Culture Shock 101

Man with his face in his hands
Hands by Chriscandy,

Having moved to live permanently in a remote Indigenous community about 4 months ago, my wife and I have recently started to go through the struggles of culture shock (CS).  Having experienced culture shock many times before, as well as observed others around us experiencing it, we see CS as an inevitable hurdle in working closely with those from another culture, and one that must be taken seriously!

Culture shock is a very real psychological phenomenon that people experience when they enter a culture they are unfamiliar with for a significant amount of time. In a new culture, or  in a space where an unfamiliar culture controls the social environment, there is a lot that  we will not understand, we will not naturally know how we should act, we encounter awkward situations and experience a loss of control over our own circumstance. Our mind and body copes well with these stresses for a time, but after an extended period of dealing with a different language, manners, lifestyle and expectations, these stresses accumulate and the mental and emotional cultural machinery eventually packs it in and goes through an adjustment phase.   This adjustment is experienced as CS and often resembles an emotional break down, but with some rather unique characteristics.  Most Dominant culture people, Indigneous or Non-Indigenous, who come into an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander community for more than a few weeks are likely to encounter Culture Shock (CS) and need to understand it to overcome its effects.

What Causes Culture Shock.

The process of adjusting to a new cultural environment often begins with a ‘honey moon’ phase (often about 3 months), where everything new can seem exciting, and differences in a culture are a source of fascination and interest. But in this time we are actually dealing with high levels of physiological stress.  We are coping with a lack of control, because we are not sure what will happen next, and we are forced to maintain constant conscious effort in most social interactions.  Our attempts to understand what is going on and to respond appropriately can be overstimulating and exhausting. Thus the mind and body is on sustained high alert as we try to fit in and find our way through new environments, new experiences and strange social responses.  CS occurs because of the cumulative effect of  this sustained high alert and the many stressful event that we encounter along the way.

Our mind and body can only cope with these strange stressors for a time.  The onset of CS can vary enormously (anything from a few weeks to 6 months), mainly depending on the degree of immersion in the community and new culture. My wife had a stint in South Africa many years ago where she was living with families in a poor rural township. She had been given little preparation, had little support, and experienced severe cultural shock within 2 weeks (the tipping point being when she asked if she could go to the toilet and was handed a bucket). In my own experience of full immersion, living with a Yolŋu family (who always spoke in the local Indigneous language, as I was suppose to be learning), I experienced severe CS from the 4th week.  In our most recent experience together, moving to an Aboriginal Community permanently, we started in our own house and already had significant cultural experience and language skills.   Having this space that we controlled culturally and lots of preparation meant that we did not experience CS until after 4 months.

The Symptoms of Culture Shock

I can only describe CS as a feeling of deep sadness, lethargy and sometimes hopelessness. It is very much like depression, quashing any desire for positive action and engagement with the community.  It is characterised by a powerful desire to give up and leave the community.  So strong is this desire that some people literally up and leave. The feeling is understandable because the body and mind wants desperately to escape the foreign cultural space.  But this should be an indicator to us to recognise that our feelings are the symptoms of CS and this will help us to work through the emotions we will be feeling.  As well as the strong desire to leave, there are several other characteristics (from my experience) that will help you recognise culture shock:

  • No real reasons for underlying sadness.  While there may be many things that you could be sad about on reflection you might find that these things are not what is underlying your feelings.  The sadness may seem to come from nowhere, even though it may have initially started because of a stressful event.
  • An increase tendency to think badly of the local people/culture, and blame the local people/culture for problems you encounter (even though this might be out of character for you).
  • An aversion to social interaction, particularly with those of the foreign culture.
  • The sense of stress and depression improves in a familiar cultural space.

You should also be aware and prepared for these possible symptoms of culture shock:

  • The  desire to leave and give up can be overwhelming, and in some cases may even encourage suicidal thoughts and feelings.
  • A strong desire to indulge, which can encourage very unhealthy behaviour.
  • The tendency to be short tempered and feel tired.
  • Unreasonably strong feelings of anger, sadness, depression and hopelessness may arise in response to the smallest and silliest of things.

The symptoms of CS only last for about 2 -3 weeks at a time. They may reappear several times at different intervals over your first year in the new culture.  After that you may still experience CS occasionally for as you encounter new parts of the local culture or you living situation changes.

How to manage its effects

To manage culture shock we need to be on the look out for the symptoms I have mentioned.  When you begin to feel such things you should stop and consciously recognise “I am probably experiencing Culture Shock.” Once you have identified CS take the following steps

  1. Recognise that what you are experiencing will pass.  You can leave if you still wish in a few weeks when you are feeling less emotional.
  2. Take time out, your body is telling you it needs an escape, so take some space where ever you can get it and rest.  I feel that employers should recognise the need for short stress leave at these times.  However, taking short respite outside the community at this time may not be beneficial as you may find the symptoms reoccur very soon after your return.
  3. Indulge a little in harmless familiar cultural activities and if you can spend a little time with people of your home culture. This will give you some relief and remind you that you are still sane.  Find little things like music, some food items or some movies that connect you to your first culture.  This is an opportunity for your cultural machinery to relax in an environment it knows.
  4. Get plenty of sleep and try to maintain healthy behaviours such as exercise, high nutrient foods and don’t forget…sleep.
  5. Remember you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, you have chosen to be where you are.
  6. Between breaks, push your self just a little to get back out in the unfamiliar. Don’t go more that a couple of days without engaging in the local culture a little… you might visit some locals, go to a cultural event, just go for a walk in the community.  Increase the difficulty of these activities as you start to feel better.  The better you balance taking a break and engaging with the new culture the more complete your recovery will be.

Remember CS symptoms may reoccur over the beginning months or year of your stay, so don’t be disillusioned if the feelings come back from time to time.  Remember each time you experience CS this is your body acclimatising to the new culture and with each adjustment you will be more comfortable and effective working with the local Indigenous people.

If you are aware and prepared for Culture Shock when moving to an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander community, this will help you to survive the difficult adjustment period, where many personnel lose their way. Be kind to yourself. Experiencing CS is not a sign that you are not suited to cross-cultural work, nor that you disrespect the other culture or don’t care for the people. It is just a normal part of the process that needs to be worked through, in order to be able to truly engage with the other culture. This experience can also be enriching, as it shows us what cultural beings we are, and opens our eyes to many of the complexities of cross cultural interactions.


Add your comment:

  1. Mary

    Thank you Tim, it is a relief to understand that this can come back again and again and is part of the process. You can really feel that you are just not up to scratch. This little article has helped me to see that I need to take some time out looking after myself and be patient with the process and myself.

  2. Paul

    Thanks. I am currently experiencing that now – after 10 years of living in S.E.Asia. Recently I’ve been going back to Australia often, and this my most recent return home to S.E.Asia after a month in Australia – it hit. Shows that it can come at any time.

  3. val young

    Hi Tim,
    I enjoyed reading your article on culture shock which I can relate to.
    I recently spent 9 weeks working with pre school children on a remote community in N.T it was a wonderful experience and made me very aware that our Indigenous people are more than worthy of all the help we can offer them.I am very passionate about our Indigenous people and would like to spend some more of my time getting involved.

    Kind regards Val

  4. Nic

    Thank you Tim, I found your article very interesting, and thought it important to point out that as an aboriginal woman working in the western world I experience CS on a regular basis when dealing with the internal politics and culture of my department.

  5. IceKat

    Very cool. I reckon the thing most people overlook is how small a change you can have to give you culture shock. Being 200 or 2000km away makes no difference. I got culture shock moving out of home to Uni accomodation – it’s SO different to home! I’ll keep this in mind though. 🙂

  6. margaret halling

    When I first went rural remote (nearest town is 500klms away) cultural shock hit straight away, now it isn’t as bad but it does return sometimes, probably because our white community isn’t very close and supportive.

  7. Lynne Donnelly

    Thanks Tim. I’ve been working, for the first time, in a remote community and experiencing some of the feelings and emotions described in your article. It’s great to have an understanding that I might be a little culture shocked which is a normal process.

  8. Meleita Fox

    Thanks Tim for the insight into culture shock, it has really given me a deeper understanding about what you, Kama and others have experienced.