24.06.2020 – Cultural differences and culture shock

Changing the country of residence frequently also involves a change of culture, which can lead to discomfort and stress. The greater the cultural differences, the greater the chance of problems with adaptation to the new environment. These can give rise to a phenomenon faced by almost every immigrant – the so-called culture shock.

So what is culture? In what aspects of culture can there be significant differences and why can they cause puzzlement, misunderstanding and even conflict?  

Culture is commonly perceived as a sphere of values, good manners, artistic life or works of art. However, there is another understanding of culture – as a entirety of socially transmitted patterns of behaviour, beliefs, institutions and outputs of human work and thought. Therefore, culture includes everything that is produced by humans and which does not constitute inner nature and their individual habits. Researchers of culture distinguish four aspects of it:

  • MATERIAL – the fruits of human production, the objects invented or constructed by man that we use and all visible art,
  • RELATED TO BEHAVIOUR – customs, recurring practices and rituals,
  • SPIRITAL CULTURE – knowledge, the meanings assigned to objects and practices, symbols that determine the meaning of phenomena and events, recognised beliefs, views and ideas,
  • NORMATIVE CULTURE – these include practices, rules, standards and recommendations for desired actions and a set of prohibitions.

Some researchers compare culture to the iceberg, where only a small part – the one above water – is visible.

One of the models (Martinelli et al, 2000) presents culture as a construct similar to the iceberg, where only a small part – the one above the water – is visible. Most of the iceberg is hidden under water. The same is true of culture and cultural differences. The first thing that comes to mind when we think about the differences between cultures is exoticism associated with holidays: different food, different clothes, music, or the impression that people talk to each other loudly. All that we observe is the tip of the iceberg protruding above water. The main area of cultural differences is not how people look and behave – but how they think, how they communicate with others, how they create social relationships, what is important to them and how they see the world.

There are some elements of culture that participants are aware of, for example, that traditional costumes, culinary habits, house architecture, music, rules related to showing respect and ways of celebrating and communicating with loved ones and strangers all belong to culture. Other aspects are not associated with culture at all, e.g. ways of expressing emotions: joy, despair or rage, ways of thinking, perceiving and experiencing natural and social reality. Hence the comparison to the iceberg, the main part of which is invisible at first sight, just like the core of culture. These imperceptible cultural conditions manifest themselves in behaviours, expressions of emotions, aspirations, beliefs, body language, hierarchy of values, way of perceiving the world and methods of building relations with others. It should be kept in mind that many behaviours seemingly unrelated to culture are deeply rooted in it.

In intercultural psychology, culture is described as a system of norms, values and behaviours characteristic of a particular group of people. Therefore, when meeting a person from a different culture, we need to assume that their system of norms, values and behaviours may differ from that of ours. Simply accepting this fact makes it easier to communicate with another person – we accept the fact that the other person thinks differently and we are open to communicate despite the differences. If we want to communicate effectively it is also important to understand what the other person is talking about and read their messages correctly.

When meeting a person from a different culture we should assume that their system of norms, values and behaviours may be different from ours.

Coming from a particular culture makes everyone see the world through the so-called cultural veil. This means not fully formulated and unexpressed assumptions about individual and social life, which we are not fully aware of, but which direct our thoughts and influence our behaviour. We perceive the world around us and representatives of other cultures through such a prism.

Cultural shock

Having arrived in a new country, one begins to function in two worlds – the old one, before emigration, and the new one, which a migrant is just getting to know. Before adapting to the new social environment, some time passes, during which a change of moods is experienced. Joining a new culture requires a lot of effort. It requires day-to-day work and dealing with a multitude of different emotions. We then function simultaneously in two different systems of norms, values and observe behaviour that is new to us. This can result in experiencing misunderstanding, disorientation, stress and anger. The moment when these two divergent systems come into contact with each other in human consciousness is called culture shock.

The phenomenon of culture shock can be divided into five following phases:

  1. “Honeymoon” – this is the time when a person enjoys moving to another country, sees its advantages, is satisfied with the new situation, work, studies, the possibility of visiting a new place.
  2. The first phase of shock – it turns out that the person is not functioning efficiently under the new conditions. He/she experiences incompetence, is unable to communicate fluently, suffers from misunderstandings. At the same time, the stress increases. The contact with people representing the new culture seems terrifying.
  3. The second phase of shock – a person starts to slowly recover from the crisis and begins to acquire competence in functioning in a new culture, starts to understand new attitudes.
  4. Understanding – a person gradually regains emotional stability, regains the sense of control and has the feeling that he or she behaves adequately to the situation.
  5. Intercultural competence – a person gains the ability to function in a new culture and everyday life is no longer so stressful.

Culture shock has been experienced by many people who have changed their country of residence to stay in a new place for a longer time. Its course and duration depends on many factors: e.g. the prospects (or not) of returning to homeland, economic status and economic stability, the real difference between the cultures of the home and the host country, but also the way in which the person was welcomed into the new country, how he/she is treated, and the level of support from family or friends.

Functioning in a foreign culture can evoke a sense of discomfort or stress known as culture shock, experienced by almost all immigrants.

Culture shock is a typical experience, and feelings of longing, sorrow, despair due to separation from loved ones or fear of the new are normal. Most importantly, all stages of the described culture shock phenomenon are of temporary nature.

Recovery from culture shock requires adaptation to this new culture; first and foremost it must be well understood. It is also necessary to handle negative reactions to the new culture and to develop an attitude based on tolerance.

It is important to remember that difficulties in communicating with a person from another culture are not always the result of cultural differences. It should always be kept in mind that the person we meet is in a particular life situation and that many of his or her actions result from individual traits that do not necessarily have their roots in the culture. Each person is simply different from others.

Cultures can vary in numerous ways, which are referred to as ‘cultural dimensions’. These are areas or fields in which different cultures function differently. The subsequent articles will outline these dimensions. In the upcoming edition you are invited to read the article on different approaches to hierarchy in society, which is closely linked to the dimension of culture called power distance.