How to cope with culture shock by jo castro
Culture Shock is real. Coping with lifestyle changes as you move between countries and cultures (such as those depicted in the images above and then those further down below)  takes time, and real adjustments need to be made.


It’s never easy settling into a new home and a new country, no matter how much we embellish our feelings with bravado, and no matter how much enthusiasm we have for all the positive aspects.

The monster that can lie beneath

On the surface, most expats and travellers are well adjusted international nomads but often beneath what may appear to be a cool and confident exterior lurks a psychological monster, sometimes known as culture shock.

How to cope with culture shock by jo castro
From Devon to Nepal took some adjustment with a new born baby in tow when we moved to live in Kathmandu. Several countries later and we moved to The Philippines, bottom right.

I’ve been lucky to have lived a life of constant change visiting many different countries. Some people might not see that as lucky, but because I think I’m a gypsy at heart, I’ve loved the constant movement that a life as an expat has offered me.

But because ours has been a life of change we’ve constantly had to discover new ways of doing things, as well as searching for different ways of viewing life. What may have been perceived as “right” or “given” in one country may have been inappropriate in the next.

It’s funny, but although you can research and read all about a place, or perhaps you’ve visited the  city or country you’re about to live in before, it doesn’t prepare you for the reality of living there. And it’s often not the obvious differences which lead to what is generally termed as “culture shock”, but the little things, the misunderstandings, and the lack of local knowledge which causes confusion.

Flung from the safety of understanding and awareness of a home culture, some people experience feelings of disorientation, which don’t appear to be logical or rational and it can be really upsetting to feel that you’re not coping and have no idea why. The more virulent symptoms of culture shock can only be side-stepped by learning as much as possible about a country in as short as possible time.

Symptoms of culture shock

  • You might feel homesick or really bored and just not know what to do.
  • You may want to sleep a lot, or feel anxious and withdrawn from social situations which you previously enjoyed.
  • Excessive drinking and compulsive eating may mask your feelings of being unable to cope and on top of all this you might become more irritable than usual and experience an increase in family conflict.
  • Perhaps you can’t sleep, or you may cry for no reason at all, and on top if it all find yourself unable to relax.
  • Your spouse may show signs of chauvinism to empower him or her through feelings of their not being in control, and both of you may feel hostility towards your new country and disparagingly stereotype the people in it.

Culture shock is not depression

  • Unlike depression which needs medical intervention, culture shock can be dealt with by a broadening of knowledge and finding common-sense ways of coping.
  • Even so, in it’s mildest state it can still be a real bummer and can affect your home-life in various ways. It doesn’t strike at once, but unfurls languidly like a snake, having no recognisable principle cause.
  • You might find that small realisations about cultural adjustment build up, fired by numerous insignificant events, until the accumulative effect becomes manifold.
  • Unconsciously you might believe that your own country’s values are right; the host country’s ‘wrong’.
  • You find you have to do things differently, and the perceptions and values you once held as true are worth no more now than grains of dead and battered coral on another tropical beach.

Cultural adjustment takes many forms – at home and at work.

  • People in the host country probably act differently, and think differently, as well as having different priorities – which may not match your own.
  • Communication with staff in the home and the workplace may be difficult and might need big adjustments in the way you relate to people.
  • Time schedules may be different to those you’re used to – for instance people may be consistently late and appear not to worry.
  • The traffic in some developing cities will most likely cause your blood pressure and your anxiety levels to rise.
  • Your personal space might also be affected, because in Asia people do not require the same amount of personal space around them as elsewhere in the world.
  • There will be changes of food, and changes in what you can and can’t buy. Changes in price; some things you’re used to might be outrageously expensive and your family’s diet may have to be altered accordingly. Little changes in the general scheme of things, but niggles just the same.
  • There may be a new dress code you have to get used to and you may have to dress differently for new situations and social gatherings.
  • All these, along with a host of other little niggles might build up inexorably over a period of time, until they seem insurmountable. Don’t worry if you have these feelings – you’re not alone.

You might also like Amanda Kendle’s post on Reverse Culture Shock

and You’re Not Alone : Help with Connecting Globally by Russel Ward

Tomorrow I’ll be talking about the strategies that have helped me.

For some of the information included here my thanks goes out to Dr Susan Ward who spoke at an In Touch presentation in Manila that I attended, which was held in conjunction with AEA/SOS International.

Have you had to deal with culture shock? What are your tactics?

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  1. David

    Looking forward to reading your next post. It may seem obvious but it pays to listen and observe when starting life in any new culture. (Note to project directors and HR people – before sending staff to a new country, how about a short course in the particular culture and on cross-cultural awareness?) As more people study and work outside their countries of origin, and modern societies everywhere are becoming more multi-cultural anyway, we should take more account of this factor, even if we “stay put”. David Brett, Independent Construction Consultant, Constructive Developments Ltd, Hong Kong.

  2. Thanks for your comments, David. I agree … and we were always hopelessly unprepared as we sallied forth into the unknown on various projects and I think that companies should see to it that people are much more prepared than we were.

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