Do you remember the day you stepped out of the plane and for the first time set foot in a country far away from home? I do! Then you might remember as well the challenges you had to face in the first year abroad. Discover with me the culture shock stages.
Atlanta, here I come!
After a long flight and happily humming Reinhard Mey’s song “Über den Wolken muß die Freiheit wohl grenzenlos sein”, I started my American adventure in sunny and hot Atlanta. I was fresh out of college in Germany.
After an anxious hour-long wait at the airport, my very friendly host finally picked me up.
I remember my first impression of America! I can sum it up with just one word: BIG!
Everything was big, large, enormous and huge! Highways, cars, houses, milk jugs, selection of cereals, butterflies, cockroaches, bill boards, meals, Coca Cola drinks, shopping malls, stores.
Everything seemed to be super sized. The smallest entity or unit for items was ‘large’. ‘Small’ just didn’t exist. Large eggs, large coffee, large cups of soda!
People were extremely friendly, cheerful and generous with their compliments. Even in stores. What a nice change, from a then grouchy Germany.
My affluent host family was very friendly and welcomed me right away as a member of their family. They included me in all their outings and excursions. My first morning, we went for brunch at the Ritz Carlton in Buckhead/Atlanta. Welcome glitz and glamor! These smartly uniformed porters, who valet park your car, don’t just exist in American TV shows! They were for real!
I think I was a little bit overwhelmed by the sheer size of everything. Life in the US appeared up-sized and larger than life. My hometown in Germany seemed like a small country town.
Culture shock, here it comes!
Culture shock stages
You have probably heard about the term ‘culture shock’. It is defined as an adjustment to a new culture, due to immigration or a visit to a new country.
Kalervo Oberg coined this term and wrote an article about cultural adjustment to a new environment. He defined culture shock as “the anxiety that results from losing familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse.”
“These signs or cues include the thousand and one ways in which we orient ourselves to the situations of daily life: when to shake hands and what to say when we meet people, when and how to give tips, how to give orders to servants, how to make purchases, when to accept and when to refuse invitations, when to take statements seriously and when not.”
“Now these cues which may be words, gestures, facial expressions, customs or norms are acquired by all of us in the course of growing up and are as much a part of our culture as the language we speak or the beliefs we accept. All of us depend for our peace of mind and our efficiency on hundreds of these cues, most of which we do not carry on the level of conscious awareness.”
Oberg identified 5 culture shock stages, which an individual may encounter. These 5 culture shock stages might help you to understand the process of adjusting to new surroundings.
- honeymoon phase
- new experiences are exciting
- happy because of chance to move
2. hostility phase
- novelty of surrounding wears off
- frustration and anger, sadness
3. rejection phase
- feeling lonely and homesick
- feeling discouraged
4. integration phase
- adapting to your new life
- feeling less like an outsider
5. accepting phase
- enjoy being where you are
- feeling in control and positive again about where you are
Not everyone will consciously experience all these culture shock stages. The duration of the different culture shock stages will depend on your personality, whether you moved alone or with someone else or will depend on how different your old home is compared to your new environment.
You can read more in my articles about duration of homesickness and how to reduce it:
You will agree with me that in the beginning of this article you just met me in the honeymoon phase. Times in Atlanta were exciting and I lived in amazement and loved the adventure of everyday life.
Hostility and rejection phases
I felt the next two culture shock stages, hostility and rejection, more or less as just one challenging period in my life. It started when my then to-be husband and I decided to get married. All of a sudden, I had this feeling of being stuck in Atlanta. No way back to my beloved Germany.
During my first few months in Atlanta, I had experienced everything in amazement and wonder. I had relished these moments of contrast and diversity. Now knowing I would live there forever made me sad and very homesick. I missed the familiarity that comes with living in your home country. Of course there was the language barrier. English past midnight was a challenge! I missed the ease of getting around like in my hometown. And of course, I longed for German food.
At that time it would have been helpful, if I had known about these culture shock stages. I would have seen that there will be again a period of ‘up’!
And so it did! The next phase of the culture shock stages started: the integration phase.
After 6 to 8 months, I adapted to my new life, developed again a routine, and felt less like a stranger. My husband and I bought a house together, met wonderful life-long friends, and started to concentrate on aspects of everyday life.
So now there was the final phase of the culture shock stages: the accepting phase. I think it probably takes some extra time to reach that landmark. Almost certainly the births of my two children made me acknowledge and accept that Atlanta became my new home. I enjoyed living in the South with the super friendly people and the wonderful weather.
Does the accepting phase mean that someone in a host country will at one point totally assimilate to the new culture and surroundings?
One part of me will always be German. I still keep many German traditions. And then there is my accent! People hear right away that I am not originally from the US. However, I have now lived in the US for a long time, so I can’t deny that another part of me has become American.
Actually, I see myself as a hex-head. A global mind that doesn’t totally fit into German or the US life, but fits in everywhere! Let’s add to the 5 phases the hex-head phase!
Read the story of a hex-head in: Reverse culture shock – a hex-head story.
Do you remember going through these culture shock stages? Were you then aware of their existence? Leave a note!
I think it is good for you to experience culture shock. I will tell you why in my next article!