If you are moving to a neighbouring country where the culture is not so different to the culture in your home country then the highs and lows of culture shock will not be extreme. On the other hand, if you are moving to a country with a climate and society very different from your own country then these negative and positive feelings will usually be more noticeable.
There are four separate stages of culture shock which are honeymoon phase, negotiation phase, adjustment phase and mastery stage. Each stage lasts a different length of time for each person according to numerous factors.
As you might expect, the honeymoon phase is characterised by romantic and euphoric feelings of experiencing a new culture which appears fascinating. This might be regarding the weather, the friendly local people, the food and the scenery. It is generally very positive indeed and you might feel as though you are now part of an amazing film that you have stumbled into. This lasts an average of 3 months.
The negotiation phase can involve a certain level of anxiety as a person compares and contrasts the new culture with culture ‘back home’. In some circumstances, people can feel lonely as a result of language barriers and behaviour which seems inappropriate (when compared to behaviour back in their home country). You can become irritable at times when certain things appear inefficient or poor quality when compared to how they are in your own country.
It is quite possible that you will feel misunderstood and begin to miss your old friends and your family. This period is usually from around the fourth month to the sixth month of living in a new culture. This is the time when you will probably start using Skype and Facebook and sending emails more frequently, or simply looking for extra support from other expatriates.
The adjustment phase is characterised by routines that a person puts in place as a way of becoming genuinely accustomed to the new culture. The new culture is no longer seen as ‘new’ and there are generally less negative feelings expressed. This phase last approximately 6 months, typically finishing a year or so after the person has first moved to the new country.
The mastery stage is when people feel genuinely comfortable in the new culture – seemingly feeling equally at home there as in their original culture. The negative feelings have been resolved. You have made it through. Congratulations!
However, unless you stay in the new country for the rest of your life, this isn’t the end of the story.
Reverse culture shock, or ‘re-entry shock’, occurs when a person returns to his or her home country after having spent a long period of time overseas living in a different culture. This can often be more unpleasant and difficult to deal with than the initial four phases because it is more subtle and often unexpected.
Psychologists suggest that we view reverse culture shock as a U-shaped curve. When we arrive back home initially we experience euphoria. It’s great to see friends and family once again and indulge in any foods that you have missed during your time away.
After this, there can be a realisation of how much you have changed overseas. Being back at home can feel rather like a ‘come down’ after a party the night before, and an almost-literal step back. It can appear that nothing much has changed at home, in contrast to the many eye-opening experiences that you have had. Whilst it may feel like this, remember that in reality your friends and family will often have accomplished a great deal whilst you have been away, although it may not be so overt.
You may be disappointed that people lack interest as you tell them another anecdote from your time in Thailand, or wherever. Usually it is because they cannot relate to it, most probably never having been there. It can make you feel bored, isolated and possibly unchallenged. This is why if you have well-travelled friends they may well be the best ones to speak to.
Just as the host country sometimes compared unfavourably to your home country during the negotiation phase of culture shock, now it will feel like quite the opposite. You will view your home country in a new light, perhaps find it drab and dreary (especially during winter months) and there will undoubtedly be many things that you miss from overseas.
It may even take a few weeks to get used to typical behaviour in your home country, especially if you have been to somewhere culturally very different from your home. If you have been teaching in Asia, chances are you will be shocked that nobody is taking much notice of you as you are out and about on daily business. Indeed, this may come as a huge relief to some, but others will miss the attention that is often given to foreigners in Asia.
This reverse culture shock phase can last up to six months but the good news is that you will eventually reach the other side of the U-shaped curve and feel great again. However, it may be important for you to retain links with the part of the world that you have returned from such as by continuing to study the language and trying to make more international friends locally. You may be more interested in global politics than before.
Personally, one thing that really felt good when I returned to the UK from South-east Asia was planning a lengthy trip out there – a holiday, no work – for later in the year. Once I had bought the plane tickets I breathed a sigh of relief, feeling perhaps that it didn’t have to be ‘one or the other’, that I could still enjoy the best of both worlds, within reason.
If you are concerned about any of the negative aspects of culture shock, remember that the emotions are only temporary. Phases do not last forever. Awareness of this phenomenon will help you deal with it, and also give you the ability to recognise and help when others are feeling the effects of it.