Newcomer’s Culture Shock


The Problem Of Adjusting To  A New Cultural Environment


By Grace Murillo of Management Technology

Culture Shock is the label often applied to the feeling of alienation we experience when living in a new culture and it can be manifested in many ways. It relates to the discomfort we feel when our environment, cultural context, and physical surroundings are unfamiliar

Culture shock is brought on by the anxiety that results from losing all your familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse and can create feelings ranging from excitement to hysteria. These signs or cues include thousands ways in which you orient yourself to the situations of daily life:  when to shake hands and what to say when we meet people, when and how to ask for or give tips, how to ask for help, how to make purchases, when to accept and when to refuse invitations, when to take statements seriously and when not, etc.


All these cues, which may be words, gestures, facial expressions, customs, or norms, are acquired by all of us in the course of growing up and are as much a part of our culture as the language we speak or the beliefs we accept. Our peace of mind and our efficiency are based on hundreds of these cues, most of which we are not consciously aware.


When you enter a strange culture, all or most of these familiar cues are removed, and you feel like a fish out of water, no matter how broadminded or full of good will you may be, you become insecure and afraid. This is followed by a feeling of frustration and anxiety.

People react to the frustration in much the same way. First, they reject the environment which causes the discomfort, ‘The ways of the new country are bad because they make us feel bad.’ Don’t panic, this is a normal stage of the process, you will show your discomfort in different ways and your reactions will be noticeable at different points of the familiarization process.


The second phase of culture shock is regression. The home environment that you come from suddenly assumes a tremendous importance. To a Latin American everything Latin American becomes irrationally glorified for example. All the difficulties and problems you suffered in the past are forgotten for a while and only the good things “back home” are remembered. It usually takes a trip “back home” to bring one back to reality.


Individuals may differ greatly in the degree in which culture shock affects them. Although it is not common, there are individuals who cannot get used to live in a foreign country. Those who have seen people go through a serious case of culture shock and on to a satisfactory adjustment can discern steps in the process.


During the first few weeks or even the first few months, most individuals are fascinated by the new. This honeymoon stage may last from a few days or weeks to six months depending on circumstances.


However, this excitement does not normally last if you have to cope with real conditions of life. It is then that the third stage begins, characterized by a hostile and aggressive attitude toward the new country. The hostility evidently grows out of the genuine difficulty which you experiences in the process of adjustment. There is mail trouble, school trouble, language trouble, house trouble, transportation trouble, shopping trouble, and the fact that people in the new country are largely indifferent to all these troubles.

They help, but they just don't understand your great concern over these difficulties. Therefore, they must be insensible and unsympathetic to you and your worries; the result, you become aggressive, you band together with your fellow countrymen and criticize the new country, its ways and its people , ‘you just don't like them.’ 


Instead of making an honest analysis of the actual conditions and the historical circumstances which have created them, you may talk as if your experiences are more or less created by the people of your new country. You take refuge in the neighborhood or community groups of your countrymen and only get involved in activities within this particular group, which often becomes the fountainhead of emotionally charged labels known as stereotypes.


The use of stereotypes may salve the ego of someone with a severe case of culture shock, but certainly does not lead to any genuine understanding of the new country and its people. This third stage of culture shock is in a sense a crisis.


As you succeed in getting some knowledge of the language and begin to get around by yourself, the beginning of your adjustment to the new cultural environment is taking place.


You may still have difficulties but you take a ‘this is my cross and I have to bear it’ attitude. Usually in this stage, you will begin to become interested in the people of your host country. Your sense of humor begins to assert itself. Instead of criticizing, you begin to joke about your own difficulties.  Congratulations !!!  You are on your way to recovery and you would be surprised to learn that there is always someone else who is worse off than yourself, whom you can help which in turn would give you confidence in your ability to speak and get around.


In the final stage of adjustment, you will understand and accept the customs of your new

country as just another way of living. You can operate within the new environment  without a feeling of anxiety, although there are moments of strain. Only with a complete grasp of all the cues of social intercourse will this strain disappear.


When you have completely adjusted to your new cultural environment, you will not only accept the foods, drinks, habits and customs, but actually begin to enjoy them.


Cross Cultural Communication


Cross-cultural communication is simply a strategy for operating successfully in a culture different from one’s own. The people who operate most effectively and comfortably in the new cultural environment, recognize four areas in which they can communicate their respect for the new culture and their interest in working within it. The four areas are: spoken language, body language, dress, and customs.


Spoken language is a window on a culture. While learning a few useful words and phrases is the best way to get started, the rules of the game require us to go beyond, apply ourselves and learn the language.


Body language is probably the most difficult aspect of a new culture to learn because it is the least conscious. It includes all those subtle forms of communication, such as gesture, eye contact, degree of personal space, placement of the body, and degree of pressure while shaking hands. Gestures which convey warmth and friendliness in one country can convey something quite different elsewhere. If our words are polite and friendly but our gestures are aggressive, the divergence will make other people uneasy. Close observation can help here, but a guide is invaluable, not least because of our own unconscious assumptions.


Dress, on the other hand, is cross-cultural communication made easy. A few failing grades are almost inevitable, but mastery comes quickly. The wise newcomer will seek help or advise early in the adjustment process.


Customs are everything else. Some people can easily transition in this area of communication, while others are paralyzed by the fear of doing something wrong. As with dress and body language, however, a combination of good observation skills and the use of a good guide (a book or a person, or both for best results) will help enormously. In this area of cross-cultural communication foreign cultures are easy; it’s the ones that are “just like home” where you really have to watch your step.


At last a day arrives when we realize that it is possible to go about knowing what to expect, how to behave, and who we are again in this new place. By this time (which occurs at different times for different people) we have made decisions about how much of the new cultural experience we are willing to embrace, how much of our old behavior is optional or irrelevant in the new setting, and how much of the still unfamiliar we wish to explore. There is a great sense of relief and accomplishment and we finally feel safe at home!