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Culture Shock in Sociology: Definition and Examples

Kimberly Price, Yolanda Williams
  • Author
    Kimberly Price

    Kimberly Price has taught English & EAL for over 11 years. She has an MA in Applied Linguistics from UMASS Boston and a BA in English from Boise State University. She is a certified K-12 instructor.

  • Instructor
    Yolanda Williams

    Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

This article defines culture shock, its five stages, and gives examples and advice for dealing with culture shock. Updated: 01/29/2022

What Is Culture Shock?

Culture shock is defined as feelings of discomfort occurring when immersed in a new culture. This trauma materializes during the transition between one's home environment and a new, foreign culture. Instead of being a linear process, culture shock is experienced in stages. These stages take the individual through a series of highs and lows before reaching acceptance of the foreign culture.

Familiarizing oneself with a new culture is not the only cause of culture shock. It includes any feelings or effects sustained throughout periods of transition or adjustment. Lacking proper knowledge and experience about the stages of culture shock can affect one's ability to cope with immersive cultural differences. Additionally, language barriers and the rate of exposure to new information can compound the challenges associated with culture shock.


Culture shock occurs when transitioning from one culture to another

A map with flags of the world


What Causes Culture Shock?

There are multiple causes of culture shock, including differences in the way various cultures communicate, perform tasks, and solve problems. Differences in cultural values, as well as the amount of information an individual confronts in a new culture, can be overwhelming. Language barriers can lead to breakdowns in communication while generational gaps and homesickness may exacerbate feelings of distress. Individuals may experience culture shock to varying degrees based on personality, mental health, language ability, prior exposure to foreign cultures, and openness to new things.

What Is Culture Shock?

Imagine that you are an American college student going to study abroad in Australia for the summer. You are excited to take your first trip overseas and cannot wait to go. You figure that since it is an English-speaking country, it won't be that different from America.

Once you step off the plane, reality sets in. You realize that although it was summer when you left home, it is winter in Australia. You have trouble following the language and find it hard to fit in. You feel alone and lonely, especially on the 4th of July when you would normally have a huge party with family and light fireworks. You cannot connect with any of the locals and feel like no one understands what you are going through. You cry at night and wish you were at home. What you are feeling is culture shock.

Culture shock is the term we use to describe the feelings of confusion and uncertainty that are experienced when you come into contact with a culture that is vastly different from your own. Culture shock can be commonly seen in foreign students, immigrants and refugees. Even students who stay in their home countries suffer from culture shock as they make the transition into the foreign environment known as college.

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Culture Shock in Sociology

Culture shock happens in five stages. The length of each stage depends on a number of factors, such as:

  • How different or similar the cultures are
  • Prior experience living in a new culture or interacting with people of different cultural backgrounds
  • Linguistic abilities & knowledge
  • Support systems at home and in the new culture
  • Personal levels of adaptability & attitude towards challenges

Although the cycle of culture shock differs in length for every individual, it's experienced by many. Students, refugees, immigrants, and anyone residing in a new cultural atmosphere encounter culture shock.

1. Honeymoon Phase

The honeymoon phase of culture shock covers a period of enamored admiration for the new culture. For example, consider an English college student taking a gap year in Japan. After reading Japanese books and studying the language, the student arrives in Japan full of enthusiasm and excitement. Trying new food, meeting foreign people, and interacting with an interesting culture sparks eagerness and delight. After only a week in the country, the student is convinced they could happily live forever in Japan. This individual is in the honeymoon phase. While marked by feelings of elation, this stage displays a lack of awareness towards deeper aspects of culture and country.

2. Distress

As more time passes, an individual immersed in a foreign culture may begin noticing cracks in the idealistic vision of their new life. Whether or not they are consciously feeling homesickness, culture shock is felt and experienced more profoundly during stage two: distress . This stage comes from realizing new problems in the host country or culture. It could stem from communication issues, various situations highlighting cultural differences, or the new culture failing to meet prior expectations. Just as the honeymoon phase brought strong positive emotions, the distress stage catalyzes negative emotions. Some individuals may experience distress psychologically, while others may experience physical and emotional discomfort. Feelings of anger, helplessness, and a sense of loss may occur.

3. Reintegration

Reintegration occurs when a person begins adapting to the changes he or she has experienced. The feelings will still be marked by difficulties experienced from cultural differences or a lack of understanding. However, they're accompanied by greater independence in coping with daily life. During this time, a person may blame the host country for the difficult experiences or make comparisons between the home culture and the new cultures. This stage is important as it shows a growing adaptation to the host culture while still noting the presence of cognitive dissonance.

4. Autonomy

Autonomy comes when one adopts a more balanced view of the new culture. They may realize that while the new culture is different, it is not necessarily better or worse than their own native culture. By developing routines, life begins to normalize, though at times cultural differences may still be acutely felt. The new culture will begin contributing to an individual's identity in the autonomy stage.

5. Independence

Stages of Culture Shock

There are five stages of culture shock. Each stage has its own unique characteristics. The length of each stage varies depending on the individual. You may find that it is easier and quicker to move through some stages than others. There are several factors that can affect how fast you move through the stages, including:

  • Mental health
  • Personality type
  • Previous experiences with other cultures
  • How familiar you are with the language
  • Support systems you have in place
  • Education level

Stage 1: Honeymoon Phase

Try to recall the last time you experienced something new. Maybe it was a new restaurant or a new clothing store. You probably experienced a rush of euphoria and excitement at the prospect of getting to try something different. This is the same type of high that people get when they first experience a new culture. The honeymoon phase, also known as the incubation stage, is characterized by feelings of excitement and fascination about your new culture. You have a romanticized view about the new culture, but it doesn't last for long.

Stage 2: Distress

Once you come down from the honeymoon phase, the differences between your home culture and the new culture become apparent. As you make the transition between the old ways of doing things and the ways of the new culture, you may experience some crisis or difficulty in your daily life. For example, you may find that there is limited public transportation and have trouble getting where you need to go, or you have difficulty adjusting to driving on the left side of the car and road. You experience feelings of anger, sadness, frustration and dissatisfaction during this stage. This stage is also referred to as the negotiation phase.

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Video Transcript

What Is Culture Shock?

Imagine that you are an American college student going to study abroad in Australia for the summer. You are excited to take your first trip overseas and cannot wait to go. You figure that since it is an English-speaking country, it won't be that different from America.

Once you step off the plane, reality sets in. You realize that although it was summer when you left home, it is winter in Australia. You have trouble following the language and find it hard to fit in. You feel alone and lonely, especially on the 4th of July when you would normally have a huge party with family and light fireworks. You cannot connect with any of the locals and feel like no one understands what you are going through. You cry at night and wish you were at home. What you are feeling is culture shock.

Culture shock is the term we use to describe the feelings of confusion and uncertainty that are experienced when you come into contact with a culture that is vastly different from your own. Culture shock can be commonly seen in foreign students, immigrants and refugees. Even students who stay in their home countries suffer from culture shock as they make the transition into the foreign environment known as college.

Stages of Culture Shock

There are five stages of culture shock. Each stage has its own unique characteristics. The length of each stage varies depending on the individual. You may find that it is easier and quicker to move through some stages than others. There are several factors that can affect how fast you move through the stages, including:

  • Mental health
  • Personality type
  • Previous experiences with other cultures
  • How familiar you are with the language
  • Support systems you have in place
  • Education level

Stage 1: Honeymoon Phase

Try to recall the last time you experienced something new. Maybe it was a new restaurant or a new clothing store. You probably experienced a rush of euphoria and excitement at the prospect of getting to try something different. This is the same type of high that people get when they first experience a new culture. The honeymoon phase, also known as the incubation stage, is characterized by feelings of excitement and fascination about your new culture. You have a romanticized view about the new culture, but it doesn't last for long.

Stage 2: Distress

Once you come down from the honeymoon phase, the differences between your home culture and the new culture become apparent. As you make the transition between the old ways of doing things and the ways of the new culture, you may experience some crisis or difficulty in your daily life. For example, you may find that there is limited public transportation and have trouble getting where you need to go, or you have difficulty adjusting to driving on the left side of the car and road. You experience feelings of anger, sadness, frustration and dissatisfaction during this stage. This stage is also referred to as the negotiation phase.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are the 5 stages of culture shock?

The five stages of culture shock are: the honeymoon stage, the distress stage, the reintegration stage, the autonomy stage, and the independence stage.

What is culture shock examples?

Some examples of culture shock include feeling surprised by differences in language, culture, climate, food, as well as the differences in systems that are in place in different countries and cultures.

What is the definition of culture shock in sociology?

Culture shock refers to the feelings of discomfort that occur when immersed in a culture which is different from one's own.

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