When you first travel abroad you are eventually going to come to the point where you have culture shock symptoms. The thought of traveling to another country usually only brings pure excitement to people’s minds. It is very difficult to factor in the amount of culture shock symptoms you are going to experience as well. But once you get out of the familiarity and comfort of your home, it’s inevitable that at some point you are going to experience culture shock symptoms to a degree, based on a variety of factors. The way that these symptoms hit you, is generally in a series of culture shock stages.
(Note – Most of the pictures in this article expand if clicked on, to get a more detailed view)
What are the Culture Shock Stages?
I think it helps to have an idea of what you might feel as you travel abroad. Here are the culture shock stages you WILL experience.
The Honeymoon Stage
This is the stage where you are finally on the road and experiencing what the rest of the world has to offer! You could care less about the familiarity that you just left. It is a high of seeing new things, experiencing new people, and enjoying new thrills. This stage can range anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. It depends on how long you are staying in one country versus moving from place to place. The more you are staying in one place, the less time the honeymoon stage will last.
Culture Shock Symptoms Stage
The culture shock symptoms of this stage are when you subconsciously come to the realization that you aren’t familiar with your surroundings. You might have trouble communicating with people in the country you are in. You might feel discontent, impatience, anger, or loneliness. It all occurs because you are trying to adapt to their culture, and most of the time it is very different than where you are from. You could be very dissatisfied during this transition. One huge characteristic of this stage is that some people might start putting their home culture on a pedestal. Because you are feeling so out of sorts, it is only natural that you start to idealize what you are familiar with. This stage depends on so many factors and will affect everyone differently.
Understanding of Culture Stage
The traits of this stage are gaining understanding of the culture you are in, and feeling a more psychological balance. You are starting to become more familiar with how everything works in this foreign culture. Another big part of this stage, is that you might start to evaluate how this culture does things, compared to how your home culture does things. And since you are starting to understand the new culture, you might get the desire to fit in more.
This stage really depends on how long you are actually traveling. This stage is for very long term travel in one place. Rather than backpacking all over the world. I never got to this stage while I was in Europe. However, if you are in one place for a long period of time, then you might experience this. This stage is characterized by coming to the realization of the good and bad things of where you are at. Now that you have a solid ground in the culture you live, you can really start to look at the culture realistically. You feel like you belong, and now you can define who you are, and your goals for living there.
Reverse Culture Shock Stage
I might write another article in the future talking about reverse culture shock more in depth. I think that it is the absolute toughest stage out of all five stages of culture shock. This is when you come home. You have been traveling for any amount of time, and have experienced the previous stages. But when you get home, you don’t feel the same as you did before you left. The people have either changed or haven’t changed at all. You feel like you are a completely different person and so it doesn’t matter if anyone else has changed. Sometimes people will feel like nobody understands them. Nobody can relate with the stories you tell. It’s very hard not to look at the people in your home culture as boring and non-experienced. Here you are, just got finished on the adventure of your life, and your friend Ted just painted the walls of his bathroom. He’s telling you all about it like it’s a great accomplishment, and it is very hard to connect. Because you want to be like, “that’s all you have done that is exciting since I was gone?” It can be an even harder adjustment than when you were trying to get adjusted to the new culture. At least you are moving forward when you are getting integrated into a new culture. It’s the opposite when you get home. It’s like you are going backwards.
Let me know in the comments section how you feel about these stages, and if you have experienced them yourself.
Do these Culture Shock Stages Happen to Everyone?
Yes these stages of culture shock happen to everyone to a certain degree.
There are many factors that determine how extreme the Culture Shock Symptoms will be.
How long are you traveling for?
If you are only traveling for two weeks then you probably won’t experience culture shock very much. You will be going from country to country so often and barely mingle with the cultures you visit, that you won’t notice it enough to affect you. If you are traveling for 3 months, then you will at least experience cultural shock stages 1-3 most likely. If you are living somewhere for more than 3 months then you will experience culture shock stages 1-4. I am not including stage 5, because everyone tends to experience this regardless of how long they travel.
Where are you traveling to?
This makes a huge difference. Why? Because some cultures are more extreme. Some cultures are closer to your culture. You might be more compatible with certain cultures compared to other cultures. Do you like the food? Do you like the people? How about the living situation? Are you by yourself? Can you speak their language very well? The place you are traveling to will play a huge part in how much culture shock symptoms affect you.
Have you traveled before?
This is one of the biggest factors of all. If you have traveled or lived in other countries before, then you are already familiar with culture shock. You are not going to experience it clearly as much as a person would who is traveling for their first time. Because I don’t think it is POSSIBLE to imagine what a new culture is like if you have never traveled extensively before.
What type of person are you?
Some people are going to adjust easier to the new culture based on what type of person they are.
Do you have a strong sense of self?
People that have a strong sense of self are usually neither weak or overbearing with other people.
How open minded are you?
Some people have fixed opinions on how things should be. They are going to have a tougher time adjusting to life in a new culture than someone who is flexible.
Ability to cope with failure
How well can you fail in a new environment and be okay with it? Because you are going to fail at something while traveling, such as speaking the language, or doing something that goes against the cultural norm. This is pretty much impossible to avoid. And it’s okay! But are you fine with failure?
Do you expect to go into a new culture and be able to know how to do everything? Or do you know that there will be adjustments to be made, and in the wake of them still stay positive? This is important, because if you think you are just going to go into another country and be able to exert your will, and be in charge, you are wrong. Set realistic expectations.
Are you able to communicate well with other people non-verbally even if you don’t know the language? I think this one is huge, because if you have the ability to communicate well with people that don’t speak your language, you’ll feel more at home. It can be lonely if you don’t have the skills to communicate what you want across.
Adaptability and Flexibility
Are you spontaneous? Are you able to adapt to situations that you are not accustomed to? This is a very needed skill for traveling.
Touristy or Non-touristy
This is one of the most overlooked aspects of how you could experience culture shock symptoms while traveling. Are you going somewhere that is very touristy or are you actually going to a place that is only made up of the residents of that culture. A good example of a place that I went to that was very touristy was Rome. And I know because I went to a small town and actually experienced an Italian culture. In Rome you will most likely stay at a hostel with people that speak English, go to restaurants that know English well, and most of the people on the streets are tourists! Do you think you are going to have extreme culture shock symptoms from visiting Rome? Probably not. But if you go to an Italian town with no tourists then you are going to have a COMPLETELY different experience. I went to a small town called Cellole. There were no tourists, nobody spoke English, and I was staying with Italian residents. This is the type of setting where you will get a more extreme culture shock.
People who have gone to only touristy cities do not understand this point. My sister has gone to a few different places in Italy such as Milan, Rome, Florence, etc. These are all touristy areas. They are all amazing, but you are going to experience very little culture shock in these cities.
What kind of experience do you want?
Ask yourself this. Do you want to experience culture shock or not? If you do want to experience culture shock, I would recommend traveling for at least a couple of months and visiting more authentic cities. Some people just want to skim the surface and see the touristy spots, and others really want to indulge themselves right into the middle of the culture. What kind of experience do you want to have?
Why would anyone want to experience culture shock to a higher degree?
Because culture shock is a positive thing. In some parts of this article I know I have made it sound negative. How would you integrate into a culture without experiencing culture shock symptoms? Whenever you grow you have to go through growing pains. It is the same thing with moving or traveling to a new culture. If you are the type of person that is looking for substantial growth, then you welcome the culture shock. The contrast of getting used to another culture is going to change you in ways that everyone should experience while they are alive. I can’t think of many other ways to grow faster than traveling abroad and experiencing culture shock.
Does Culture Shock just have to do with traveling?
No. Culture shock can be from anything where you start off really excited, and then once familiarity sets in, you become a little depressed per say. A good example is starting a new job. You are still being introduced to a new culture. The same thing tends to happen. Or, how about a new relationship. Let’s say you just got out of a relationship and you are starting a new one. At first it seems fresh and exciting, but after a while you might have the shock of being with this new person. Then you start comparing them to your old relationship. It is with anything that is completely foreign to you. The stages are just more obvious with traveling.
5 ways to handle culture shock symptoms
1 Realize that culture shock is normal – If you experience any of the symptoms just know that it wont last.
2 Accept the lesson – If you are able to accept the lesson then it means you are being open minded. The shock of this culture is showing you that human needs and entertainment can be met in tons of ways, and that your host culture is just one of the varieties.
3 Select a few things of the new culture that you can indulge in – It’s helpful if you can find a few different events, places, things that this culture does really well and really become interested in them. Explore them. That’s why you came to visit this culture. You didn’t come for pity.
4 Look for the logical reasons behind why they do things a certain way – Sometimes this is hard, and you won’t find a logical explanation for things. But for most things you can look at it from their perspective, and realize why it is done a certain way. One thing that I will never understand about parts of Italy is why there were no toilet seats in some of the restrooms. Someone told me it’s because you are supposed to squat, not sit!
5 Laugh at yourself – Stop being so serious. Did you think that you were going to know everything and be able to do everything perfectly that this culture had to offer, as soon as you got there?
My Experience With Culture Shock
I definitely had some culture shock experiences while I was in Europe. I didn’t know at the time that it was happening what was going on. The way that I experienced it was through loneliness.
I flew into Naples, Italy which is already an extreme place to go to straight from the US. It is the craziest city in Italy, besides Sicily. I can concur with that. I flew into Naples and met my buddy who was staying with his girlfriend in Cellole, Italy. Cellole is a small town north of Naples of about 10,000 residents.
I was really excited when I first got to Cellole to experience this authentic Italian culture. We had decided to get a one month apartment a little outside of the city, where the three of us would be staying.
The first couple of days we went to the Mediterranean sea, ate at some good local restaurants, and met some of his gf’s friends. I remember the first night sitting next to the Mediterranean and thinking that I was “in paradise”. My brain had released a huge amount of dopamine from all of the new experiences!
After about a week of exploring and just overall getting to know the area, I remember becoming a little depressed. There doesn’t seem to be a reason at all. It wasn’t like I consciously said to myself, this place sucks and I want to go home. It’s just something that happens. Culture shock is very real. And that was what I was experiencing. I wasn’t consciously aware of it at the time though.
I had an experience a few weeks into my stay as well, that I think even accelerated the culture shock more. You can read about that here (Near Death Experience in Capri). This gave me shock in general.
But when I think back I was totally out of my routine from when I was at home. I had different eating habits and completely different food. My sleeping patterns had completely changed. My activity level had gone up a little bit. And of course I was in a culture where I had to learn Italian on the fly, and interact in a completely different way than the US. Have you ever kissed someone on both cheeks to greet them while in the US? Didn’t think so. And so it definitely had a large affect on me.
I ended up only staying in this town for about 3 and a half weeks, and then decided to start backpacking north to other cities by myself. I know I left because I was in the middle of this culture shock stage, and I wanted to get out of it. Traveling through many different cities heading north through Italy really took away the culture shock symptoms almost immediately.
Later on, I would do the Camino De Santiago (Read here – How does the Camino De Santiago Piligrimage Change You As A Person) and have another culture shock as I marched through northern Spanish villages. I think a lot of this culture shock had to do with the demand of walking long distances (about 25 km a day) for 30 days straight.
So are you ready to embrace culture shock when you start traveling?
Know that you have been through culture shock throughout your whole life to varying degrees with anything you have done. If you are consciously aware of what is happening, it will help to resolve any resistance you have towards that culture. And realize that it is a very real experience that is definitely worth having. You will grow as an individual so much more than you would if you were to sit in your home culture your whole life. Safe travels 🙂