What Is Culture Shock ?

Hand writing Culture Shock with marker, crosscultural concept

With globalization people are more mobile. However, moving to another country, being confronted with different behaviors, and sometimes living in another language are not simple to manage, far from it. Studying or working in a foreign culture where expectations and methods do not necessarily correspond with what we are used to requires a period of adaptation. This accommodation period has been widely documented and is known as culture shock.

From Honeymoon to Routine

For over twenty years, most American universities have offered orientation sessions to their students, both foreign and American, to prepare them for these very distinct cultural experiences. Students learn the different phases through which they will pass in order to adapt to their new situation.

First, there is the honeymoon period, where we tend to idealize our new environment. We feel that everything is new, everything is surprising, everything seems exciting: we are euphoric. If I take the example of American students with whom I work a lot, when they first arrive they see postcard Paris, with the Eiffel Tower and the Tuileries gardens. It’s the dream-like place depicted in movies.

Next, comes the routine. Differences are everywhere, and, in the long term, this gets tiring. Nothing can be taken for granted, and everything has to be learned anew. For example, where do we find eggs or milk in the supermarket? In American markets and in many Anglophone countries they are kept in the refrigerated section. In France, however, they are not refrigerated, which confuses a lot of American students I teach during their first weeks of living in France. It leads to many questions: why aren’t these products refrigerated? Are they safe to consume ? Etc.

Strictly speaking, this is a form of culture shock! Idealizing local culture gives way to re-evaluating our expectations of a country, its culture, and of our experience abroad. We experience a period of doubt and questioning that can be uncomfortable. This phase of cultural adaptation can lead to frustration, shocking misunderstandings, and sometimes to rejecting the host culture. Becoming aware of the amount of work needed to adapt to a new culture is no simple task!

Adjustment to Culture Shock 

Over time, we find our bearings by getting in sync with our new environment: this is the acceptance phase. Our experiences, sometimes painful, observing various repeated behaviors, and also imitating them, play an important role in this phase. Numerous American students have learned … that, in France, they have to food shop on Saturday or Sunday morning at the latest, if they want to have something to eat on Sunday night. Or, if they have just one hour before class, they don’t go to a restaurant but instead buy a take-away sandwich. In France, if you want the server to bring you the check, you have to ask for it, otherwise you will wait a very long time!

Enjoy your new culture

Finally, we reach the adaptation phase! Not only do we know how things work in the new culture but we now enjoy behaving differently, and take pleasure in experiencing ourselves and the world in a new way. The behaviors that seemed counterintuitive to us, that bothered us and which often led to judging the new culture, are no longer perceived from the point of view of our own culture, but rather from the perspective of the host culture.

At the beginning of their stay abroad, my American students have a rather bad impression of customer service in Paris, particularly in restaurants. The service isn’t fast enough, servers don’t pay enough attention to their clients, and students find it incomprehensible that restaurants are not as flexible about making menu adjustments as their American counterparts. In short, from an American perspective, French customer service seems completely pathetic. 

However, after a few months, many of these same students appreciate spending two hours enjoying a meal with friends, and a moment of extended conversation. In the long run, they enjoy taking time to savor the dishes they are served in an unhurried manner, and taking the time to… enjoy the time!

Experiencing culture shock can be intense but also extremely enriching. Learning not to judge a cultural behavior but rather to understand the logic in a larger context is the key to great freedom!