Culture shock can be defined as an individual’s reaction when taken out of their original home to an area of different cultural contexts. It is about how one feels, thinks, and acts in the new environment. People tend to leave their home countries for academic reasons, and sometimes even for work. They thus end up living in an alien country where they experience a lot of different things that in one way or another cause the ‘cultural shock’ phenomenon. Different people respond differently to the changes experienced upon relocating to a new country. This fact has given rise to a number of different theories that explain the culture shock phenomenon, and suggest possible ways of handling it effectively.
Culture Shock Theories
There are quite a number of theories suggested when it comes to the subject of culture shock. The distinguishing factor for all these theories, however, is the sequence, intensity and name of the stages of culture shock. Three major theories namely U curve, W curve and acculturation are discussed below.
The U Curve
This theory views the transitioning as a temporary period that starts with a high and ends with a high. The stages involved here are euphoria, disillusionment, hostility, adaptation and finally assimilation (Gordon 75). In this theory, hostility is the lowest point of culture, but it signifies better things to come. Euphoria here is about the excitement of leaving home and venturing out into the wider world. Also, it is about experiencing the new environment for the first time and getting to appreciate it from an outsider’s perspective. Disillusionment involves what other theories refer to as ‘honeymoon’ or rather a period where everything is perceived with a little sense of ‘romanticism’ and an individual tends to love everything about the new environment (Gordon 32). Hostility then marks the dawning of reality after the ‘honeymoon’ and an individual rejects every aspect of the new environment. However, adaptation later follows and eventually there is assimilation into the new culture.
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This theory assumes that everyone who moves to a new location actually ends up fully adjusting into the new environment. This, however, is not entirely true as there are people who have absolutely failed to function well in a new cultural dispensation. The theory also leaves out the eventuality of returning home, by not including the possibility of a reverse culture shock upon returning home.
The W Curve
This theory stipulates that adjusting to a new culture has both ups and downs, and each individual goes through these at their own pace. The stages here include ‘honeymoon’, culture shock, initial adjustment, mental isolation, and, finally, acceptance and integration.
The ‘honeymoon’ stage here is similar to the disillusionment in the U curve theory in that individuals attach some ‘romanticism’ to every aspect of their new environment due to the excitement that they feel. The ‘culture shock’ stage is, on the other hand, similar to the hostility stage where individuals experience rejection, denial and frustration towards the new environment. In this stage, hostility comes in a myriad of reactions that may actually overwhelm the persons involved. The initial adjustment stage is usually about getting used to the environment, creating routines and simply going with the tide. On the contrary, this does not mark the end of the tough times as individual keeps slipping in and out of the routines as a result of some mental resistance to change.
One more low point follows in the name of mental isolation as a result of the mental resistance. Although the person may have adjusted well physically, they still have doubts and unresolved internal conflicts that must be addressed before they can move on (Ingrim 264). This stage is often characterized by interrupted eating habits and sleeping patterns. After this, there comes the acceptance and integration stage where all the doubts and conflicts have been resolved and an individual is fully adjusted to the new surroundings. This theory also assumes that everyone is capable of adjusting to a new environment. The eventuality of returning home is not addressed either.
Acculturation refers to the adaptation of a new culture through understanding and acceptance. According to the acculturation theory, there are four stages of culture shock, which include euphoria, hostility, and acceptance as well as reverse culture shock (Pakala 76). The stages, in this theory, are thus fewer, and the process is represented as much simpler. What it means is that in the theory of acculturation, an individual is most likely to assimilate into the new culture by learning and accepting it as it is, and thus adjusting their mindset to adapt to it.
Symptoms of Culture Shock
Regardless of the theory involved, culture shock manifests itself in a series of symptoms that can be readily diagnosed provided one knows what they are looking for. Some of these are discussed below.
Culture fatigue simply means a sense of being fed up with the routines and other aspects of the environment. In this sense, an individual may show a lack of interest in the daily activities, and even withdrawal from social situations in a bid to avoid interacting with people who would remind them of the new culture (Furnham & Bochner 234). Also, an individual may fall unexplainably ill or close themselves in a mental fort to prevent interaction with the new culture. The eating habits are also likely to be affected here, especially if the food is different from what they were used to back at home.
Hostility, in this case, is like denial, since an individual refuses to admit that they are away from home. The result is thus a severe rejection of anyone or anything that tries or appears to be trying to convince them otherwise (Bochner 69).
Culture shock comes with a fair share of emotional confusion that often leaves one overly sensitive. As a result, most individuals become very irritable and always ready to get upset over trivial matters due to the bottled emotions that they harbor at the time.
This is, basically, a situation where one’s emotional imbalances lead to functional problems with their physical self. In other words, psychosomatic disorders simply imply any physical conditions that can be attributed to one’s emotional status (Bochner 46). There is a long list of these disorders including stomach ulcers, some heart conditions, insomnia, appetite loss, nausea, migraines, dizzy spells, blood pressure complications and many others.
Culture Shock in a Practical Setting
For this part of the research, the person whose experience is analyzed worked as a unit manager for a global supply chain whereby he was constantly traversing the globe to head different factions of the supply chain. He, therefore, has experienced cultural shock in numerous dimensions, and his take on the subject can thus be considered as reliable and quite informative. In his first international posting, the interviewee had to go to India to oversee the enforcement of quality management processes at the firm’s processing plants. He was excited right from the time he got the transfer letter, until his first few months in India. At the time, heat, noise, traffic and even congestion in the streets excited him. He found the food very enticing as well and kept making friends with both the local and tourist populations. Three months into his new job and he could not stop wishing to go back home even just for a day. He hated food, heat, traffic, and even the way his new found friends talked, and the way they ate, and even the way they dressed suddenly infuriated him. He stopped associating with them and spent more time at work surfing the internet.
About three more months later, he had come to learn so much about India from his subordinates at work that he actually liked a few things about the country and its people. He was slipping into the acceptance phase. At this point, his life had become more bearable, and he was out and about the city again. Unfortunately, his time there was cut short when the company acquired another plant in Japan and decided that he was the man for the job there as well. While in Japan, the cycle started all over again with the excitement followed by hostility and then eventually acceptance. This time, however, he was given some time off the job before taking up a new position in the Philippines. He went home and had a much harder time adjusting to the environment there.
In relation to the theories discussed in the paper, acculturation is the most useful given that it stimulates the adaptation process by encouraging learning (Bochner 68). After spending some time with his subordinates at work, the manager got to understand and accept so many things about India that he eventually adapted and even started enjoying himself there. He also used his experience in India to guide his adaptation process in Japan such that when he went back home, he had already adapted to living in Japan (Furnham and Bochner 312).
Each individual reacts differently when in a situation that triggers culture shock. This means that while the theories are great guidelines to understanding the subject and how to identify and handle it, individualism should be upheld when formulating solutions. This is probably why there is no particular remedy cast in stone for this problem. Each individual has their own pace for getting over the excitement, settling down, accepting the facts, dealing with the emotional aspect of relocation, making new friends, breaking the communication barriers, and the numerous other things that they need to take care of. This implies that the various theories presented above have some validity on a number of individuals, although it may seem farfetched or inaccurate on others.
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All the theories discussed above have one thing in common, and that is the fact that adjusting into a new environment has its ups and downs and it involves both the physical and psychological aspects of an individual. The U curve theory views the transitioning as a temporary period that starts with a high and ends with a high. The stages involved here are euphoria, disillusionment, hostility, adaptation and finally assimilation. In this theory, hostility is the lowest point of culture, but it signifies better things to come. In the W curve, adjusting to a new culture has both ups and downs, and each individual goes through these at their own pace. The stages here include ‘honeymoon’, culture shock, initial adjustment, mental isolation, and, finally, acceptance and integration. The theory of acculturation, on the other hand, assumes that an individual is most likely to assimilate into the new culture by learning and accepting it as it is, and thus, adjusting their mindset to adapt to it.