Culture Shock: The Things We Don’t Talk About

Whether you’re an expat, a study abroad student, or the occasional traveler, culture shock is not a foreign concept.

Well, if you want to get technical, it actually is a foreign concept, but anyway.

We often use the phrase to describe the feeling of being awed and dazzled by a foreign culture that is so different to our own. Most short-term travelers will only ever experience this stage and it’s what makes our Instagram photos a little brighter and our adventurous vacation stories a little more funny.

But what happens when you find yourself in a foreign country longer term? There are four stages of culture shock, and not all of them are full of whimsical modeling shots in front of famous landmarks.

Stage 1: Honeymoon Phase
This is the phase where everything about your new home is SO AWESOME and OH MY GOD I AM NEVER LEAVING and you are taking pictures of garbage on the street because it’s SO FASCINATING and you just can’t get over HOW BEAUTIFUL and WONDERFUL everything is. It’s a great stage to be in, but eventually, you are likely to transition.

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Barcelona, Spain

Stage 2: Negotiation Stage
This stage is hard. If the Honeymoon stage is the WONDERFUL phase, this is the HORRIBLE stage. You’re homesick. You are SO FRUSTATED that you can’t get your favorite foods. You start to pick out the differences in culture, and not in a happy way. For many people, loneliness will kick in as you feel isolated. Everything SUCKS and WHY DO THESE PEOPLE EVEN LIVE LIKE THIS, and, EVERYTHING IS SO MUCH EASIER IN YOUR HOME COUNTRY. But don’t worry, this stage ends too.

Stage 3: Understanding or Adjustment Stage
This stage is where you really start to thrive. You still notice the differences in culture, but you’ve got yourself a new positive attitude and you’re ready to get over the fact that not everything is the same. You treat your experience with a sense of humor and ability to adapt and move forward and you’ve likely developed your own favorite places or snacks or shops in your new city.

Stage 4: Acclimation phase
Not everyone will make it to this phase depending on the length of their stay, but the acclimation phase is when your new city stops becoming a ‘foreign’ city and becomes your home as well. There is a lot of emphasis in this stage of being able to participate comfortably in the host culture. You are still technically a foreigner, and your accent might give you away, but you rarely feel like one. You begin to be the one giving advice to people on the best places to go and things to do or explaining “how it’s done around here.”

crieffscotland

Crieff, Scotland


While there are sources out there to help deal with culture shock and I know that many study abroad programs do briefly let their students know what to expect, I don’t think we talk about it enough.

Especially in today’s culture where we all put beautiful filters on our photos and share our every move through social media, no one wants to be the downer. I remember a specific day during my first study abroad program about three months in where I was feeling extremely negative and lonely. But on my blog that day, I instead decided to suck it up and write a post about how grateful I was to be in London because I felt so much pressure to enjoy every second and to let people know that I was having the greatest time of my life.

But, you know what? I wasn’t feeling grateful that day, and it certainly wasn’t the greatest day of my life! I spent the evening locked in the bathroom, sprawled on the floor like an octopus, crying on the phone to my best friend about how much I wanted to come home and how difficult it was to adjust sometimes. I needed other people to talk to instead of just unloading everything on her, but I was too afraid to share that in case someone thought I wasn’t being appreciative of the opportunity I had.

So, to everyone who is about to leave for a new semester abroad or those about to become expats: be open about your experiences. The ‘down’ stages of culture shock don’t last forever, but maybe if we all shared them when they were happening, we would be less likely to be locked in a bathroom crying and more ready to open up to the people and new friends around us.

Moving abroad is one of the easiest choices I’ve ever made, but one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. You are not the first or last person who has felt anything you’re feeling, so just embrace it and know that it will get better.  It’s also important to remember that the stages are a guideline that most people will go through, but you very well might go through them in a strange order; you may skip the Honeymoon phase, or you might find that it takes you years to get to the Acclimation stage. There’s no right or wrong way to handle the emotions that come with living abroad, so be patient with yourself.

hydeparkinthesnow

London, UK

If there is one thing I’ve learned after being a part of the study abroad and expat community for a few years, it’s that there is always someone willing to listen who was probably just dying for you to bring it up so they can feel comfortable sharing their own struggles as well.

Just promise me you won’t call anyone from the bathroom floor. Been there, done that, would not recommend.

This post was inspired by recent posts about the same topic by Clara from The Expat Partner’s Survival Guide and Alanna from The Long Distance Relationship Blog. Thanks for sharing your stories!

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8 Responses

  1. matt says:

    At some point, I would like to live in Germany. I anticipate such emotional rollercoasters for myself. Is this why expats tend to find each other, do you think?

    • I think you’re exactly right. So much of who we are is made up of where we grew up and ‘come from,’ so it’s really comforting when you can share that with someone in a foreign country. Hope you get to live in Germany someday like you want!

  2. ldr13 says:

    A great post! You really have made me feel so much better about what I’m going through. When I had my cookies meltdown my man really wasn’t sure how to handle it and it was very clear he just didn’t understand how I was feeling at all or how to help. But, I think he’s beginning to understand a little… being able to read about others who are feeling the same way has helped us both to see that I’m not just crazy and that this phase is quite normal. Even humorously so. It’s given me some ideas for my next novel :p

    I absolutely adore England, but I do also miss the place I called home for 24 years and all the little comforts and traditions. Reading about you crying on the floor then blogging about how wonderful it all is sounds just like something I might do… but we don’t always have to put on a brave face. I think all of us go through homesickness at some point and in some form. I’m definitely in the “negotiation phase” :p.

    Thanks for the blog shout-out 🙂

    • Yes, your cookie incident just made me go back through all the times when something so little set me off and people around me were like, “…what?!?! What is the problem?!” But now that I’m on the ‘other side’ for the most part, I can laugh about it. 😀

      Just wait for the sequel to this post on ‘reverse culture shock’ once you go back to Canada for the first time after living here for awhile…you’ll be so excited in the beginning to be ‘home’ and then you’ll be sad and missing the UK, haha! Such an emotional rollercoaster. 😀

      • ldr13 says:

        I’ve really never reacted to change well AT ALL. Case in point when I was eight years old and Tim Hortons changed their chicken soup recipe I filled out about 50 comment cards telling them to change it back. Exhibit B: when Food City (grocery store) changed their name to Sobey’s I balled to the cashier because “Food City makes sense and Sobey’s sounds stoopid!” And that was only last week. (Kidding, I was like five). Clearly food-related things set me off haha

        I am just about the last person I ever thought would move away from the familiar; when all my friends moved hours away for University I went to the one closest to home and my parents practically lived there (they’d visit like 3x a week).

        I’m sure Canada will seem much different when I go back :p Canada stopped feeling like home for me a while ago because my man wasn’t there and the house we were making a home was here.

        But I would do unspeakable things for a dill pickle or an East Side Marios dinner right about now :p

        I’d miss my Tyrell’s Salt & Vinegar chips though! They’re my first UK addiction and hopefully the first of many!

        What’s your favourite UK food item? 🙂

        • That’s so funny! I was sort of the same–a REALLY timid child that never would leave my mom and I was so shy all growing up. No one would have guessed I would be the one moving to another country! I guess we surprise people. 🙂

          Mmmm, I love Hula Hoops (which I think are a children’s snack but I don’t care)! They’re so crunchy and salty and amazing. I’ve never had Tyrells salt and vinegar–next time I’m at the store!

  3. I’ve definitely had a few tearful, frustrated phone calls, both from the UK and when I spent a term in South Africa in college. I’d like to think I’m in the acclimation phase now but sometimes when things go wrong/I can’t figure out how to do something I definitely revert.

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