The Four Stages of Culture Shock

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Mary Ann Santoro Bellini, Ph.D.

When a student or other individual relocates to a foreign country, he or she inevitably faces a host of emotions and reactions ranging from awe to rejection, isolation to assimilation. These emotions comprise the four stages of culture shock.

Honeymoon Period
While preparing to relocate and during the first days or weeks in the new country, a person will experience a Honeymoon Period during which he or she will feel extreme joy and enthusiasm. Responding to the new environment with fascination, an individual will enjoy the differences in fashion, food, social customs, etc. This period is exhilarating, full of observation and discoveries, lasting a few days to a few weeks. Like most honeymoons, however, this stage eventually ends. “When an individual sets out to study, live or work in a new country, he or she will invariably experience difficulties with language, housing, friends, schoolwork…”

The next phase of Culture Shock Syndrome is referred to as the period of Rejection. This stage is marked by criticism, resentment, and anger. When an individual sets out to study, live or work in a new country, he or she will invariably experience difficulties with language, housing, friends, schoolwork, and understanding the idiosyncrasies of the local culture, often resulting in frustration. The Rejection period can be triggered by the realization that, as an outsider in a new culture, language or misunderstandings of cultural cues can often make the simplest task seem like a daunting challenge. Furthermore, because the high expectations set during the Honeymoon Period appear much farther out of reach, the individual feels disillusioned.

Regression & Isolation
The extreme letdown experienced during the Rejection Period prompts the individual to become critical of his new environment–of the people, their culture, and of all the perceived differences with the culture at home. This letdown often propels an individual into the stage of Regression & Isolation. In this stage, the culture from which the individual has come is idealized. For example, an Italian student studying in the U.S. for a semester may indiscriminately view his Italian university, past experiences or friendships as superior, regardless of any problems inherent to those relationships. The student risks further isolation from the new environment. Symptoms exhibited during this period include anxiety, sadness, homesickness, and anger. These feelings manifest themselves in changes in behavior: inappropriate anger over slight delays and minor frustrations, changes in sleep patterns, compulsive eating and/or drinking, irritability, poor concentration, and unexplainable crying. The stage of Rejection and Regression is variable in length but can last up to 6-8 weeks.

Adjustment & Adaptation
Gradually the crisis of regression and isolation is resolved allowing the individual to begin recovery in the Adjustment & Adaptation stages. To resolve these feelings, the individual has to employ particular skills and resources essential for adjustment, as described in Coping with Culture Shock.

For more information see:

Coping with Culture Shock
Psychological Effects of International Study
The Opportunities & Challenges of International Study

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