Culture shock

If you go to a foreign country, it is likely that you will hear other people speaking a foreign language. Language is a hugely important part of culture and a shared language is vital to smooth intercultural communication. Study hard now and it will help you later.

Communication is the exchange of information. How do we communicate with people from different cultures who often do not speak our language? Photo. By David Fulmer from Pittsburgh (Natural American Sign Language) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Students of English must be dedicated to improving their skills; English is the closest thing we have to a global language and it is a useful tool in achieving better intercultural communication. Good English skills are likely to help you over most of the problems you face while adapting to life in a new culture. However, intercultural communication involves more than just language skills; people often find themselves with no common language. You might even end up in a country where most people don’t speak English. In any case, dealing with people from different cultures can be a real challenge, no matter how well you can communicate with the locals. What are the problems people face while living in a new culture and trying to communicate? Many people who have moved overseas report on feelings of shock while coming to terms with living in the new culture.

Foreign cultures seem exotic at first. However, our attitude to a foreign culture can change very quickly. Photo. By Unknown artist ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The honeymoon period

One big problem with intercultural communication is the fact that our attitude to a new culture can change in very big ways — and it can change extremely rapidly. This can lead to great stress. For most people, everything seems new and exotic at first. This sense of novelty can feel wonderful for a while. In fact, this period when we first live in a new culture is referred to as the honeymoon phase of culture shock. For native speakers of English living in Japan, for example, it can feel wonderful to meet so many polite people who can speak their language. I remember feeling an amazing sense of freedom and excitement when I first moved to Japan. It is also fun for locals to deal with these people who are so impressed with everything. Unfortunately, this period does not usually last very long.

In the honeymoon period of culture shock, everything seems wonderfully new and exotic. Unfortunately, this period usually only lasts a few weeks. Photo. William Holman Hunt [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, you cannot keep this up forever and there are all kinds of things (customs, food, attitudes) that can seem simply too different and just too difficult to adapt to. The next phase of culture shock is characterized by feelings of anxiety as the novelty of living in a new culture begins to wear off and a sense of reality sets in. For example, native speakers of English in Japan know that they need to develop their Japanese language skills but the locals (understandably) only seem interested in practicing their English. It may be difficult to keep an open mind about the locals and it can be easy to become negative about your new home.

Reality bites. Very often, people develop a negative view of the local people in their new environment. This may help people deal with the feelings of shock they are expreriencing. Photo. By Morio (photo taken by Morio) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

This can be particularly painful in big cities. I remember feeling really shocked on one occasion when I was looking for a travel agent in Harajuku, Tokyo. A young woman approached me and offered to help me find my way. Unfortunately, she didn’t understand the English for travel agent and when I spoke a little Japanese in order to explain (I had studied a little that morning before setting off), she actually turned around and walked away! That seems completely understandable to me now but, at the time, I was horrified. Very often, people living in a new culture experience painful feelings of frustration and exasperation.

Just like Gulliver on his travels, a person living in a new culture can feel helpless and frustrated. Photo. James Gillray [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Fortunately, people usually start to make sense of things and usually become accustomed to their new surroundings within a year or so. People eventually accept the reality of the new culture and develop a more positive attitude. Eventually, over time, some people adapt completely to the new culture and lose their old identity. Some people adapt to those parts of the new culture that they think are positive but keep significant parts of their old culture. However, some people never really adapt to their new circumstances, never really try to learn the culture or language of the locals, and surround themselves with foreigners and foreign things.

Some people adapt completely to their new culture, some people adapt partially, and some people never really adapt at all. Photo. By Grandville.Chalupa at cs.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
However, the biggest shock in all this may occur when you actually go home!

Rudyard Kipling’s poem, Mandalay, is about a British soldier who experiences a strong sense of nostalgia after returning from southeast Asia. Life in Britain seems boring and meaningless. This may be a good example of reverse culture shock. Photo.
Reverse culture shock

Perhaps most shocking of all of these shocks is the one you get when you return home and find that you have changed more than you expected; life at home now becomes more difficult.  For many people, their home country can seem incredibly dull and pointless, the people drab and lifeless. You can either wait for these feelings to go away or you can leave home again. For example, in Rudyard Kipling’s poem, Mandalay, a British soldier longs to return to Burma, where he was stationed at the end of the nineteenth century. Even so, it is clear from the poem that the soldier cannot fully adapt to life in a Buddhist country. Still, this seems a pretty good example of reverse culture shock.

I remember returning home after spending a year in Sudan. I went into a supermarket and saw the incredible variety of goods. I remember looking at all the chocolate bars and suddenly feeling disoriented and confused, desperate to get out of the shop. This was probably a form of reverse culture shock. Photo. By The original uploader was Secretlondon at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

There are two problems with reverse culture shock. One is that we tend to idealize the foreign country we have left. The other is that we find it difficult to deal with the fact that our native country has moved on and changed without us. Either way, we can feel deeply detached from our home country and long to return to foreign shores. Presumably, eventually this feeling goes away too. However, I cannot speak from personal experience because I never stayed at home long enough.

Anyway, check out the PowerPoint slides here.