What Is Culture Shock?

culture shock noun a feeling of confusion, doubt, or nervousness caused by being in a place (such as a foreign country) that is very different from what you are used to –Merriam-Webster dictionary

It’s not what you may think it is

When I first heard the term “culture shock”, my medically trained mind immediately conjured up the image of an acute feeling of unease spurred by directly experiencing an unfamiliar event.  After living in Costa Rica for four months and learning more about culture shock, I have learned “culture shock” is actually an insidious experience.  So the term “shock” is a misnomer.   The best way to describe the series of sensations experienced by the newly relocated expat is the “cultural adjustment curve” (CAC).  Honestly, once you have squared off with cultural adjustment, it will feel more like a roller coaster ride rather than a curve.  Read on to learn about the 3 stages of the CAC.

Honeymoon Stage

Celebrating our 15-year wedding anniversary in the Mayan Riviera.....Pura Vida! Mayan Riviera, May 2014

Everything is perfect!

The day after we arrived to Costa Rica, I woke up to the sound of monkeys running on our roof at our cabin at Los Pinos and the morning chorus of birds.  I was so energized that I put on my Newtons and went for a nice run.  I literally felt “high” on Costa Rica.  And how could I not be?  As I ran along the road, I loved the minimal traffic, the breathtaking views, and friendly Ticos.

This is the stage where the experience of moving to a new country is new and exciting.  The place, people, and everything about your new home seems perfect.  You are not bothered by the differences of the new culture or you tend not to notice them.  Language misunderstandings appear humorous.  Your brain takes in all the new sights, colors, smells, tastes and sounds of your new environment and processes them into feelings of wonder and optimism.  This stage can last for a few weeks.

Hostility/Crisis Stage

The "hostility" phase of cultural adjustment can be very, well, hostile!

Mad about everything!

When I first went to the grocery store in Monteverde, I spent over two hours trying to find all the items on my list.  Not only was the layout of the store new to me, it did not make any sense.  Eggs are not refrigerated!  Tortillas are in a separate section than the bread!  The cheese is in a different part of the store than the milk and butter!  After having shopped at the same grocery store for 8 years back in Texas, where I knew exactly where everything was and whether or not it was on sale, shopping at a new grocery store in Costa Rica was daunting.  What was worse, I felt angry with myself for feeling so upset about such a seemingly trivial event like grocery shopping.

This is the stage where all the “minor” differences and misunderstandings that previosuly seemed unimportant or even funny all of a sudden come to a disoriented, confused, disgusted head.  Some people may just slightly feel annoyed during this phase, while others may develop outright animosity and repugnance.  Usually, the hostility peaks at around 3 months after moving to a new environment.  The signs and symptoms that expats exhibit during this stage include:

  • Disruption in eating and sleeping habits
  • Intense feelings of missing your “home” or passport country
  • Constant complaining about the host country
  • Feelings of sadness and irritability
  • Easy to anger
  • Self-doubt
  • Alienation or withdrawing from friends/family

Recovery/Integration/Adjustment Stage

Kara, her friend, and Tristan admiring the forest

We are happy to call this place home, even if its not perfect.

A few months ago, we had to do a “border hop” to Nicaragua because we are living in Costa Rica under the inappropriately named “tourist” visa.   After a lovely time on the beach, I felt anxious to get back home to Monteverde.  That is right!  Costa Rica feels like home.  I miss it when I was away.  Despite the rain, bugs, bad roads, and my inability to find a good potato peeler in my entire town, I finally feel like I belong here.  I feel as if I am part of the community.  I have a good network of friends (expats and Ticos!) that are a great source of support.  I still feel annoyed when the Internet or electricity goes down and there is not much to do about it or when the entire town runs out of a particular product.  But I am able to accept those occurrences as part of Costa Rica life and move on.  Instead I focus on the positive, such as our healthier lifestyle and our access to one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world.

The integration phase occurs when the expat starts to feel comfortable in their new environment.  They can start exploring new ideas and are anchored by a support group of friends.  In this phase, the expat assimilates the culture without losing their own identity.  They look at their new home with a sense of flexibility and objectivity as they come to terms that it is neither heaven nor hell, but somewhere in between.  Just like most places in the world.

It’s not really a curve…

One last note about the cultural adjustment curve: It is not really a curve.  The process is neither linear or predictable.  There were times I felt all 3 stages of the CAC in one day!  I also had some expat friends who stayed in one phase (such as hostility) for months at a time.  Others jumped back and forth between the 3 stages as time progressed.  While the symptoms and stages of CAC may not be the same for everyone, the key feature in increasing the likelihood of cultural integration is self-awareness.  The expat must be aware that CAC exists and be able to recognize it within his or herself.

Stay tuned to more blog posts this week to learn about treating culture shock and easing the cultural adjustment transition.

Pura Vida!

About Noemi Gamel

Noemi Gamel is a physician who prefers writing diverse children's fantasy stories instead of medical charts. She is a geeky nomad, too.
This entry was posted in A Question Worth Answering, Becoming an Expat, Cultural Adaptability/CultureShock and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to What Is Culture Shock?

  1. Pingback: 5 Challenges of Parenting in Costa Rica as an Expat | Pura Vida Familia

  2. Pingback: Beat culture shock (Adaptation stage and U-Curve Hypothesis) | Languages Alive

  3. Pingback: Merry Christmas From Costa Rica! | Pura Vida Familia

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