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Culture Shock

By World Family Education

Families moving to a new country will encounter new cultures. Some of those cultures are indigenous to the new country, and some are foreign to the new country, especially those within the international community. Some of the cultures will be localized to a community such as an international school or workplace.

A common response to encountering new cultures is what is known as culture shock. It’s a combination of grief over losing familiar aspects of one’s home culture and the challenge of dealing with many surprising aspects of the new cultures.

The onset of culture shock can appear in two different ways:

  1. The first is in the initial wave of disorientation that a person experiences when arriving in a new culture. Everything feels unfamiliar — people, places, and surroundings seem foreign and overwhelming.
  2. The onset of culture shock may also begin a few months after the move when disappointment and frustration set in. Sometimes a family starts their international adventure with excitement and anticipation, but this perspective shifts as they go through difficulties. This is a normal phase of adjustment, and you can read more at the World Family Education Transitions page.

In both cases, culture shock is usually a temporary state of mind, and will likely dissipate as your family gets used to the new living environment.

Interestingly, people can experience culture shock when returning to their home countries after adjusting to the cultures in their host country. This is known as reverse culture shock. Some typical places this shows up is when the person is driving and shopping in a grocery or department store.

Causes of Culture Shock

It’s helpful to recognize the key aspects of life that can cause culture shock:

  • food   
    A change in your family’s eating habits can be incredibly difficult. At the extreme, foods in your new location may seem unhealthy or inedible. But even in a location with great food options, your family may begin to miss their familiar favorites that just aren’t available.
  • climate   This is a change in temperature, humidity, and way of life due to predominant weather patterns of the area. This change can impact your family’s health and even allergic reactions.
  • clothing   A change in climate may result in a change in dress. In some locations, dress is affected by religious or conservative cultural values.
  • language   Being unable to speak or understand the local language is likely to cause frustration and isolation. The process of learning a language is often a challenge.
  • relationships   The lack of familiar friends and family can be the most difficult aspect of international living. And it’s hard to find new friends when you don’t know the local language.
  • etiquette and behavior   Manners are unspoken rules defined differently in every culture, and it’s important to learn the local expectations. If you don’t, it will be challenging to form local relationships.
  • values   Cultural values — which are rooted in the worldview of the culture — often explain why people behave the way they do. They affect seemingly unconnected aspects of everyday life, such as driving patterns, standing in lines/queues, interactions in public, or facial expressions. Sometimes the values of the new culture differ dramatically from your own.
  • safety   In some locations, criminal activity or even terrorism may be a concern. You may need to adjust to a new level of caution and care.

Responding to Culture Shock

People respond to culture shock in different ways, and some can move beyond this phase quickly. Others need more time.

Your attitude toward the new culture greatly shapes your ability to adapt. In a TED Talk, author Julien Bourrelle describes three ways individuals can react when they move into a new culture: confront, complain, or conform.

Those who confront or complain have decided — perhaps subconsciously — that their own cultural values are better than the local ones. They may refuse to try new ways of doing things or speak negatively of the local culture, even to their children.

Those who desire to conform will observe, listen, and do their best to understand the people in the new culture — even when they are uncomfortable. Clearly, the “conformers” will adapt most quickly.

Practically speaking, a few suggestions may help you deal with culture shock:

  • seek out other international families   Connecting with other families like yours is a good way to gain relational stability for your family. International families can help with adjustment issues, practical help, and social opportunities. An easy way to find international families in your area is to search social media with the name of your city and the word “expats,” e.g., “Manila expats.”
  • be proactive with local relationships   As you develop friendships with international families, don’t neglect relationships with locals. Local friendships may be more challenging to build, especially if language is a barrier. But it’s important to reach out and grow your understanding of local culture.
  • keep familiar items around you   Photos and meaningful items displayed in your new home will give your family a sense of identity and connection.
  • explore the unfamiliar   While keeping some familiar elements on hand is helpful, continuing to push your family to experience unfamiliar food, people, and places will help you to slowly adjust and create a “new normal.”
  • take care of your health   Don’t overlook healthful eating habits, adequate sleep, and exercise.
  • find help   If you or a family member can’t seem to move on from a bout of culture shock, don’t be afraid to seek out an experienced counselor or coach. See the World Family Education page Family Counseling & Coaching, which includes professionals who are experienced with cross-cultural issues.


Culture shock. (n.d.) In Merriam-Webster Online. Retrieved March 25, 2019, from

Work the World. “Why Culture Shock Is Good for You.” Retrieved March 25, 2019, from

University of Exeter. (2012). Homesickness factsheet.