The 5 Stages of Culture Shock and How to Ride the Waves

Culture shock is going to be a pretty common factor among expats. Of course it will vary due to experiences and circumstances for each person. It’s the basis for acclimating in a new country. I brought my own American sensibilities and expectations, ingrained in me from birth and, especially at first, not in the forefront of my awareness.

Various studies exist on the topic, with slightly different explanations. Dr. Kalervo Oberg, a Finnish/Canadian anthropologist is first credited as applying the term culture shock to people experiencing new cultures abroad. His version details six stages. The Wikipedia definition simplifies it into four phases. I’ve used my own experience to lay it out for you in the 5 Stages I went through. I was fortunate to have my friend D alert me to this research before I left the States. It was good to have some info in my head prior to arriving in Europe. It helped me realize that I perhaps wasn’t as crazy as I felt. Personally I think many expats who decide to live in another culture are a tad off. Or maybe we’re just thinking outside the box, something the folks back home often can’t comprehend.

#1 Pink Cloud Stage

This cloud begins to form as plans gel and departure date nears. It feels good to give termination notice at work with the comment, “yes I’m moving to Europe.” There’s probably a good-bye party or two. I had been working two jobs in preparation for my move – teaching kindergarten by day and waitressing evenings and weekends. I had been throwing all my loose change from tips in a jar, saving and not counting until the eve of my departure. I was happy to give myself a going-away present of about $100 for travel money.

The cloud develops further once alighting in the new country. Not only did I have the immediate “at home” feeling, I was dazzled and delighted nearly every day. At first I found it comforting not to understand conversations around me on the metro, tram, or sidewalks. Couples were maybe arguing, parents scolding their kids, but it all sounded pretty to me.

#2 Confusion Stage
But then it’s this same language aspect that morphs into an irritant. After more than a few confusing transactions at the grocery store, the language barrier began to be frustrating. My first Christmas here, I was at the local food chain store trying to buy last minute items for dinner. Even though I had a cheat sheet in my pocket with the Czech translations, I was unable to find sour cream. The store was closing early, the employees were trying to chase me out. I was pleading for sour cream, showing them my note but eventually they called security.  I skittered out frustrated and embarassed (and a bit amused at nearly being thrown out by a  grocery bouncer).

Employment status may or may not play into this stage, which starts to occur I’d say around your third or fourth month. I had to wait three months for my work permit to clear as a non-EU citizen. By the third month I started my first job working in a call center. It was large and chaotic at times. Everyone spoke English, but hailed from a myriad of international homelands. One woman dressed in traditional Indian sari, another guy brought his prayer rug for his daily prayers in a back closet. This environment in particular was a bombardment of cultural stimuli. I found myself exhausted a lot.

#3 Depression and Doubt  

And thus confusion and exhaustion bred depression and doubt. I had been warned of this stage in my prior research and had vowed to avoid or at least valiantly overcome this negative-sounding phase. But maybe it’s just the human condition. Maybe it’s like the worst of withdrawl symptoms from the ingrained rhythms of a homeland culture. At any rate I was pulled under for a month or so. In my tenure, this period occurred around November, December, January – not only the darkest and coldest season, but including Christmas which can be even a little depressing for someone far away from loved ones.

I got depressed. I got sick. First I caught a nasty cold/flu that kept me in bed for at least a week, living on ginger and garlic tea (and it’s even more depressing being sick in a new country with no support system, having to crawl to the store for sick supplies). When I went back to the doctor to get the note to return to work, he asked how I was and I started to cry. I didn’t mean to, but was having a moment of holiday depression, I guess. So he wrote me a note to stay home for the rest of the month, probably not the best prescription for a sad and lonely expat at Christmas. But I survived just fine. And now I can say that I was deemed certifiably crazy by my new country.

#4 The Awakening

Then there’s that day where you wake up and the sun is a little brighter, the birds-though still singing in a foreign language-sound cheerier. Like a butterfly out of the cocoon, this mental emergence tends to occur around the sixth month in a new land. For me by this time, I had a few Czech words in my head and had a nice group of international English-speaking expat colleagues/friends. I was finding favorite haunts. I even had a few interesting dates (ah yes, I’ll expound on that topic in a future post). I’d made it through the cold dark winter and spring was literally beginning to bloom.

#5 ‘Normal’ Life
From this point, six months after my arrival, I considered myself a resident. No longer a newcomer, I could provide directions to tourists on the street, and I could identify food products in the stores and on menus. I was a regular member of the work force, logging my 40-hour week, paying taxes, consuming. I had a normal routine, or at least as normal as it could be compared to my American routines.

I was still adjusting to the Czech cuisine. This is a common physical side affect if the food is markedly different than one’s native fare (and I’m definitely not claiming MacDonald’s or pizza as my former American cuisine). There’s even a term the French use, crise de foie, which is a digestive disorder due to the inability to tolerate rich foods. Czech food is heavy on the breads, meats, and sauces, and light on the fruits and vegetables. Overall, that is. Once I figured out what my diet was lacking I was able to search, maybe off the beaten path, and find.

So as you prepare to travel long-term to another country or if you’ve recently arrived, keep in mind the exuberances and those rabbit holes do not mean you’re going crazy (unless of course you’re already there). If things do start to get nuts, seek out someone to talk with, join a social or exercise group.  Be sure to get plenty of rest, be mindful of healthy eating, give yourself over to a good cry if you need to (quite detoxifying), and to quote Bill Hicks, Enjoy the Ride.