The term culture shock was first introduced in the 1950s to describe the anxiety a person can frequently experience when moving to a different environment, and encompasses feelings of disorientation and not knowing what to do or quite how to do it and, ultimately, what is acceptable or appropriate within the new culture. The discomfort experienced can be physical as well as emotional, and while the term might be used in different contexts (and where it might then have different meanings) culture shock is generally interpreted as the process of coming to terms with differences in culture, as these occur through daily interaction in the new context.
The term may be traced to two sources. First of these is Schumann’s Theory of Acculturation, which attempts to explain the various stages that an immigrant will go through from initial arrival in the foreign country to eventual assimilation. Schumann envisages a continuum of adaptation along which the immigrant will travel, even accepting that many people will not stay in a foreign country long enough for total “conversion” to occur. The second source is represented by the work of the pioneering and world-renowned anthropologist Kalervo Oberg. Born to Finnish parents in British Columbia, Oberg had an early academic career in universities in the United States (Missouri and Montana), the United Kingdom (London School of Economics), and Brazil (São Paulo). He then worked for various U.S. government agencies as an applied anthropologist with postings to South America, before late in his career returning to academe (then at the universities of Cornell, Southern California, and Oregon State).
The basis of Oberg’s developed theory of culture shock was his now famous address to the Women’s Club of Rio de Janeiro on August 3, 1954, which outlined the feelings common to people when face-to-face with a cross-cultural situation. The model he developed was a four-stage one, although more recently this appears to have been expanded to five elements; nor is there total acceptance of the relevant nomenclature.
It is important to recognize that while psychology is the study of individual personality, it is the alternative discipline of sociology that is the study of groups and the behaviors they exhibit. Thus the study of culture is not about the study of individuals per se since the development of a particular culture is not something to which the individual can contribute. Culture is developed within a nation over a period of many years and through processes that are largely beyond the awareness of the individual. Culture imbues a country with national characteristics: The concept of “living the American dream” (anything is possible) familiar to a U.S. citizen or the British obsession with the weather are obvious examples. Other frequently cited aspects of culture are the acceptability (or otherwise) of smoking, semi-nudity, drinking or kissing in public (perhaps particularly by women). More specific examples might be, for example, not showing the soles of one’s feet in public, or demonstrating appreciation of a meal by belching, or leaving one’s shoes outside one’s host’s house.
Oberg considered that culture shock is precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all familiar signs of social intercourse. This leads to feelings of frustration and anxiety; the home environment suddenly assumes enhanced significance; and ridicule may be poked at everything that is now encountered that is found strange or unfamiliar. The stages of culture shock that have been identified are as follows:
- The first stage is generally known as the “honeymoon” stage (although also variously as “incubation” or “stimulation”). The recent arrival is full of hope and excited by everything new that is encountered and this positive (even euphoric) outlook keeps negative feelings at bay.
- The second stage is the culture shock (or “hostile”) stage, when the need to settle into the new culture (probably through now starting work as either a businessperson or student) means coping with day-to-day situations that are different from “back home.” Dislike and/or criticism of the host culture surfaces, to be frequently accompanied by homesickness, lethargy, irritability, and even outright hostility to the host culture.
- The third or “acceptance” stage is when a period of adjustment is gone through, during which the individual begins to perceive value in their new environment. A favorable comparison of “new” and “old” environments may even occur as the new arrival gains understanding. Pleasure and good humor return as empathy with the new environment develops.
- In the fourth or “enthusiasm” stage, the host country begins to appear more and more like “home” and certain aspects of the adopted culture may well be perceived to be preferable to the native culture. Integration is accompanied by an enhanced sense of belonging.
- The fifth (and final) stage occurs following return to the native culture (hence “re-entry” or “reverse culture” shock). Things may not be the same as they were upon leaving, so a readjustment process must be gone through all over again.
It is important to recognize that not everyone will be affected to the same extent by culture shock. The state of an individual’s physical and mental health, their personality, language familiarity, level of education, and previous travel experience can make the necessary adjustment process easier or more difficult.
- Bonnie S. Guy and W. E. “Pat” Patton, “Managing the Effects of Culture Shock on Sojourner Adjustment on the Expatriate Industrial Sales Force,” Industrial Marketing Management (v.25/5, 1996);
- John R. Hanson, “Culture Shock and Direct Investment in Poor Countries,” Journal of Economic History (v.59/1, 1999);
- R. McComb and G. M. Foster, “Kalvero Oberg, 1901–1973,” American Anthropologist (1974);
- Jean McEnery and Gaston DesHarnais, “Culture Shock,” Training and Developmental Journal (v.44/4, 1990).
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