Culture Shock: The Shock of the New

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Culture Shock: The Shock of the New

…in most human interaction, ’realities’ are the results of prolonged intricate processes of construction and negotiation deeply embedded in the culture. (J. Bruner, Acts of Meaning, 1990)

….rules are developed gradually, as cultural products, as ways of handling certain situations, they can be changed, but changes are slow. (Michael Argyle, The Structure of Social Action, 1985)

There is some dispute and debate as to who conceived the concept of culture shock and precisely when this occurred.

There also remains no clear definition of culture shock, usually attributed to the anthropologist, Oberg (1960) over 40 years ago. He wrote:

Culture shock is precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all our 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 are not consciously aware of.

. . . Some of the symptoms of culture shock are: excessive washing of the hands; excessive concern over drinking water, food, dishes, and bedding; fear of physical contact with attendants or servants; the absent-minded, far-away stare (sometimes called ’the tropical stare’); a feeling of helplessness and a desire for dependence on long-term residents of one’s own nationality; fits of anger over delays and other minor frustrations; delay and outright refusal to learn the language of the host country; excessive fear of being cheated, robbed, or injured; great concern over minor pains and irruptions of the skin; and finally, that terrible longing to be back home, to be able to have a good cup of coffee and a piece of apple pie, to walk into that corner drugstore, to visit one’s relatives, and, in general, to talk to people who really make sense. (Oberg, 1960, p. 176)

Various attempts have been made to ’unpack’ the definition (Ward et al. 2001)

1 Strain due to the effort required to make necessary psychological adaptations.

2 A sense of loss and feelings of deprivation in regard to friends, status, profession and possessions.

3 Being rejected by/and or rejecting members of the new culture.

4 Confusion in role, role expectations, values.

5 Surprise, anxiety, even disgust and indignation after becoming aware of cultural differences.

6 Feelings of impotence due to not being able to cope with the new environment.

While the term culture shock may have originated in the academic literature, it soon became part of popular imagination and everyday language. Guides on how to mitigate the effects of culture shock are offered to all sorts of travellers.

People recognize it immediately, though they are surprised by it. Yet it is also agreed that it is a ubiquitous and normal stage in any acculturative adaptive process that all ’travellers’ experience. Going to ’strange places’ and losing the power of easy communication can disrupt self-identity, worldviews and indeed all systems of acting, feeling and thinking. It is a common, everyday occurrence experienced by many travellers.

There are long lists of the symptoms of culture shock which include cognitive, emotional, physiological and other reactions. There are many rich personal accounts and helpful advice procedures for people to develop better ’emotional resilience’ to move between cultures. This includes what people in educational and work environments can and should do to lessen the experience of culture shock.

Zhou, Jindal-Snape, Topping and Todman (2008) suggested that there are essentially three contemporary theories in the area:

Stress and Coping (cross-culturally travellers need to develop coping strategies to deal with stress because life changes are inherently stressful).

Culture Learning (cross-cultural travellers need to learn culturally relevant social skills to survive and thrive in their new settings).

Social Identification (Cross-cultural transition may involve changes in cultural identity and inter-group relations).

They propose that there are both individual level (person and situation factors) and societal level variables (society of origin and society of settlement) that jointly determine stress and skills deficit which in turn determines stress coping and skills acquisition.

Culture shock is conceived as a serious, acute and sometimes chronic affective reaction to a new (social) environment. However, there are other closely related ’shocking’ experiences. These include:

Invasion shock: this occurs in places where tourists or other visitors suddenly appear in large numbers in a particular setting and overwhelm the locals who become a minority in their own living space.

Reverse culture shock: this occurs when returning to one’s home culture to find it different from that which was recalled. In this sense, you can never go home again because it does not exist. It is about re-adjusting; re-acculturating and re-assimilating in the home culture.

Re-professionalization and re-licensing shock: this occurs when trained professionals do not have their qualifications accepted by a host country and have to be retrained and accepted.

Business shock: this is the realization that so many of the subtle business practices vary considerably from one culture to the next.

Race culture shock: this concerns being a racial minority in an institution within one’s country. Class and race specific styles of dress, speech etc., can seriously shock people who do not expect them.


Furnham, A. & Bochner, S. (1998) Culture Shock. London: Methuen.

Oberg, K. (1966) Culture shock: Adjustment to new cultural environments. Practical Anthropology, 7, 177—82.

Zhou, Y, Jindal-Snape, D., Topping, K., & Todman, J. (2008). Theoretical models of culture shock and adaptation in international students in higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 33 (1), 63—75.