Many people think that culture shock happens as soon as you arrive in a new place. But that’s simply not true.
Culture shock stages happen in a cycle and, more often than not, it sets in after weeks, or even months, of being in a new place.
Hell, I’ve been in Colombia for over a year and I still frequently experience culture shock. During my study abroad trip, I didn’t even begin experiencing culture shock until three months in.
What is culture shock?
According to the dictionary, it’s “a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation”.
When I experience culture shock, it generally manifests as anger or hostility towards the country I’m in. I often feel homesick and miss the United States.
I’ve gotten much better at managing it throughout the years. And it’s important to know that it’s completely normal to feel resentful towards your new country—even if you’re passionate about traveling and truly love the country you’re in.
That’s why it can be so frustrating and confusing. It’s something nearly all travelers have to work through at one point or another.
But how can you deal with culture shock?
First, it’s important to understand the different culture shock stages.
When you go to a new country, you’ll likely experience a cycle of highs and lows. One day you could be in love with the country you’re in and the next day you could be frantically searching for plane tickets back home.
The cycle looks a little something like this:
The Honeymoon Stage
The Honeymoon Stage is the reason that we don’t always feel culture shock as soon as we travel abroad to a new country. We’re so fascinated with everything that’s new and eager to explore it all!
During my first few months in Chile, I barely felt homesick at all. I was in love with the country and convinced I would spend the rest of my life there.
The same thing happened in Colombia. And nearly every other place I’ve visited.
If you’re constantly taking short trips, it’s possible that you’ll never really experience culture shock at all (lucky you!).
And I’m not at all saying that the Honeymoon Stage lasts a couple months. It could last a day. Or you could possibly just skip right over it if you’re visiting a country that’s wildly different from your own.
The Frustration Phase
Of all the culture shock stages, this is perhaps the worst. It’s also the one we tend to think of when we talk about culture shock. I personally have a lot of experience with this phase and it lasted a long time for me.
I believe this stage is more difficult and obvious if you live in a country that speaks a different language than your own.
The frustration comes from having difficulty with simple tasks that you wouldn’t even think twice about in your home country. When you order food and the waiter doesn’t understand you. When you take the wrong bus and get lost. Or having to constantly look behind you when you walk home alone at night.
I once started crying in the mall because the woman behind the counter didn’t understand me when I tried to order food.
There are things about Colombia that still frustrate me. I hate the comments that men make when I walk down the street and the overall machismo that’s so present in the culture. I hate that people constantly try and rip me off. And I hate that I don’t know if I can rely on the police.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Colombia and I love living here. But some things take time to get used to. And I’m not even sure if I’ll ever get used to some things.
During this stage, a lot of people feel an urge to go back to their home country. It’s normal to feel like you don’t belong or wonder why you even came here in the first place. It’s normal to feel alone.
The Adjustment Stage
Once the frustration goes away, you start adjusting to the new culture and living more like a local.
You learn what’s cool to do and what’s not-so-cool to do. You finally get a hang of the bus system, know where to go and where not to go, and can give directions to the Uber driver. The strong culture shock symptoms start to fade away.
This is the culture shock stage where you really start to become familiar with your new country, and it feels awesome! You begin to understand it more, feel more like you belong, and feel less homesick.
It’s really a period of learning. You’re going to make a lot of mistakes. Some of them will be embarrassing, but others will be hilarious.
Like the time I accidentally told someone that the translation for “bird” was “masturbation”. Shit happens.
The Acceptance Stage
This is the most relieving of all the culture shock stages. You begin to accept the new culture. Maybe it’s wildly different from your own and maybe there are some things you don’t agree with. But it’s okay.
You begin to accept the new culture for what it is and compare it less to your own.
Living in Colombia, I’ve realized that I can’t change what’s going on around me. There are a lot of things I don’t agree with, but there are also a lot of things I love.
No country is perfect. And the differences can really help you learn more about the world and yourself.
Does it always happen like that?
No. The four stages above are the basic culture shock stages, but they can happen out of order.
They can also happen in a cycle, like in the picture above. You could go from the acceptance stage to the frustration stage again, then back to the honeymoon stage, and directly to the frustration stage again.
There’s no set rule for feeling culture shock. Everyone has a different experience, but knowing which stage you’re experiencing can help you figure out how to deal with it.
How Can I Deal with the Different Culture Shock Stages?
The Honeymoon Stage
Just ride it out and enjoy it while it lasts! This stage is great. Use your new curiosity to explore your new country as much as you can.
I do recommend writing down things that you love about the country or your adventure stories. That way you can look back if things start to get a little more difficult.
The Frustration Stage
Everyone will deal with this stage differently. The most important culture shock advice I was ever given was to challenge myself.
For example, it would be convenient and comfortable to find another group of foreigners in Colombia and vent about the things I hate in this country. And every now and then it’s totally okay to do that.
But it can also be toxic. You’ll likely feel more comfortable in this let’s-hate-on-our-new-country group and seek refuge there. When you surround yourself with negativity, you manifest it in your life.
Instead, challenge yourself to join a class, head to a Couchsurfing event, or explore a nearby place you haven’t been to before.
Challenge yourself to see the beauty and the uniqueness of your new country. Say “yes” to new activities and say “yes” to hanging out with new people.
I also find that yoga and meditation helps a lot! If you’re looking for a good travel yoga mat, I recommend this one.
And always remember your reasons for traveling in the first place.
The Adjustment Stage
While the adjustment stage is a little easier than the frustration stage, it can still be overwhelming. There’s a lot to learn when you go to a new country—especially if you’re learning a new language as well.
Be patient with yourself. Realize that you’re learning and that you’re going to make mistakes. As long as you’re safe, they’re probably not even that bad.
Make light of the situation. When we’re adjusting to a new culture, we can sometimes find ourselves in awkward situations. Instead of beating yourself up about it, why not try and laugh at yourself a little?
When I was living in Valparaíso, Chile, I got tired of always checking with the bus driver before I got on a bus. So I came up with my own theory and decided to test it out.
After about five minutes on the bus, the bus driver asked me where I was going. Apparently, I had a clueless foreigner look going on.
I told him where and he politely informed me that this bus didn’t go there. At all.
Feeling awkward, I asked him where it went. I was luckily familiar with where it was going so I just told him, “Oh cool. I have to go there too, so it’s fine”.
That was a lie. But I stayed on the bus, got off at the next stop, and took another bus.
My plan failed, but at least I have something to laugh at.
The Acceptance Stage
Another awesome piece of advice I received before studying abroad was that I should try and understand my new country without bias.
In other words, I shouldn’t compare Chile to the United States. I should try and understand Chile from a new perspective, similar to the way a baby learns about the world.
I recommend doing exactly that. Understanding that there are differences and that that’s okay. And understanding that one culture isn’t better or worse than the other—it’s just unique.
Culture Shock and Feeling Homesick
Culture shock can often make us feel homesick—during all of the culture shock stages, but especially the frustration phase. Make sure you keep in touch with family and friends. And be kind to yourself.
But also keep in mind that staying locked up in your room isn’t a good way to deal with culture shock or homesickness. The best cure is to try something new. Even if it’s something small.
Drink a coffee at that café you always pass on your way to class. Take a weekend trip to a nearby town. Or try a new food you’ve always been curious about.
Everyone deals with culture shock differently, but it’s important to understand that your feelings are normal. Feeling hostile or uncomfortable in your new country doesn’t make you a bad traveler. And it definitely doesn’t make you a bad person.
It just means you need some time to adjust!
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Have you ever experienced the different culture shock stages? What are your best tips for dealing with it?