, identity, and status) we concentrate mostly on similarities, causing us minimal frustrations, and navigating things like language barriers or public transportation become exciting adventures.

Culture Shock Stage 2: Disintegration

The high starts to wear off. We slowly start to notice more differences than similarities, and the differences hit us at deeper levels. Even if we speak the same language as our host country, we start to realize we aren’t able to gauge and predict social interactions like our home culture. We’re not sure how our actions will be interpreted and we aren’t sure what to make of other people’s actions. Our entire identity and value system is being challenged. As a result, our high is replaced with frustration and feelings of isolation.

Culture Shock Stage 3: Reintegration

In this stage, we start to negatively judge and reject our host culture. We seek shelter by connecting only with others from our home culture and engage in blaming the host culture for our struggles. We put up defenses by over generalizing, stereotyping, and coming up with our own theories on how the culture works. Perhaps this stage might can be viewed as the black and white stage. We become very rigid with our thinking, and in some ways adopt an “us” versus “them” mentality. This is when we are most likely to push the eject button and book a flight back home (not to be mixed with failure or weakness).

Culture Shock Stage 4: Autonomy

We start to loosen up, becoming more flexible in our thinking. We start to accept that we can have our feet in a couple of cultures at the same time, begin to let down our defenses and develop successful coping skills. Though we don’t have a complete understanding of the host culture (but who really even understand their own culture fully?), we understand it well enough to begin to successfully interact with others and our predictions become more accurate.

Culture Shock Stage 5: Independence

We have finally found our balance, letting go of stereotypes and generalizations for coping. Instead, we are able to trust our host culture and ourselves more, recognizing we are all individuals being influenced and shaped by culture. Our identity is no longer dependent on the rejection of our host culture and the clinging to our home culture, but rather open to the world and its influences on our “self”. We have a deeper understanding of our own values and a better ability to recognize and challenge our assumptions. As alder says, “Where an individual is independent, he or she is capable of experiential learning that is holistically incorporated into identity, while at the same time capable of again having preconceptions, assumptions, values, and attitudes challenged.”

Travelers and expats can often take self-sufficiency to extreme, unhealthy levels. We can sometimes try to convince ourselves and others that we are invincible, immune to struggles and negative emotions. This is dangerous and a great way to not get the most out of our time abroad.

It’s important not to look at these stages as something to race through, ignore, or even worse: pretend that we have arrived at the last stage when in fact we are far from it. Instead, sit with each stage and be aware of what you’re feeling. Don’t fall into the expat/traveler competition of trying to prove who is more culturally competent. Instead, accept the things you don’t understand, sort out assumptions from facts, and find outlets that work for you. Be cautious of harmful coping methods like drugs, alcohol, and risky sexual behavior, which can bring disastrous results. And get help if you need it.

Lastly, it’s important to realize that “The Five Stages of Culture Shock” is a model that doesn’t always reflect reality. It’s useful as a guide that helps to gain better insight, not a definitive, “this is how it’s going to be.”