What is Culture Shock? How Do I Cope?

Our big beautiful planet is becoming smaller and more accessible.  And it provides lots of exciting opportunities for personal and professional growth.  Besides travel, more and more people spend extended time abroad on work, study, language-immersion, and volunteer-related activities.  Both short and extended stays in another culture come with certain challenges, including culture and reverse culture (re-entry) shock, which can afflict newbies and seasoned expats alike. 

Culture shock is defined as the emotional reaction to living, studying, or working in a new culture.  It is often described as feeling a lack of grounding after losing familiar signs and symbols of the daily life that we're used to.  There are the obvious adjustments - such as a different language, climate, and food.  But what makes culture shock often so tricky is an accumulation of several smaller losses, such as different accessibility of goods, services, and comforts, and new norms for social interactions.  All this can take an emotional toll.  Subtle cultural difference also should not be underestimated (eg, the US vs. Canada), because they can have a cumulative effect. 

People who experience culture shock often report the following:

  • Homesickness
  • Boredom
  • Withdrawing from other people
  • Sleep Disturbance
  • Frequent Crying and Sadness
  • Irritability, having a shorter fuse
  • Increased focus on ordering and cleaning one's immediate environment
  • Aches and pains, feeling sick 

For most people, culture shock resolves after a few days or weeks as the mind and body adapt to the new conditions.  For those struggling longer, or those who'd like to help themselves along in the adjustment process, here are some tried and true strategies:

  • Make new friends, share your thoughts and ideas with others. Meet locals and ask them about their culture. It’s normal to feel shy when meeting new people, but with practice you will be more relaxed. Remember that lasting friendships develop gradually, if you keep trying.
  • Read and learn about the new culture with an open mind.  Openness and learning are important skills that help people adapt to their environment.
  • Keep active and be curious about your new surroundings. Stake out museums, theaters, restaurants, and neighborhoods. 
  • Look for opportunities to participate in community activities. For example, join a sports team or volunteer group.  Joining others with similar interests helps with social adjustment around the globe, regardless of language or background.
  • Keep working on language skills (if applicable) 
  • Keep a sense of humor. A sense of humor is important because in another culture there are many things which lead one to weep, get angry, be annoyed, embarrassed, or discouraged. The ability to laugh off things will help guard against despair.  Everyone makes mistakes in a new situation, and it's part of adapting and learning.
  • The ability to respond to or tolerate the ambiguity of new situations is very important to intercultural success. Keeping options open and judgmental behavior to a minimum describes an adaptable or flexible person.
  • Keep your expectations realistic and positive.
  • Be patient with yourself and take care of yourself.
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Living and learning in a new culture which may have different beliefs and values can be difficult. During this process, it is important to be in contact with the new culture. Yet, it is also important to take your time in this process of learning and adapting.  There is some evidence that participation in more than one culture can actually lead to healthy adjustment. When we learn other ways to think and behave, we can develop adaptive strengths and flexibility, which can help in daily life.

If adapting to a new culture takes longer than expected, or if culture shock is interfering with your daily ability to work, study, and socialize, consider consulting with a licensed mental health professional.

Relationships: When Cultures Clash

Every person is a cultural being.  And therefore, we each bring our own story, family history, and cultural background into our relationships.  Unlike 20 or 30 years ago, in today's globalized world, we are more likely to interact, make friends, and fall in love with people from cultures other than our own.

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Whereas intercultural romantic relationships, like any romantic relationship, are based on mutual love, respect, openness, and sincerity, they also present with unique challenges that may only become apparent after the initial honeymoon period has passed.   Common challenges faced by intercultural couples are differences in family culture and expectations, religious and political differences, language barriers, and decisions around cultural practices, such as how to celebrate holidays and eating habits.  Down the road, these challenges may also play a role when the question of how to raise children may arise.

Other unique challenges and decisions faced by intercultural couples are:

o Response to stress & conflict

o Response to illness

o Sexual behavior

o Values

o Place of residence

o Friends and interpersonal relationships

o Finances

o Cultural and society’s acceptance of the relationship

o Parental/family approval

o Gender roles

o Cohesiveness of family

o Emotional expressiveness

Factors For Success

Facing all these challenges together as a couple takes much energy, patience, acceptance, and most importantly, the willingness to "go back to the drawing board" as often as necessary.  A first important step is to identify which cultural differences may cause stress and conflict in the relationship.  In this process, it's important not to make any assumptions about the other's standpoint.  Remember, differences are merely differences - they are neither good nor bad.  They are honest expressions of personal and cultural values.

As humans, we assume too quickly, and can accomplish much more if we are curious about each other.  Also, don't assume that understanding each other better necessarily means agreeing with each other.  Living with cultural differences takes constant work.

For additional relationship advice, see these blog entries:

Improving Relationships Through Vulnerability

Managing Expectations In Relationships

Are You In An Abusive Relationship?

I am a Houston psychologist who specializes in working with intercultural couples.  

Great Expectations and What's Love Got To Do With It




Romantic relationships are one of the most frequently discussed concerns in counseling.  Lots of people would agree that it is at least as hard to maintain a relationship as it is finding that special someone. 

What constitutes a healthy relationship?  Mutual respect, trust, and support are basic building blocks.  Honesty and safety, both physical and emotional, must be a given, not a privilege to be earned.  Open communication and willingness to negotiate keep relationships steady.  In addition, we all deserve to be respected by our partner as a unique individual, while acknowledging that we can make conscious choices to mutually make positive changes in our behaviors and attitudes towards our partner.

There are clear warning signs that a relationship is in trouble and that something fundamental needs to change.  Possessiveness and controlling behaviors, as well as threats or use of violence are obviously huge red flags.  Less easy to detect are unfair and unrealistic expectations that may slowly seep into a relationship once the initial romance wears off.  These expectations can be of your partner, yourself, or the relationship as a whole.  Some examples of common unrealistic expectations in relationships are:

  • Expecting that he/she will change.
  • Hoping that he/she will never change.
  • Assuming that your partner thinks and reacts as you do.
  • Assuming that your partner knows your wants and needs.
  • Expecting that he/she has the same priorities, goals, and interests as you.
  • Believing that the relationship will fulfill all of your social, intellectual, and personal needs.
  • Giving up other interests, activities, and friends.
  • Seeking improved self-esteem through the relationship.
  • Feeling incomplete without a relationship.
  • Expecting that each new relationship is "the one."
  • Expecting that he/she will never make mistakes.
  • Viewing conflict as a threat to the relationship and to be avoided at all costs.
  • Working hard to get the relationship started, but exerting little effort to keep it going.
  • Trying to be what he/she wants, rather than being yourself.
  • Not understanding that feelings of love and passion change with time, as do your priorities and expectations.

Most people recognize themselves somewhere in these expectations.  Individuals who succeed in relationships are able to recognize and work on unrealistic expectations of oneself and others.

Finally - what many forget is that within a relationship, you also have to be accountable to yourself.  This means that being part of a healthy relationship is taking care of yourself.  This can be deduced from several of the above bullet points.  By being yourself – from the beginning, keeping your own life balanced, and not losing yourself in the relationship, you plant seeds of stability and health within a healthy partnership. 

If you are struggling with finding or maintaining a healthy relationship, talking to a psychologist or other licensed mental health professional can help. I am a Houston psychologist and I work with both couples and individuals.  Call me for a free consultation at 713-364-8328 or visit DrGortner.com for more information on my services.