Cultural adjustment is a process an individual has to go through to be able to work effectively and live comfortably in a place that is new and unfamiliar to them. Living in a new culture requires you to learn a new set of cultural patterns and behaviors. This process can be very challenging and sometimes uncomfortable. There are generally three main types of cultural adjustment*.
CULTURE SURPRISE usually occurs during the first few days of your visit as you initially
become aware of superficial differences. Examples: people dress differently, signs are in a
different language, nonverbal behaviors are different.
CULTURE STRESS is a fairly short-term response to "stimulus overload." This occurs when
you begin to respond to the behavior of the "new" culture. Examples: trying to drive a car, doing
your own shopping, hearing comments about yourself.
CULTURE SHOCK is a normal, healthy psychological reaction to the stress of living in a
different culture. You experience feelings of tension and anxiety because you have lost familiar
cultural cues. Your actions do not always get you what you want. And your inability to
communicate effectively with others is frustrating.
*Janet and Milton Bennett, 1999
At some point during the cultural adjustment process, you will probably experience culture shock. Culture shock is caused by the stress of being in a new culture and is a normal part of adjusting to a new place. When you live in a new culture, your own values are continually brought into question. Also, you are cut off from the cultural clues and known patterns with which you are familiar. Kalvero Oberg, the man first credited with diagnosing culture shock, describes it this way:
“These signs and clues include the thousand and one ways in which we orient ourselves to the situations of daily life: when to shake hands and what to say when we meet people, when and how to give tips…how to make purchases, when to accept and when to refuse invitations, when to take statements seriously and when not…”
You will probably not just wake up one morning and say, “Oh, I am experiencing culture shock!” It is a gradual, cumulative process that builds up slowly. It is important to recognize the symptoms of culture shock so you can be better prepared for it.
Not everyone experiences culture shock in the same way. You may have difficulty sleeping while your friend sleeps most of the time. You may experience many of the symptoms listed above or only a few of them. The most important thing to remember is that culture shock is a normal part of the adjustment process. If your symptoms are severe, be sure to let others know how you are feeling. Talk to a friend, an international scholar advisor, or a counselor in the community. You do not have to be alone!
**Material adapted from Survival Kit for Overseas Living, Robert Kohls, Chicago: Intercultural Press, 1994.