Culture Shock

Last Updated: 20 Apr 2022
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I will also discuss some theories and in the end I will give a short story from my own experience.

Definition of culture shock

The definition of culture shock refers generally to the unpleasant experience that people get when they are coming in contact with other cultures than their own. Their experience of a new culture is seen as unpleasant surprise/shock that occurs when expectations do not match reality. Working in a new culture can lead a variety of reactions for an example: * Confusion about what to do * Anxiety * Frustration * Inappropriate behavior Depression All of these are possible reactions to culture shock, which is the shock that we experience when we are confronted with the unknown. Researches show that culture shock can be both short and sharp or long term and deep, and what appears to be the identifier is the degree of difference from one? s own and the host culture, the degree of preparation, social support networks and individual psychological characteristics. The longer time that the individual experiences the culture shock, the greater is the feeling of helplessness and performance deficit.

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There are several symptoms of cultural shock, but the most common are:

  • Feeling isolated
  • Anxiety and worries
  • Reduction in the job performance
  • High energy
  • Helplessness

The inclusion of high energy is caused by changing the circumstances in the adaption process The longer that the manager experienced the culture shock the greater where the feelings of helplessness and performance deficit. Hofstede differentiate three different states of adaptation comparing feelings and emotions of the residence to the situation in the home culture before the assignment.

It may remain negative compared to home, for example, if the visitor continues feeling an monster and discriminated against. It may be just as good as before, in which the visitor can be considered to be adapt bicultural or it may be better. In the last case the visitor has “gone native” it has become more Roman than the Romans.

Culture shock life cycle

Kalervo Oberg (1901-1973) was an anthropologist, who explained the symptoms and process of adapting a different culture. Oberg listed six main aspects of culture shock:

  • Strain caused by the effort to adapt Sense of loss and feelings of deprivation in relation to friends, status, profession and possessions
  • Feeling rejected by or rejecting members of the new culture
  • Confusion in role, values and self-identity
  • Anxiety and anger about foreign practices
  • Feeling of helplessness

The term cultural shock was first presented by Oberg in 1954, where he outlined the consequences of strain and anxiety resulting from contact with a new culture and the feelings of loss of accustomed cultural cues and social rules. That model puts you through a life cycle of four distinct phases on the way to the final adaption.

Culture shock is the second phase in the process, this is when the manager realizes that everything is not as it should be. The experience of foreigners can start uncomfortable feelings such as stress, irritability or negative view of the country, colleagues or the job. This phase is often characterized as uncomfortable situations, but the main reason for these symptoms is the uncertainty about surroundings, us and the future. “The usual signs of orientation and the belonging do not exist, we don’t quite know who we are without the familiar social context, and the way our foreign colleagues behave seems “all wrong”.

How mangers deal with this phase, the emotions and expectations is essential for their adaption on the long run. The best way to come at is to use the symptoms and the unpleasantness as an indicator to change our approximation and form our self-development to understand us and deal with our emotions and sometimes other people. Recovery is the third phase in our first figure and that starts with accepting that we have a problem that needs to be worked on. Recovery and the final adjustment phase generally involve a compromise between feelings and thinking of the honeymoon phase and the culture shock phase. This compromise is between our exaggerate expectations and reality”.

The final phase, Final adjustment, managers have become able to work effectively after knowing their limitations of their skills. They can take on a new ways of doing things and what most that matters is being flexible.

The thing is that international assignments tend to be more short term than long term and more executives working on the projects so we cannot use the same model, although the concept is the same. The thing is that short term international work does not allow for the same long term adaption process and therefore distinct honeymoon, culture shock and readjustment phases will not occur.

Marx found it to be more realistic to use a model that is not strictly linear but integrates a dynamic and repetitive cycle of positive and negative phases until you break through Culture Shock. “Instead there will be more of a mixture of positive and negative emotions, of uncertainty and clarity, of enjoyment and frustration”.

Second phase is confronting the unknown and negative aspects like confusion, anxiety and frustration. We will at some point recover from the moodiness and anxiety of the culture shock and in the final phase we head for a readjustment. Culture shock triangle Elisabeth Marx developed a model from Oberg’s idea to describe culture shock. According to Marx international managers experience culture shock psychically at three levels. She uses the “culture shock triangle” to describe these 3 levels which are:

  • Emotions – coping with mood swings Thinking – understanding foreign colleagues
  • Social skills and identity – developing a social and professional network and effective social skills.

Questions those international mangers are supposed to ask feature:

  • Emotions – what am I likely to feel? How will I handle the stress of international work?
  • Thinking – what will I think? Have effective are my solutions?
  • Social skills and identity – how effectively will I communicate with foreign analogue? Managers that have adapted these levels lead to following: Handle stress of the transition.
  • Changing the perception and translation of events and behavior.
  • Developing effective social skills and an international identity.

These aspects combine to form the culture shock triangle, accomplish the international effectiveness on culture shock. These three factors can influence each other in some way for example feeling frustrated can have negative effect on how we think and how we act. Another example is if we feel pessimistic and stressed out our solutions to the problems can be ineffective.

Out of this can we clearly see that those factors do remain together, so positive mood and optimism produce better solutions. Social identity and skills are very important when we are going to work abroad. We need to know who we are and be confident and secure with ourselves so we can start to work in and with another culture. When we interact closely with the foreign culture we experience the conflicts between our own values and those of the foreign culture. When we get more concerned we develop alternative ways of behaving and that makes us able to view of ourselves from a different perspective.

As we can see this is all part of self development that people passes through during international challenges. Marx insists on the fact that the culture shock phase is an integral part of the adaption phase and should have no negative connotations. These are normal reactions of people who confront the foreign but give no indication of future success. The success depends on the strategies and motives of the company as it wishes to co-operate with, or take over another.

My personal experience

I have experienced a culture shock but just a minor shock. When I was visiting my aunt in Stockholm we took the tube down town to Gamla stan. Like everybody knows there are many people in the city so it is kind of crowded and most people are on a hurry but I was on the other hand is in a vacation so there were no rush. When me and my aunt were going down the escalator I just stood in the middle like I always do in Kringlan and were nosy about my new surroundings. Suddenly I hear a man hawking himself behind me… and I , what the hell is his problem!

Then my aunt turns around and tells me to stand in the right in the escalator because people who are on a hurry should be able to run down on the left side in the escalator. This is a unwritten rule that people in Stockholm keep up with and I had no idea about that! 6. 0 Ten steps to minimize culture shock The book Breaking through culture shock by Elisabeth Marx gives examples of 10 steps to minimize culture shock. 1) “Do not let culture shock take you by surprise. Allow time to find out about it before you leave for your assignment.

Learn to recognize the symptoms and the potential impact.

  1.  “Expect culture shock to happen irrespective of location. It is as likely to occur in a country near to your home base as in posting further afield”: (Elisabeth Marx, 1999).
  2. “As soon as you arrive in your new location, identify all the opportunities for building support networks with other international managers and with local people”: (Elisabeth Marx, 1999).
  3. “As with any stressful situation, fight it, do not give in to it.

    So do not resort to escapist strategies such as drinking or eating too much and do not deny your symptoms”: (Elisabeth Marx, 1999).

  4. “Ask other international managers for guidance on the issue and problems too look out for. Learn from their experience”: (Elisabeth Marx, 1999).
  5. “Give yourself time to adapt and do not rush into too many work related projects at the start of the assignment. Make sure that the organization gives you this time too”: (Elisabeth Marx, 1999).
  6. “Do not hesitate to seek a professional help if symptoms persist despite your coping efforts.

    Help may be available within your company or externally through counselors or the medical profession”: (Elisabeth Marx, 1999)

  7. “Expect the same symptoms to reoccur when you come home. Reverse culture shock is normal”: (Elisabeth Marx, 1999).
  8. “Thinking about the positive aspect of culture shock – people who experience it adapt better to their new environment than those who do not”: (Elisabeth Marx, 1999)
  9. “Retain sense of humor! ” : (Elisabeth Marx, 1999). 7. 0 Conclusion After all the reading for this project I should be able to define and handle myself if I go abroad.

I did not imagine that culture shock can be that effective on people and their lives, just because of moving! The by word that we could obtain here is “better safe than sorry”.


  1. Elisabeth Marx. (1999). Breaking through culture shock. London: Nicholas Brealey publishing. Hofstede, Geert H. (2001). Culture? s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations. Thousand Oaks. Marie-Joelle Browaeys and Roger Price. (2008). Understanding cross-cultural management. Edinburgh: Prentice Hall.

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Culture Shock. (2018, Sep 11). Retrieved from

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