[VIDEO] Getting Over Culture Shock

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that any traveler will, at some point, experience the culture shock stages.”

You’ve maybe read about it, you might have been warned at your travel program pre-departure orientation, and you’ve definitely heard your well-traveled cousin mention it a time or two. But, what is this elusive yet somehow ubiquitous thing called “culture shock?” How do you know when it hits? Can you prevent it full stop? How do you even begin to survive something you barely understand?!

Well, we’ve asked our travel pros—the Fall 2017 Writer’s Academy Cohort—to give you a culture shock definition, walk you through the culture shock stages, and bequeath their best advice for how to survive it.

Watch this video and start drawing up battle plans to combat culture shock, or read the transcript below!


[Culture shock definition] Culture shock. Noun.

The feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.

It’s some gnarly stuff, even after traveling around the world, culture shock stages hit you like a freight train sometimes. 

We survived culture shock (here’s how you can too) 

We’re here with some real talk about culture shock and our tried and true survival methods for when it hits. Because it will. But, lucky for you, with our help it won’t hit quite so hard. And, when it does you’ll be able to bounce back to rock the rest of your time abroad. 

What does culture shock look like? 

Culture shock stages will hit everyone a little differently, but generally there are four main stages involved. How hard each stage hits you, when each stage hits you, and the order in which you experience all of this will vary. It’s a bit of a rollercoaster! But, that’s all part of the adventure, right? 

Stage 1: The Honeymoon Stage

This is exactly what it sounds like—you’re in LOVE. It’s kind of like everyday is that song from The Lego Movie, like, “everything is awesome! Everything is cool when you’re part of a team!” Like, that’s kind of your life.

You’re infatuated with the language, with the culture, the food, the people—the sky is bluer, the sun is brighter!

Stage 2: The Frustration Stage. 

Everything hurts. You’re tired and you may or may not be dying. That high you were riding in the honeymoon stage is over. O-V-E-R.

You don’t understand anything because of the language barrier. And, all you want is a Chipotle burrito with extra guacamole and it’s nowhere to be found. This feels like the stage that never ends. It just hangs out with you and will randomly show back up over the course of your experience, you never quite know when.

This is when you might start feeling a little homesick and a lot like you’re resenting your decision to go abroad—especially if you’ve been at this awhile. 

sitting on rock near half dome in sunlight

Culture shock can knock you right off that “traveling abroad” high.

Stage 3: The Adjustment Stage. 

Okay. This is just life now. Navigating public transportation is getting easier. You can actually make small talk with vendors at the fruit market. And, you’re starting to feel part of a community.

It’s all back on the up-and-up! Everything’s coming up YOU. 

And, Finally: The Acceptance Stage

[Take a breath.] This is life abroad. You have a routine now, and while you might not understand everything, or even like, everything—seriously, people eat chicken feet???—you’ve arrived at a new normal. It’s not weird, it’s different, and you may even find yourself adopting some new habits and tastes. 

How we survived: our best advice

I promise you will, everyone does, it’s all temporary.

One thing I found most helpful was telling myself to do at least one difficult—preferably social—thing per day. On hard days that was just buying groceries, but other days it was expat meet-ups, or dinner out with my coworkers.

The best way to survive culture shock is to have other people who are experiencing the exact same thing. Talk to your friends in your program; talk to your local coordinator; talk to anybody who is sharing that experience with you because they can truly empathize.

Remember to take time for yourself—read, journal, go for a run, and if you need it, maybe even indulge in a little Parks and Rec. Something that really helped me was to have my own blog. This way, I was able to keep in contact with my family. But, also disconnect sometimes to make sure that you’re really present in your experience abroad.

The sooner you accept how different everything is, the sooner you will find the parts of your new location that feel like they are really home.

Culture shock is one of those things that when you’re in the moment it feels like it’s never going to end. But, as soon as you’re out of it, you realize you’ve learned so much about yourself. And you really will survive! I promise, I’ve been through it many times.

It’s something you have to learn to love, and you. Will. Love it. 

long exposure of train speeding through snowy countryside

You never quite know when it will show up—like a train in Southern France.

More resources to combat culture shock stages

Whether you’re just gearing up to go abroad, and worried about experiencing culture shock, or you’ve been abroad for a while and are right in the throes of it, these resources will help you out!

Here are a few recommended articles: 

If you’re ready for culture shock round two:

Now, with all of these resources and a culture shock combat game plan, you can tell culture shock where to shove it! Get ready for a memorable experience abroad. 

One final note about how to cope with culture shock

You’re doing fine. Remember that. You are doing just fine! Don’t compare yourself to other students or travelers who may seemingly be coping better than you (you’ll never really know what they’re going through, anyway because Instagram lies). You’re learning and growing, and that will come with some growing pains. Don’t compare this experience abroad to previous experiences!

Leave negative self-talk behind the security checkpoint, okay? None of this, “well, when I was doing X in Y I didn’t feel this way,” or, “what’s wrong with me? So-and-so is fine!” and definitely don’t even think about saying, “I should be enjoying myself more/I should be doing this or that.” Nah-uh. You better quit it! As long as you are doing your best each and every day, there’s no right or wrong way to manage culture shock—just like there’s no real right or wrong way to travel. 

students laughing and smiling outside for a photo

Remember that you’re never alone in coping with culture shock stages.

Culture shock in a sentence

It’s only discomfort—it’s temporary, and what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right Kelly Clarkson? This is all part of the experience of being a meaningful traveler. There are ups, there are down, but it’s always—always—worth it.

That was two sentences, fine, but the point still stands! Now go out there and show culture shock who’s boss.

P.S. A big THANK YOU to our Writer’s Academy Fall 2017 members for sharing their wonderful words of wisdom — Megan Arzebaecher, Lauren Kubik, Laura Leavitt, and Kaila Forster. 

Keep watching: Working Abroad Words of Encouragement from Those Who’ve Done it

Topic:  Videos