Moving to a new country can be exciting, even exhilarating experience. In a new environment, you somehow feel more alive : seeing new sights, eating new food, hearing the foreign sounds of a new language, and a feeling a different climate against your skin stimulate your sense as never before. Soon, however, this sensory bombardment becomes sensory overload. Suddenly, new experiences seem stressful rather than stimulating, and delight turns into discomfort. This is the phenomenon known as culture shock.
Culture shock is more than jet lag or homesickness, and it affects nearly everyone who enters a new culture – tourist, business travellers, diplomats, and student alike. Although not everyone experiences culture shock in exactly the same way, many experts agree that it has roughly five stages. In the first stage, you are excited by your new environment. You experience some simple difficulties such as trying to use the telephone or public transportation but you consider these small challenges that you can quickly overcome.
Your feelings about the new culture are positive, so you are eager to make contact with people and to try new foods. Sooner or later, differences in behaviour and customs become more noticeable to you. This is the second stage of culture shock. Because you do not know, the social customs of the new culture, you may find it difficult to make friends. For instance, you do not understand how to make “small talk,” so it is hard to carry on casual, get acquainted conversation. One day in the school cafeteria, you overhear a conversation.
You understand all the word, but you do not understand the meaning. Why is everyone laughing? Are they laughing at you or at some joke you did not understand? Also, you aren’t always sure how to act while shopping. Is this store self-service, or should you wait for a clerk to assist you? If you buy a sweater in the wrong size, can you exchange it? These are not minor challenges; they are major frustrations. In the third stage, you no longer have positive feelings about the new culture. You feel that you have made a mistake in coming here.
Making friends hasn’t been easy, so you begin to feel lonely and isolated. Now you want to be with familiar people and familiar food. You begin to spend most your free time with student from your home country, and you eat at restaurants that serve your native food. In fact, food becomes an obsession and you spend a lot of time, planning, shopping for, and cooking from home. You know that you are in the fourth stage of culture shock when you have negative feelings about almost everything.
In this stage, you actively reject the new culture. You become critical. Suspicious, and irritable. You believe that people are unfriendly, that you landlord is trying to cheat you, that your teachers do not like you, and that the food is making you sick. In fact, you may actually develop stomach aches, headaches, sleeplessness, lethargy, or other physical symptoms. Finally, you reach the fifth stage. As you language skills improve, you begin to have some success in meeting people in negotiating situations.
You are able to exchange sweater that was too small, and you can successfully chat about the weather change with a stranger on a bus. Your self-confidence grows. After realizing that you cannot change your surroundings, you begin to accept the differences and tolerate them. For instance, the food will never be tasty as the food in your home country, but you are now able to eat and sometimes enjoy many dishes. You may not like the way some people in your host country dress or behave in public, but you do not regard their clothes and behaviour as wrong – just different.