The Psychology of Culture Shock


by Rose Kazma, Professional Psychologist in Rome, Italy

English speaking expatriates living in Italy suffer from all the same psychological symptoms and conditions found in general populations elsewhere. They seek psychotherapy for anxiety, depression, stress, substance abuse and they struggle with relationship or health related issues. However there is something that sets them and expats everywhere apart from the general population. It colors their emotional and psychological responses, the symptoms they experience and the issues that they bring to therapy. It is often referred to as silent or insidious because it frequently goes unidentified or is misdiagnosed.

Coined in 1954 by anthropologist Kalvero Berg, the term culture shock is used to describe a series of psychological responses to living in a cultural and linguistic environment significantly different from ones own. Culture shock results from losing all familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse that constitute our culture and which allow us to navigate our everyday lives with a degree of predictability and ease. When an individual arrives in another culture most if not all of these signs have been replaced by others that are now unrecognizable. As a result people are often confused, anxious, frustrated, and can suffer from a number of psychological symptoms. It is important to note that individual responses to culture shock differ in many ways; stages may be experienced in a different order, vary in duration (from weeks to months, or longer), or some stages may be omitted completely.

The honeymoon stage as its name implies is marked by exhilaration. The foreigner enjoys all the sights and sounds of the new culture and is often surrounded by new acquaintances; colleagues or a host family may take him sightseeing, to restaurants or to the theatre, entertaining him during the first weeks or months.

As one begins to settle into a daily routine, as one inevitably does, problems of every day living begin to arise. Activities like traveling to work, buying food, asking for directions, or making a phone call are no longer simple tasks but now require considerable effort. It is at this point that the honeymoon stage fades and the rejection stage emerges. The increasing frustration and vulnerability one feels trying to accomplish even the simplest task results in anger and hostility directed at the new culture, its people, and its customs in the form of negative stereotyping or even aggressive behavior.

One woman told me that she hit a passing car with her umbrella as she crossed the street because the driver had failed to stop at a crosswalk and instead had rolled through the intersection maneuvering around her. She admitted that the driver had in no way threatened her safety but nonetheless she remained convinced that her response was justified and appropriate.

The newcomer may have a heightened sense of not belonging, of being an outsider; he may see the people of the host culture as insensitive, hostile, and/or may even believe that they are responsible for his unhappiness.  He actually begins to reject the new culture. He is reluctant to learn the language, make friends among the local people, and displays a general disinterest in the new culture. If one fails to work through this phase successfully, the rejection escalates and eventually the foreigner returns home, either emotionally or physically.

If the rejection stage is not adequately resolved and one hasn't physically returned home, he may have done so mentally and emotionally and thus entered the regression stage. As the word regression implies, one moves backward.  In this phase one may speak only his native language, surround himself with fellow expats, and become preoccupied with thoughts of home.  One withdraws and isolates from the larger culture and can become overly dependent on his/her linguistic and cultural references. Today's technology, if not used wisely can actually fuel the rejection/regression phase.

Another expat explained that he moved to Italy with the intention of immersing himself in the Italian culture, learning the language and making Italian friends, but one year after his arrival he spoke almost no Italian, had no Italian friends, and when he wasn't working or out with his English speaking friends, he was texting or talking to friends and family at home.
The rejection and regression stages are especially stressful and it is during these phases that the symptoms of culture shock emerge. Being able to identify them will allow you to maintain a balanced perspective and to take the necessary steps to ease the impact they have on your daily life.

The fourth and final phase of culture shock is the recovery stage. Arrival at this stage is in part facilitated by increased language competence, familiarity with customs and social cues, and moving about with less effort and anxiety.  You understand that your new living conditions are not better or worse but simply different from those of your own culture.  One of the most obvious signs that you are in the recovery stage is that you regain your sense of humor and can now laugh at some of the things that once seemed so irritating.

Coping skills, basic personality, preexisting psychological conditions as well as the circumstances that brought you to the new culture will all influence your assimilation process and the severity of the symptoms you experience. Your greatest asset is knowledge.  Knowing what to expect, that you are not alone, and above all that culture shock is a normal response to your experience abroad will facilitate your adjustment.

Symptoms of culture shock: Withdrawal, irritability, alcohol/substance abuse, crying spells, insomnia/excessive sleeping, depression, anxiety, failure to learn the language.

Some Helpful Tips:  Ask for help, journal (record your thoughts), maintain a sense of humor, learn the language, be open minded/flexible, ask questions/participate

Rose Kazma is a professional psychologist living in Rome


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