The four phases of culture shock

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Kalervo Oberg was a world-renowned anthropologist and coined the term “culture shock”.

Moving abroad is among the most thrilling experiences known to man. Everything is new, and challenging: you must communicate in foreign language, every conversation enriches you and each new person you meet adds something your experience.

If you felt like you were not living up to your expectations back at home, moving abroad is your time to blossom.

There is of course a dark side to moving abroad and expat life can get you down at times. Cultural displacement, although a common feature of modern society as more people move abroad, is still pretty hard to get used to. With it comes questions of national identity and triggers a loss of sense of belonging.

All expats experience these symptoms, more commonly known as “culture shock”; you might be surprised to discover that the first people to give the syndrome a name were the most open-minded, well-travelled people, to wit: anthropologists.

According to Kalervo Oberg, the anthropologist who first identified this phenomenon, there are four stages of “culture shock”.

The four phases

  1. The first phase is called the “honeymoon” phase. According to Kalervo Oberg, the individual is naturally polite to everyone, both compatriots and foreigners, during this phase. The individual is likely to be bewildered when confronted by all things that that differ to what he has left behind. You realise that the cultural and societal flag posts were metaphorically holding you up, and you feel as though you have been winded by the impact of the new, foreign society. When you expatriate, you basically take off, and you fly on the wings of your enthusiasm.
  2. The second phase is called the “crisis” phase. In this phase, a person in the grasps of culture shock becomes tangled up and knotted within the new culture that surrounds him/her. According to Oberg, it is not uncommon for such an individual to start paying extreme attention to cleanliness (even denigrating the hygiene standards of the new country), and become excessively worried about being cheated. In the worst cases, this phase can prelude a fully-fledged nervous breakdown. If one overcomes it, the individual has overcome the worst phases and has the light at the end of the tunnel to lead the way thereafter.
  3. During the third phase, known as the “recovery,” phase, your sense of humour makes an appearance. A conceived sense of superiority towards the locals is the looking glass through which you see your hosts, but now you can also empathise, easing the judgement and endearing you to your new culture.
  4. The final phase is known as the “adjustment” phase; now you can relate to other people in a normal manner, mainly because you will have learned how to decipher the cues of social intercourse.

Can you avoid culture shock?

Oberg doesn’t provide a clean-cut answer: individuals are born into  pre-defined cultures, which in part, defines the individual. At each stage of development, however, individuals struggle to adjust, even to their own culture.

Here are my two tips, which I believe can take the edge of culture shock:

  1. Get the hang of the language – you’ll feel infinitely more integrated into society and the culture if you do so. Language is the key to communication, and with communication, bonds between people are fortified.
  2. Talk to people – people living abroad, Oberg observes, are led to ‘lean heavily on their compatriots”. It is natural to migrate towards those in the same situation as you, expats always manage to find each other, and although there is no shame in this, it’s always great if you can say that you have managed to make “local” friends. It all helps in the integration process.

I’ll leave you with a parting thought, if you can think of a time when your culture and your nation’s way of thinking has ever frustrated you, perhaps you were born to be an expat; after all, cultural displacement does sound pretty cool.

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