The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences

RGLP Participant Reflection: What does culture shock mean to you, and what can a person do to overcome the symptoms of culture shock?

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Culture shock occurs when someone is met by an unfamiliar culture, or when they are in an environment that is not like their own, or an environment that they are not accustomed to. It is important to note that not everyone experiences culture shock, and that culture shock is not the result of interacting with new cultures. Culture shock does not occur every time that someone is in a new environment or interacts with a different culture, rather culture shock occurs when this change in familiarity is disorienting or creates a feeling of uneasiness, fear, anxiety, confusion and any other disorienting emotion. New environments and different cultures do not cause culture shock, rather it is a response that some people may experience when they are placed outside a familiar atmosphere and begin to feel homesick which can trigger anxiety and emotions like insecurity, isolation, disorientation, depression, irritability among other reactions.

The term culture shock is frequently misused by a lot of people. People travel to new places for various reasons, such as for work and leisure which is considered voluntary travel. People also travel to new locations for involuntary reasons or for security reasons, but for the purpose of this explanation I will focus on those who travel voluntarily. When people travel to new locations and experience environments they are not accustomed to and/or new cultures, they often say in conversations that they experienced culture shock. Many of these people frequently say that they experienced culture shock right at arrival, because they could see how different people looked, how different the environment looked, how different people acted etc. While it could be possible that a first arrival to a new environment results in someone experiencing culture shock, especially when the change in familiarity is due to involuntary reasons, what these people are describing is not culture shock. They are merely surprised by the difference in environments and cultures. Sometimes they are pleasantly surprised, other times people have negative attitudes to different cultures. The distinction, however, is of the upmost importance because culture shock is a real experience that can have damaging effects on a person and should not be minimized by the frequent misuse of the term culture shock.

It can be hard to overcome culture shock so I will not pretend that the following recommendations are exhaustive or will help everyone. One of the most important things about overcoming culture shock is to acknowledge that it takes time. It is also important to not be hard on yourself and to focus on the positive things that new environments and cultural interactions might bring. It can also be helpful to focus on things that do not cause stress or anxiety, trying to find activities to de-stress and setting time apart to focus on yourself and doing things that bring you joy. It could also be helpful to try and learn about this new community that you find yourself in. Learning about their customs and language, with a focus on the positives, may help you become better adjusted and ease some anxiety.


The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences