Culture Shock Revisited or Is It Really All About Going Through the Stages

Whenever I give a presentation on Culture Shock, I try not to speak a lot at the participants.  Instead I allow them to share and, as we discuss what Culture Shock means to them, we discover how different each Culture Shock experience is for everyone.

However, if you read the research available out there on Culture Shock, you’ll discover, that most of it presents the phenomenon of Culture Shock as something that consists of five (5) stages.  And so when people look at this definition, they immediately begin to try to figure out what “stage” they are at and what awaits them in the future.  And while this process may offer some comfort and may show you that you are not alone, it’s not ideal.  Because not everyone goes through all the stages, not everyone goes in order the stages are presented, and not everyone can identify with these stages.

So instead of pigeonholing people into the stages and figuring out where each person is and how we can help him/her there, I take a different approach.  I encourage participants in my presentations to look at our experiences in another culture not through the lens of “stages” but rather through the lens of “perspectives”.

When we go through life, we find ourselves constantly changing perspectives.  In any one-day we can go through “frustrated”, “elated”, “sad”, “creative” and many other perspectives.  These perspectives color the way we look at the world around us and they also either empower or dis-empower us.

The same with Culture Shock.  When we move to a foreign place, we may find ourselves in a perspective of “curiosity” or perspective of “hate” or perspective of “longing for home”.  Any one of those can be a section of your Culture Shock journey, almost like those stages are.  Except that there is one thing you can do with perspectives that you cannot do with stages.  You can change perspectives at will.

That’s right.  If you are stuck in a perspective that’s not working for you, you are free to change it and choose another one — one that would be more empowering.  How?  There is a great exercise for that, but it would take too much space to describe it here.  You can read about it, though, in my Culture Shock book or you can join us for one of the Culture Shock Webinars and learn there.

So, what perspective are you in?  And what perspective would you like to be in?

UPDATE: Following this post I received many queries about my method of managing Culture Shock.  That’s why I decided to offer my innovative THREE STEPS TO MANAGING CULTURE SHOCK AND MAKING TRANSITIONS EASIER presentation over the web.

It was a great success! Read the testimonials here. If you didn’t have the chance to participate in the webinar, but would like to learn this great system of managing Culture Shock, you can either download an E-book or an on-line course here.

People who enjoyed this post also read:

Cross-Cultural Misunderstandings…Got One?

Seven Behavior Choices of a Happy Expat

A Different Take on Expatriate Motivation

Copyright © 2009 by Global Coach Center.
If you’d like to reprint this, please do so but make sure you credit us!

17 responses to “Culture Shock Revisited or Is It Really All About Going Through the Stages

  1. Interesting rather than stages – perspectives. As with NLP and positive language.

    My own experience: worst adjustments – when thought it would be same as at home (UK to Ireland), when realised weren’t leaving in the time frame originally expressed and agreed, coming back from temporary move to a lovely location with all the things I missed to a country where I suddenly realised what I was missing….

  2. This is something I was thinking about recently – reviewing my own experiences and thinking about a few clients. Whilst I recognise the relevance of the five stages as an overall process I don’t think progression through is linear and almost never a one off process. I still hit shock even four years in to life in my current location.

    Different perspectives is a good alternative way of putting how we may few our experiences.

    Models have their use in explaining what could/might be experiences but they also may serve to devalue the individuals experience – some-one in distress being pigeon holed as experiencing the inevitable second stage when there could be other more serious contributing factors – or no, but whatever the cause it is the individuals personal experience and personal reality that counts and the perspectives idea reminds us of that – so thanks!

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  4. The perspective of “curiosity” and “growth” is a great ally when it comes to crosscultural transition. If a person is simply longing for “yesterday” or “sameness”, it really does not matter whether he is in a foreign culture or a home culture. Transition will always be difficult for this kind of person. But if one approaches change with an attitude of curisoity and learning, he can make the most out of any situation.
    Theresa Ip Froehlich
    Certified Life Coach

  5. I’ve been reading up on social neuroscience and its applications to the process of change involved in changing cultures.

    It seems that culture shock is actually brain shock which explains a lot about what we experience. I have a great podcast about neuro-plasticity by a couple of experts on a blog post:

    totally agree about the culture shock stages — doesn’t seem to be that neat and tidy to me. Much depends on your stage of personal development at the time and your inner resources.

    Thanks for the post!

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  7. globalcoachcenter

    After this post I received many questions about my method of managing Culture Shock. That’s why I decided to offer a WEBINAR on the subject. For more information please visit:

  8. I’m glad to see this post because somehow I think it’s good to have a linear guide, but I don’t know how many people ever live with linear time lines! It’s ideal, but not always realistic! 🙂

    How do you think culture shock ‘curves’ relate to the stages of grief that relate to what people experience when there is a death?

    I think there can be correlations because adapting a new culture or anything new, means something else is lost. Additionally, as one identifies with another culture (whether that’s international or subculture within native culture)- family and friends have to adjust to the ‘new person’ that is you. Parents especially have thoughts of how their kids will turn out- and adapting a new culture or religion or even parts of these may be a shock to them to- they also face stages of grief.

  9. globalcoachcenter

    @Jennifer. Although I have not studied the grief process, I would guess that the curve is somewhat similar as with the culture shock. But I think “grief” curve is probably more intense than culture shock’s curve because, even though we lose something when we move countries, the loss is not “definite” as with losing a person.

    Thanks for your comment!

  10. Pingback: Trailing and not Failing: How our relationships can sustain us in expatriation? « “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” What was your expatriate experience like?

  11. I would be very interested to take a look at the research you refer to. In my experience, there is no methodologically sound research (and by that I mean empirical research with reliable data) that can actually quantify either the existence of culture shock, its effects/influence on expatriates (or others) or the remedies proposed.

    There is a lot of anecdotal “evidence”, and there is little doubt that a lot of people have some kind of adjustment period when in a new environment. It is also demonstrable that current cross-cultural training can significantly help people in such circumstances, but NO research to explain why it does!

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  16. Hi, I’ve just now done a couple of cornerstone posts for my blog, Seen the Elephant, on culture shock (I created a character, Eddie Expat for this) and counter culture shock (I created another character: Ramona Repat). I based these posts on my own experiences, as well as anecdotes I have picked up from friends and acquaintances over the years.

    My sense is, there is definitely some kind of process involved, whether you’re getting used to a new country or coming back to your homeland after a long period away. Like you, I thought about describing as “stages,” similar to stages of grief. But then I rejected that as not everyone goes through every stage or in the same order.

    In the end, I chose the word “phases,” as these are something you can go in and out of. “Perspectives” works, too. In any event, I’d be curious to hear what you and others think of my posts!

  17. Pingback: Expatriates – surviving or thriving? Depends on how you look at it… | "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…"

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