On culture shock, or the lack thereof

People living abroad often experience ‘culture shock’. I find it hard to describe culture shock in just a few words, but simply put it refers to the process we all go through when coming into contact with a culture different from our own (see below for scientific definitions of culture shock).

culture shock

One of the most typical things about living in a different culture is that you are unfamiliar with the correct way to do even the simplest of things. How to greet your neighbour in the elevator, how to order in a restaurant (regardless of language constraints), how to do the laundry or operate the stove, how to do your groceries … All these things have to be learned again, as if one was a child. This feeling of being completely lost in the day-to-day world can sometimes cause feelings of anxiety, frustration, alienation or depression.

Having lived abroad before, I braced myself upon arrival in Japan. Hit me culture shock! But the shock didn’t come. I was loving every minute of my new Japanese life. All the differences were not alienating or frustrating, they were wonderful and interesting. Although I too was lost in all the aforementioned day-to-day things, strangely (and different from my previous experiences in foreign cultures) this did not lead to frustration or anger. Just fascination.

But wait a minute, it’s probably just ‘the honeymoon phase’, the first phase of culture shock. This phase, where everything is exciting and exotic typically lasts around three to six months. As we have been living in Japan for about six months now, I have been expecting the second phase, often referred to as ‘frustration/ withdrawal/ crisis phase’ for some time now. But so far so good. No crisis phase in sight.

culture shock U-Curve
Culture shock U-curve

Admittedly some things have changed. I don’t take a picture of every single thing I see anymore. I’m no longer constantly amazed as I walk down the street. I have recently had a few non-perfect Japanese experiences such as an unpleasant and alienating doctor’s visit or a conversation that was completely lost in translation. But despite all this I still love my Japanese life and am still fascinated by Japanese culture.

I remain a little distrusting of this serenity and continue to brace myself for whatever may happen next. Maybe there will be a reverse culture shock when we return to Belgium for a two-week holiday. Or maybe the culture shock will happen upon returning to Japan after our holiday. But then again, maybe I will just have the good luck to be stuck in the honeymoon phase forever. Here’s hoping.


(1) Definition of culture shock by Oberg: Culture Shock is precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse. These signs or cues include the thousand and one ways in which we orient ourselves to the situations of daily life.

(2) Definition of culture shock by Hofstede: A state of distress following the transfer of a person to an unfamiliar cultural environment, which may also be accompanied by physical symptoms.


5 thoughts on “On culture shock, or the lack thereof

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  1. Interesting post because of the “been there, done that” syndrome. Way back in ’89 I got a “dream job” running a large sailboat on the French Riviera. I landed in Nice in early February of ’89 not knowing any French. Well, that’s not completely true. I could count to 10 and tell people that my aunt’s pen was on my uncle’s desk, but that’s as far as it went.

    Of course I went through the honeymoon stage and then, along about Thanksgiving time, I was more than ready to go back to the States. The job had been presented to me as, “How’d you like to go live in France for ‘six months or so?'” (It eventually turned out to be just short of three years.) But I toughed it out, started understanding the language and the people, acquired a full-time girlfriend and things went along well. I’d adapted, though I did, from time to time, tell my French friends, “it’s a REAL good thing they don’t allow me to have a gun in this country.”

    When I sailed that boat back to the United States I didn’t stick around very long. I bought a small sailboat of my own and took off, alone, and spent nearly 10 months sailing around Mexico, Belize and up into the Rio Dulce in Guatemala before returning to the States after being gone nearly four years.

    Then I got my SECOND dose of culture shock. After being back “home” for six months I couldn’t stand it any more. I seriously thought about going back to France. If I’d had the money I would have. But I didn’t so I spent the next 16 years in southeast Florida.

    I’m now retired and living in the western Panamanian province of Chiriqui, about 45 miles from Costa Rica. I’m the ONLY gringo in the small town I live in. I’ve been here nearly two years now and haven’t run into “culture shock” yet and don’t think I will. I’ve been through it TWICE already so now I know how to cope with it to such an extent it’s non-existent. I LOVE it here, and while it IS possible for me to own a gun here, I don’t.

    1. Thank you for sharing your interesting story. I guess knowing what to expect goes a long way when dealing with culture shock.

      I can very much relate to your second dose of culture shock. I had the same feeling when I returned to Belgium after having lived in Venezuela for one year. The reverse culture shock in Belgium was worse than the initial culture shock in Venezuela!

      Glad to hear you are enjoying Panama – and that you don’t own a gun πŸ™‚

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