Motivation and emotion/Book/2017/Culture shock

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Culture shock
What is culture shock, what causes it, and what can be done about it?


Figure 1. Airplane[explain?]

As more people are travelling overseas and between cultures, culture shock is becoming a more recognised and more relevant issue. Culture shock is experienced to some degree by everyone who moves to a new culture (Winkelman, 1994; Xia, 2009). People suffering from culture shock can experience several negative emotions (Roskell, 2013; Tohyama, 2008), mostly associated with the stress and isolation of entering a new culture (Tohyama, 2008). As this becomes increasingly prevalent, understanding the underlying causes of culture shock and how it can best be managed is becoming increasingly important.

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Key questions
  • What is culture shock?
  • What are the stages of culture shock?
  • What causes it?
  • What can be done about it?

What is culture shock?[edit]

While there is no single accepted definition of culture shock (Furham, 2012), culture shock generally is when an individual moves to a location with a different culture, and as a result, experiences negative emotions such as confusion, disorientation, anxiety and even loss relating to that new culture for a period of time (Furham, 2012). This usually happens during the process of acculturation (Tohyama, 2008), which is the process of an individual adjusting to a new culture (Yeh & Inose, 2003). This change in culture can result through moving overseas, or even within the same country (e.g., from a city to a rural area) (Zapf, 1993). 

Reverse culture shock[edit]

Reverse culture shock (also referred to as "re-entry shock" (Presbitero, 2016) is a variation of culture shock. It is the feeling of disorientation when one returns to their home culture after a significant period of time, only to find that it has changed, resulting in a lack of alignment with expectations followed by a period of readjustment (Furham, 2012; Gaw, 2000; Tohyama, 2008).

Stages of culture shock[edit]

Known by various names, there is a general agreement that there are at least four base stages of culture shock, although some researchers have argued for as few as three, or as many as eight (Gaw, 2000; Roskell, 2013; Tohyama, 2008; Winkelman,1994). The stages are a part of the "U model", the shape representing to the change of emotions from positive to negative, then back as the individual adjusts to the new circumstances (Tohyama, 2008). These stages are sequential, although as new crises arise stages 2 and 3 may be repeated in relation to them (Winkelman, 1994). 

Honeymoon stage[edit]

This stage happens when one enters a new culture, and there are feelings of euphoria as the individual is excited and interested in the new culture and experiences (Roskell, 2013; Winkelman, 1994; Tohyama, 2008; Xia, 2009). Although there may be feelings of stress and anxiety regarding the change in culture, the positive feelings outweigh them (Winkelman, 1994). This is generally the only stage experienced by travellers who are in the culture for a short time (e.g., tourists, honeymooners, business persons) as their interactions are generally limited to locations catering for visitors and situations such as hotels or airports, where they do not need to culturally immerse themselves in a meaningful way (Winkelman, 1994).

Crisis stage[edit]

During this phase, negative feelings such as anxiety, loss, frustration, homesickness, and depression arises in relation to the new culture (Roskell, 2013; Winkelman, 1994; Tohyama, 2008; Xia, 2009). The timing of this stage varies depending on individual differences, but usually arises within a few weeks to a month following arrival (Winkelman, 1994). A series of events which one reacts negatively to can build up to this phase, or it can suddenly emerge as a "full blown crisis" (Winkelman, 1994). During this phase, the amount of cultural distance (the level of differences between one's home culture and new culture) comes into effect (Roskell, 2013). This may be where individuals find that their usual social patterns are different and inadequate in the new environment, and they may be critical of the differences within the new culture, whilst idealising their home culture (Roskell, 2013). 

Recovery stage[edit]

One begins to adjust to the new culture during this stage (Roskell, 2013; Winkelman, 1994; Tohyama, 2008; Xia, 2009). In an adaptive adjustment, the individual begins to understand the new culture and develops skills to function within (Tohyama, 2008; Winkelman, 1994). The differences start to be viewed more positively, and learning about them becomes enjoyable as the individual learns methods to cope with differences (Winkelman, 1994; Xia, 2009). This stage is gradual, and within it crises that require readjustments arise (Tohyama, 2008; Winkelman, 1994). Alternatively during this stage, one may not adapt to the culture, and adjustment takes form through methods such as escaping the culture, or isolation (Winkelman, 1994). This type of adaptation lowers functioning within the culture, and is less advantageous than adaptive adjustment (Roskell, 2013; Winkelman, 1994).

Adaptation stage[edit]

The final stage, in which acculturation is complete, one has adjusted to the new culture (Roskell, 2013; Winkelman, 1994; Tohyama, 2008; Xia, 2009). This stage usually appears around one and a half to two years (Roskell, 2013; Xia, 2009) The individual now has stable adaptations which give the ability to manage life within the new setting, by being able to solve problems and navigate the culture, largely dissipating symptoms of culture shock (Winkelman, 1994; Xia, 2009). 

Return to home culture -reverse culture shock[edit]

While the four stages of culture shock are experienced by everyone who enters a new culture (Gaw, 2000; Roskell, 2013; Winkelman, 1994), reverse culture shock is not (therefore excluded from the stages of culture shock), as not everyone returns to their home culture. However, all those who do return experience reverse culture shock to some degree (Gaw, 2000; Tohyama, 2008). Feelings of reverse culture shock are reflective of those of culture shock (e.g., confusion, anxiety, and depression), and requires the individual to re-orientate, re-acculturate, and readjust to their culture and any changes within (Gaw, 2000; Furham, 2012; Presbitero, 2016; Tohyama, 2008).

Symptoms of culture shock[edit]

There are many symptoms of culture shock, some include:

  • Anger (Tohyama, 2008)
  • Disorientation (Roskell, 2013)
  • Depression (Roskell, 2013; Tohyama, 2008)
  • Exhaustion (Tohyama, 2008)
  • Frustration (Tohyama, 2008)
  • Homesickness (Roskell, 2013)
  • Loss (Roskell, 2013)
  • Numbness (Tohyama, 2008)
  • Stress (Roskell, 2013)
  • Withdrawal (Tohyama, 2008)

Causes and factors that influence culture shock and reverse culture shock[edit]

There are various factors and causes that influences culture shock (individual level variables, and environmental variables), with the severity of each changing between individuals (Tohyama, 2008).

Individual variables[edit]

[Provide more detail]

Stress and stress coping[edit]

The confusion and other negative emotions associated with culture shock cause a high amount of stress (Xia, 2009). The high level of stress relating to adapting to the new culture is linked to increased negative emotions (Junhyoung, Wonseok, Sooyeon, & Himanshu, 2012). This is due to the stress that comes with changes through life events, as well as the changes relating to adaptation, such as social expectations (Zhou, Jindal-Snape, Topping, & Todman, 2008). One theorised reason for individual differences in stress and coping involves the Behavioural Inhibition System (BIS), which is where stress-buffering traits are theorised to be linked within the brain (Van der Zee & Van Oudenhoven, 2013). As a basis for aversive motivation, the more sensitive the BIS is the more likely the individual is to feel negative emotions, such as anxiety, when acting culturally inappropriate [say what?] (Van der Zee & Van Oudenhoven, 2013). As people who experience culture shock go through a large amount of stress (Xia, 2009), people who are have a more sensitive BIS may experience a higher amount of culture shock, due to the heightened amount of stress felt (Van der Zee & Van Oudenhoven, 2013).

Cognitive fatigue[edit]

Strain can be caused by the cognitive energy constantly needed by continually attempting to adjust to new culture (Roskell, 2013) and social norms. This can be due to the individual constantly interpreting unpredictable cues, misreading situations, as well as finding previous behaviour and language not accepted in the new environment, leading to feelings such as confusion and/or frustration (Gaw, 2000)

Feelings of loss  [edit]

Feelings of loss which can relate to aspects of the place they've left behind, such as loved ones (such as friends and family), home, work relationships or status, and a familiar environment (Lombard, 2014; Roskell, 2013; Winkelman, 1994). This usually happens during the crisis stage of culture shock (Winkelman, 1994)

Threats to identity[edit]

Being in a new culture can lead to identity challenging thoughts, which then leads to anxiety (Zhou et al., 2008). These thoughts can be brought about through social interactions, (especially if identity is strongly linked to social interactions), or through having to view themselves and their place in society through a different lens (Zhou et al., 2008).

Environmental variables[edit]

[Provide more detail]

Social support and loneliness[edit]

Feelings of anxiety and depression may increase, while self-esteem may decrease, when experiencing culture shock due to not having feelings of support and validation from close relationships (Villalobos-Sal, 2016; Yeh & Inose, 2003). Additionally, this may impact feelings of loneliness, which has been commonly reported as an impacting factor by individuals experiencing culture shock (Gaw, 2000; Lombard, 2014).

Cultural differences[edit]

The larger the differences between cultures, the more challenging it is for the individual to adjust, due to the larger changes needed to be undertaken by the individual (Tohyama, 2008; Yeh & Inose, 2003). Feelings such as surprise and anxiety relating to the differences between the cultures, such as values , may be felt (Roskell, 2013).

Change in social skills needed[edit]

When moving to a different culture, different social skills are needed to interact appropriately within said culture (Ward, Bochner, & Furnham, 2005). An individual experiences more negative emotions when they have difficulty interacting with others in a new culture (Xia, 2009). This can be due to changes in social cues from familiar ones (causing negative emotions such as anxiety) (Ward et al., 2005) or other barriers such as language differences, which in itself can impact by causing the adjustment period to have more stress (Tohyama, 2008). Additionally, an individual may experience performance anxiety relating to how they feel others are evaluating their attempts to communicate (Ward et al., 2005).

The amount of difference between own culture and new culture[edit]

Roskell, 2013 study[grammar?] showed that people traveling from the UK to South east Asia experienced a higher degree of culture shock, due to the larger differences between cultures. This is theorised to be due to the individual experiencing greater anxiety due to larger differences, and therefore the individual will be behaving more outside the expected norms for the society, and they have a larger adjustment to make (Tohyama, 2008). For reverse culture shock, individuals who go to cultures more similar to their own experience less reverse culture shock (Christofi & Thompson, 2007). This again may be linked to the amount of change needed to readjust to the home culture, as cultures that are more similar result in less personal change (both in values and behaviours), and therefore on return would require less change to readjustment than for those who went to vastly different cultures (Christofi & Thompson, 2007; Tohyama, 2008).

The level of adjustment overseas (reverse culture shock)[edit]

Research has found that the better one adjusted overseas, the worse their reverse culture shock was (Christofi & Thompson, 2007). This is thought to be due to the amount of change an individual goes through to adjust to the new culture, e.g. by changing norms, values etc., so when one returns home the amount of readjustment needed is larger (Tohyama, 2008).

Theories and approaches addressing culture shock[edit]

[Provide more detail]

Bandura's social learning theory[edit]

An older explanation of culture shock is Bandura's social learning theory. Within this model, during the honeymoon stage, the individual only perceives the similarities and "positive" differences of the culture (Tohyama, 2008). Additionally, they have not been in the culture long enough to experience negative consequences of their behaviours that are inappropriate within the new culture (Tohyama, 2008). Later, during the crisis stage, they have not learned the appropriate behaviours for the culture (through other's modelling of it), and are now experiencing negative consequences from being culturally inappropriate, but not knowing how to act (Tohyama, 2008). This aligns with the feelings of anxiety, frustration and depression that is felt during the crisis stage (Roskell, 2013; Winkelman, 1994; Tohyama, 2008; Xia, 2009). During the recovery stage, the individual learns from modelling, and starts to display appropriate behaviours learnt through it, decreasing negative symptoms. Within this theory it is theorised that those who pay more attention to the modelling of behaviours by other, the faster and easier this stage will be (Tohyama, 2008). Finally, in the adaption stage, they will understand what behaviours are expected from them, and be able to reproduce such learnt behaviours, alleviating negative feelings associated with negative reactions due to being culturally inappropriate (Tohyama, 2008). This theory is less comprehensive and does not address other factors, instead suggesting all negative feelings derive from this one aspect (Tohyama, 2008).

ABC model of culture shock[edit]

The ABC model of culture shock incorporates many theories regarding culture shock within it (Zhou et al., 2008). The model is currently the most popular view of culture shock (Lombard, 2014) and is one of the most comprehensive (Presbitero, 2016). Within this model of culture shock, it focuses on the affect (A), behavioural (B), and cognitive (C) aspects of culture shock, and also offers strategies for managing culture shock (Lombard, 2014; Van der Zee & Van Oudenhoven, 2013; Villalobos-Sal, 2016).

  • Affect: Significant life changes are involved during this aspect, these changes being due to changing cultures (Lombard, 2014; Van der Zee & Van Oudenhoven, 2013). The aspect focuses on "stress and coping" models of culture shock (Zhou et al., 2008). Coping strategies for dealing with stressful situations are emphasised for treatment methods within this aspect (Lombard, 2014; Van der Zee & Van Oudenhoven, 2013).
  • Behavioural: The behavioural aspect involves learning the skills to behave appropriately in the new culture (Lombard, 2014; Van der Zee & Van Oudenhoven, 2013; Villalobos-Sal, 2016). Within this aspect, social learning theory and cultural learning theory are used in conjunction (Lombard, 2014; Villalobos-Sal, 2016). This is because understanding the culture as well as learning and using the appropriate behaviours for the culture are seen as vital for managing culture shock (Lombard, 2014; Villalobos-Sal, 2016).
  • Cognitive: Current theorists have identified identity as being integral to this aspect (Lombard, 2014; Van der Zee & Van Oudenhoven, 2013). Through the use of social identity theory, within this aspect, being a new culture can challenge self-perception and identity, causing anxiety (Lombard, 2014; Van der Zee & Van Oudenhoven, 2013). Treatment models for this aspect include self-esteem raising techniques, and the emphasis on in-group similarities and inter-group harmony (Lombard, 2014).

Treatment based on this ABC model has been shown to be successful, and this is attributed through its incorporation of many aspects/theories of culture shock (Lombard, 2014).

Self-determination theory[edit]

Although this theory has not yet been specifically been applied to the process of culture shock, self-determination theory (SDT) may be able to explain some level of the severity of culture shock. When applied to the process of acculturation, Chirkov, Vansteenkiste, Tao, and Lynch’s (2007) research indicates that self-determined motivation (motivation that is autonomous and volitional) resulted in better adaptation by students in the new culture than non-self-determined motivations. However, this research is still relatively new and would need to be further investigated through the lens of culture shock in order to be fully applied.

How to minimise culture shock[edit]

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Before travelling overseas[edit]

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Education about the stages of culture shock[edit]

Being educated in the stages of culture shock can reduce the impact of culture shock by aiding an individual in being able to predict some challenges they may face, and in recognising the stages when within them, all of which lower the stress experienced during it (Tohyama, 2008; Xia, 2009). The reasons for this is twofold; it decreases psychological stress associated with vague events, and also offers comfort in the form of being able to predict events, resulting in a lowering of negative symptoms such as feelings of helplessness, stress, anxiety, and depression (Xia, 2009). This practice is now widespread in the US due to its proven positive influence (Tohyama, 2008).

Education about the culture[edit]

If the individual is unaware of the differences in cultures, it is more difficult for the individual when they are in the new culture (Zhou et al., 2008) and potentially take them longer to gauge how to react and act within the culture. Being educated about a culture before leaving may increase the rate of acceptance of the changes, as well as a smoother adjustment (Xia, 2009). This perpetration[say what?] may also include cross cultural sensitivity training in order to aid the individual in preparing to live in a new culture (Winkelman, 1994).

Within the new culture[edit]

[Provide more detail]

Having social support[edit]

Having social support is known to increase well-being in everyday life (Xia, 2009) by increasing self-esteem (Winkelman, 1994) and decreasing negative emotions associated with events such as daily hassles, to significant life events (Xia, 2009). As moving to a new culture is a significant life event, having social support helps to buffer against negative emotions associated experienced with the event (Xia, 2009), and additionally has been shown to buffer against accumulative stress that’s associated with being within a new culture (Yeh & Inose, 2003). It is highly important to have quality social support in which one experiences validation and support regarding their experience to increase one's self-esteem and lower negative feelings (Villalobos-Sal, 2016; Yeh & Inose, 2003). This could either be through making new close relationships within the new culture, or by ensuring that current relationships remain strengthened (Yeh & Inose, 2003). Additionally, social support is also important when facing reverse culture shock for the same beneficial reasons (Tohyama, 2008).

Stress management[edit]

By learning advantageous stress management skills, the individual affected by culture shock will be able to cope with the various stresses associated with the change in culture, overall leading to lower levels of stress, and stress related feelings (e.g. depression) (Lombard, 2014). This is also reflected in the ABC model of culture shock through the affect aspect (Lombard, 2014). Stress management is particularly important for individuals who have a more sensitive BIS as they may experience more negative emotional effects from excess stress (Van der Zee & Van Oudenhoven, 2013).

Gaining appropriate social skills for culture[edit]

Given that an important aspect of culture shock includes anxiety relating to not knowing how to socialise appropriately within the new culture (Roskell, 2013; Xia, 2009), learning these appropriate skills can aid in coping with culture shock (Villalobos-Sal, 2016; Zhouet al., 2008). It does this through decreasing the negative emotions (such as depression) that occur during significant life-events (Zhou et al., 2008). Through the behavioural aspect of the ABC model, one way to learn this is by learning through modelling (Tohyama, 2008). Language may also be a barrier in socialising appropriately within new culture, and as one gets more fluent with the language this will aid in the management of culture shock (Villalobos-Sal, 2016). Through acquiring appropriate social skills for the culture, one can participate more in the host community, which has been shown to lower stress (Tohyama, 2008), and integrate effectively into the culture (Roskell, 2013).

When returning to home culture (Reverse culture shock)[edit]

Social support and education are imperative. Education about reverse culture shock can help minimise the impact. Currently, it is not focused on or acknowledged as much as culture shock (Christofi & Thompson, 2007; Tohyama, 2008). The surprise of it happening can worsen its impact on individuals, who may feel as though they should not be feeling this within their own culture (Tohyama, 2008). Educating the individual before they return home may help reduce its impact (Tohyama, 2008). By doing this, it would aid the individual in modifying their expectations (which may have been idealised) and recognising what is happening, lowering their confusion about the situation, aligning with education about culture shock (Xia, 2009).


  • Although the U model of culture shock (and the 4 stages) is the most commonly accepted model of culture shock, there are few empirical studies supporting it (Tohyama, 2008). There has also been some research suggesting that a J model (in which the honeymoon stage is rejected) may be more accurate (Tohyama, 2008). However, these studies need further refinement and replication as there are some inconsistencies (e.g. why would tourists travel without any initial euphoria?).
  • A great majority (if not all) of culture shock research has been done from a western point of view. Tohyama (2008), who completed a dissertation on the topic of reverse culture shock, stated that they could not find any non-western research, and since this dissertation was published there still appears to be no change in this situation.
  • Additionally, very little research attempts to explain culture shock through theoretical frameworks, with Tohyama (2008) only finding two examples other than the ABC model in their dissertation. The ABC model of culture shock dominates the area of culture shock in current times (Lombard, 2014; Presbitero, 2016; Van der Zee & Van Oudenhoven, 2013).
  • Reverse culture shock is not as well understood as culture shock as there has been much less research involving the subject (Christofi & Thompson, 2007).


Culture shock can be a very daunting experience for an individual, with a great number of negative emotions that go alongside it. Many factors influence the severity of culture shock, with some notable ones being stressors, change in identity and a change in social skills needed, as noted by the ABC model of culture shock. Methods for being able to lower the impact of culture shock include education, about both the culture and the stages of culture shock (which includes the honeymoon stage, crisis stage, recovery stage, and adjustment stage), and by having social support as well as stress management skills. Current culture shock research has further questions that need answering, such as different cultural perspectives and different theoretical models explaining the phenomena. Although culture shock can be a difficult time, it can also have positive outcomes such as a greater appreciation for other cultures, and acceptance of diversity (Tohyama, 2008).

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Test your knowledge


Tim is going overseas for two weeks on holidays, what stage is he likely to experience?

Honeymoon stage
crisis stage
Recovery stage


What is most important for managing culture shock?

Packing beforehand
Stress coping management skills
Knowing the time difference

See also[edit]


Chirkov, V., Vansteenkiste, M., Tao, R., & Lynch, M. (2007). The role of self-determined motivation and goals for study abroad in the adaptation of international students. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 31(2), 199-222.

Christofi, V., & Thompson, C. L. (2007). You Cannot Go Home Again: A Phenomenological Investigation of Returning to the Sojourn Country After Studying Abroad. Journal Of Counseling & Development, 85(1), 53-63.

Furham, A. (2012). Culture shock. Revista de Psicologéa de la Educación, 7.

Gaw, K. F. (2000). Reverse culture shock in students returning from overseas. International Journal Of Intercultural Relations, 24(1), 83-104. doi:10.1016/S0147-1767(99)00024-3

Junhyoung, K., Wonseok, S., Sooyeon, k., & Himanshu, g. (2012). Coping strategies to manage acculturative stress: Meaningful activity participation, social support, and positive emotion among Korean immigrant adolescents in the USA. International Journal Of Qualitative Studies On Health & Well-Being, 71-10. doi:10.3402/qhw.v7i0.18870

Lombard, C. A. (2014). Coping with anxiety and rebuilding identity: A psychosynthesis approach to culture shock. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 27(2), 174-199. doi:10.1080/09515070.2013.875887

Presbitero, A. (2016). Culture shock and reverse culture shock: The moderating role of cultural intelligence in international students’ adaptation. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 53, 28-38.

Roskell, D. (2013). Cross-cultural transition: International teachers’ experience of ‘culture shock’. Journal Of Research In International Education, 12(2), 155-172. doi:10.1177/1475240913497297 Tohyama, N. (2008). Reverse culture shock and romantic relationships in college students reentering after study abroad (Doctoral dissertation, Bowling Green State University).

Van der Zee, K., & van Oudenhoven, J. P. (2013). Culture shock or challenge? The role of personality as a determinant of intercultural competence. Journal Of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 44(6), 928-940. doi:10.1177/0022022113493138

Villalobos-Sal, A. (2016). Culture shock and its relationship with the intercultural effectiveness of organizational leaders in the pharmaceutical industry. Indiana Wesleyan University.

Ward, C., Bochner, S., & Furnham, A. (2005). The psychology of culture shock. Routledge. Winkelman, M. (1994). Cultural Shock and Adaptation. Journal Of Counseling & Development, 73(2), 121-126

Xia, J. (2009). Analysis of impact of culture shock on individual psychology. International Journal of Psychological Studies, 1(2), 97.

Yeh, C. J., & Inose, M. (2003). International students' reported English fluency, social support satisfaction, and social connectedness as predictors of acculturative stress. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 16(1), 15-28. doi:10.1080/0951507031000114058

Zhou, Y., Jindal-Snape, D., Topping, K., & Todman, J. (2008). Theoretical models of culture shock and adaptation in international students in higher education. Studies In Higher Education, 33(1), 63-75. doi:10.1080/03075070701794833

Zapf, M. (1993). Remote practice and culture shock: social workers moving to isolated northern regions. Social Work, 38(6), 694-704.

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