Mission Briefing: Ideas shaping world mission outreach today

How do I survive culture shock?

Cultural adjustment stages

People often think the feelings arising in encounters with strange foods or customs constitute "culture shock." In reality, those brief moments of discomfort are not what anthropologists mean by culture shock. Instead, anthropologists and psychologists use "culture shock" to label the confusion, doubt and nervousness common to people who have recently begun living cross-culturally and who are also experiencing one or more of the following:

Real culture shock is thus more deep-seated than the momentary discomfort felt when confronting strange things to eat or unfamiliar social norms. What anthropologists call culture shock grows out of a long period of coping with unfamiliar ways of doing, organizing, perceiving and valuing things. Indeed, because people experience culture shock symptoms over a period of time rather than in one isolated event, some anthropologists say "cycle of adjustment" rather than "culture shock."

Culture shock symptoms appear quite prominent in some people and less so in others. Nonetheless, the cycle of adjustment (or culture shock) honeymoon, frustration, adjustment, and acceptance is inevitable. Though culture shock is not a medical condition, the psychological disorientation, the withdrawal and excessive sleeping can be compared to organisms going into physical shock after a trauma.

Culture shock symptoms may come and go over a period of time. Describing her experiences in Senegal, missionary Linda Louw said, "I thought culture shock was something that you got through and it was done, but it just keeps coming."

The sense of unease and heightened irritability common to in the frustration stage can be triggered by small things. The adjustment stage usually does not kick in until a person has become familiar with and increasingly comfortable in a new culture.

Fortunately, the effects of culture shock can be somewhat mitigated. Here are half a dozen coping suggestions:

  1. Realize what is happening to you and why.
  2. Remind yourself that this happens to every expatriate to one degree or another and that people do regularly survive it.
  3. Refuse to succumb to the desire to withdraw from people. Choose instead to engage with those of your host culture.
  4. Get involved in a hobby that involves in some way the place where you serve.
  5. Be bold about reaching out to people in your host culture to build a support network of confidants including enlisting individuals to help in improving your language and cultural acquisition.
  6. Consciously ratchet up your level of curiosity about the wild life, geography, plant life, history, literature, foods, social norms, folk tales, children's stories, proverbs, legends and fables of the place where you serve.

    -- Howard Culbertson

This mini-essay on a key issue in world missions outreach is an article in the "Mission briefing" series published in Engage, a monthly online magazine.

Understanding culture stress

Survival skills for missionaries, foreign exchange students and others working to weather cultural shock as they bridge cultural differences

This animated diagram illustrates two paths people take during the four phases of long-term cross-cultural encounters. The term "culture shock" was coined by Kalvero Oberg in 1954. It's a good label for the psychological experience of adults during the time of cultural adjustment that accompanies a period of cultural socialization or acculturation (which is different from the enculturation process experienced by children). The cultural adjustment period usually includes some disorientation brought on by such things as being confused as to where the cultural boundaries are.

The confusion and anxiety brought on by culture stress or shock may cause us to think, do or say things that are contrary to God's purpose.

diagram showing how
cultural adjustment can happen

Diagram is used by permission from Duane Elmer's Cross-Cultural Connections (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002) and under the "fair use" provisions for educational purposes of copyright laws.

Symptoms of culture shock:

Stages most people go through in adjusting to a new culture

  1. Fun: The excitement and adventure of experiencing new people, things, and opportunities.
  2. Flight: Disorientation brings the urge to avoid everything and everyone that is different.
  3. Fight: Temptations to judge people and things that are different as bad or foolish.
  4. Fit: Creative interaction with the new culture that includes a willingness to understand and embrace.

"One of the best defenses [against severe culture shock] is knowledge. . . Know what you are likely to experience" — Diana N., Nazarene Bible College student

Coping strategy for culture shock: Survival techniques

How can we cope with the disorientation of adjusting to a new culture? Having information about culture shock is a first important step. Attempting to distance ourselves from an ethnocentric perspective will help. Then, to successfully cope, let's make sure our attitudes mirror those suggested in green and red in the top half of the diagram. As you work through cultural socialization, follow these tips on surviving situations where verbal and non-verbal cues and codes are unfamiliar to you:

Focus on what you can control.
When we suffer culture shock, we often feel out of control. So, don't spend energy on things you cannot change.
Don't invest major energy in minor problems.
Don't make "mountains out of molehills" more quickly in cross-cultural situations than you do in your own culture.
Tackle major stressors head on.
Don't avoid things.
Ask for help.
Create a support network as quickly as you can in your target culture. This can include expatriates like yourself as well as people of the local culture.
Write it down.
Record your thoughts and frustrations in a journal. This will give you a healthy outlet for expressing your feelings.

Knowing how to survive culture shock or stress can be useful to missionaries as well as to aiding foreign students who come to our country to study.

Help from the Bible

Can Holy Scripture help us with cross-cultural adjustment? Well, the book of Acts would be a good place to start. It has several examples of cultural adjustment or socialization. Paul, who grew up in modern-day Turkey and then was educated in Jerusalem, moved around the Mediterranean planting churches in different cultural contexts. To the Philippians he wrote: "I learned to be content whatever the circumstances." (Philippians 4:11). As Paul coped with various cultural issues, he was also dogged by Jewish Christians from Israel who tried to force Gentile converts to become Jewish (in which case Christianity would have been a mono-cultural movement).

Another relevant Biblical event is the story of Ruth. Here's a young woman who left her home country and culture and moved to Israel and wound up ultimately being in the list of Jesus' ancestors!

Other Bible stories to ponder include:

LinksReverse culture shock and how to copy with it at home - AbbeyRoad programs

Reverse culture shock is what people often experience when returning to their home culture after living in another for a period of time. That can be a long process. A 60-year old MK (Missionary Kid) wrote, "My parents took us to Brazil when I was seven. The work of adjusting back to the States seems never quite over."

How do you know you're making progress toward cross-cultural understanding?

arrow pointing
right  Moving from ethnocentric monoculturalism to joyfully embracing multi-culturalism is not done with one huge leap. It is a journey of small steps.

arrow pointing
right Personal experiences with culture shock in Italy

Ethnocentrism and monoculturalism    Iceberg and concentric circles culture models    My own culture shock

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