2: Culture Shock

Once settled, life can finally return to normal. Left behind are frantic weeks of packing and unpacking, long hours on airplanes, stress, fatigue and the inevitable house hunting. After this most tedious phase of transition is past, the pleasures of life of France can begin. This will be an exciting time, filled with newness, change, and the ever-important necessity of adjusting to a new culture. Being aware of this “process of adjustment” can help ensure that a stay in France will be enriched by cultural differences, rather than overwhelmed by them.To understand culture shock, or the adjustment to a new culture, is to first realize that much of our own behavior is culturally bound and not individually initiated. Like the mother tongue one speaks, one’s own culture is learned gradually, first as a child and subsequently over a long period of time. The way to do things was often the way “they” did things, a learning and internalization process that is forgotten, as it occurred so long ago. However, when suddenly uprooted from one’s own culture and beginning life in a new one, one thing that quickly becomes evident is that “things are sure done differently here from the way they are done at home!” This is the initial step of culture shock, which will lead eventually to cultural awareness.

Culture shock was first defined in the 1960’s by Dr. Kalervo Oberg , an anthropologist who stated that culture shock is initiated by “the anxiety that results from losing familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse.” Dr. Oberg went on to define six aspects of cultural shock:
1. Strain due to the effort required to make necessary psychological adaptations.
2. A sense of loss and feelings of deprivation regarding friends, family, status, career and possessions.
3. Being rejected by and/or rejecting members of the new culture.
4. Confusion in role, role expectation, values, feelings and self-identity.
5. Surprise, anxiety and even disgust and indignation after becoming aware of cultural differences.
6. Feelings of impotence due to not being able to cope with a new environment.

From this definition of cultural shock, Oberg developed a six-month model, which is still in use today. Basically, the model defines one’s behavior in terms of activities, attitudes, emotions and physical responses associated with each month of a six-month time frame, although the cycle or parts of it can be repeated at any time with a variety of reactions and time periods.

The following is a typical six-month cycle of culture schock adapted from Culture Shock! France by Sally Adamson Taylor:

• Pre-Departure: Defined by excitement, anticipation and enthusiasm. Planning and packing along with farewells are key activities. Emotions are running high and although excited, everyone is also a bit apprehensive and concerned.

• First Month: still filled with the excitement of travel and newness of food, culture and environment. Learning the language becomes a priority. Some may experience a condition called crise de foie as a result of too much rich butter, cream and fat in the diet.

• Second Month: distinguished by the awareness of differences being felt as unpleasant. Inconveniences in accomodation, not speaking the language well enough to be understood and the lack of familiarity of foods, shops, friends and surroundings are noticed. Colds, flu and weight gain can be consequences of these stresses.

• Third Month: often the low point in the adjustment period. Language skills seem to stagnate and personal productivity drops. Nothing about the French people seems positive and all the negative generalizations seem to be true. Family and friends are greatly missed, as is the routine at home. Extreme fatigue and sometimes illness are frequent at this time.

• Fourth and Fifth month: the beginning of the return of enthusiasm and enjoyment of friends and the French. New foods, new ways of doing things and the language are tried with a positive effect. Emotions are smoother, confidence is regained and built upon, and health is restored.

• Sixth Month: brings normal lifestyle, with established routines and social life in place. Traveling locally has begun. The ups and downs of living abroad are accepted and thus you are now able to help others in similar circumstances. Normality, indeed, has finally smiled on you once again!

Although everyone does not follow this cycle, an overwhelming majority does. The advantages of being aware of this cycle are that you will be easier on yourself, your friends and family members, when you or they are experiencing a new period, because of the change in culture. You can also be a great help in explaining things to others who may not understand what they are experiencing. It is important to remember that certain aspects of culture shock can be triggered at any time, and are not necessarily limited to the initial six-month period following relocation.

What are the causes of culture shock?
• Being cut off from cultural signals and known patterns of communication, especially the subtle, indirect ways of expressing feelings.
• Living or working over an extended period of time in a situation that is ambiguous.
• Having personal values (which were previously considered absolutes) brought into question.
• Being continually put into positions in which you are expected to function with maximum skill and speed, but where the rules have not been adequately explained.

What are the signs of culture shock?
• Homesickness
• Withdrawal (i.e. spending excessive amounts of time reading and avoiding contact with local nationals)
• Chauvinistic excesses
• Stereotyping of host nationals
• Need for excessive amounts of sleep
• Marital stress
• Loss of ability to work effectively
• Compulsive eating or drinking
• Unexplainable fits of weeping
• Irritability
• Physical ailments (psychosomatic illness)
• Boredom
• Exaggerated cleanliness
• Family tension & conflict


1. Gather information. The more that is known about a place or its people, the less foreign or threatening they seem. Consider travelling locally, taking a cooking class, or joining a club.

2. Do not criticize the host culture. Resist the temptation of talking negatively about the local people.

3. Find a friend. Find someone who can serve as a “cultural informant” to introduce parts of local life and practices that are not normally accessible to foreigners (a child’s classmate’s parent, a neighbor, Tandem Partners, a club). This will help make sense of the cultural differences one naturally encounters.

4. Look at the “big picture” Find patterns and interrelationships that explain what is going on so that it no longer seems confusing. For example, examine the differences between:

  • Take time commitments seriously
  • Time commitments are an objective to achieve, if possible
  • Adhere religiously to plans
  • Change plans often and easily
  • Emphasize promptness
  • Base promptness on the relationship
  • Short-term relationships
  • LIfetime relationships
  • Do one thing at a time
  • Do many things at once
  • Respect for private property
  • Seldom borrow or lend
  • Reciprocal obligations
  • Borrow and lend often and easily
  • Low context (one says what one means)
  • High context (words are not the full picture)
North America, UK, Germany, Switzerland & Scandinavia France, Italy, Latin America, Spain, North Africa, China, Japan

5. Keep a sense of humor! Put it all in perspective and learn to laugh at yourself and the strange situations inevitably encountered.

6. Avoid self-pity.

7. Get enough rest.

8. Maintain a healthy diet. (If you can resist the foie gras!)

9. Have a sense of adventure; take some risks. (Get a French haircut.)

10. Use friends and family for support.

11. Get enough regular exercise.

12. Ask for help when needed. (AIT is a great support network.)

13. Keep involved with others; don’t withdraw.

14. Develop new interests and skills. (Take a cooking or sculpting class.)

15. Keep active mentally. (Keep up the French lessons.)

16. Record your experiences, insights and frustrations in a daily journal. (Who knows, a magazine may accept one of your pieces!)

In order to minimize the effects of cultural change, it is recommended to read as much information as possible concerning not only France and the French, but also about the effects of cultural change. Also, and just as important, hone observation skills: Try to see things as “different”, instead of labeling behavior as “good” or “bad”, “right” or “wrong”. Be open and flexible to change as much as possible, but realize that everything cannot be assimilated all at once.

The spouse or partner of the person being transferred should be aware that they often have more to assimilate and to be responsible for in the beginning than their mate, especially if there are children involved. Housing, unpacking, food, cooking, and education are all usually delegated to the non-working spouse or partner. Take this into consideration when feeling overwhelmed by it all. Our best advice is to call for help! Many of us have been there and understand. We are more than willing to offer our assistance.

There are many ways to experience a new culture and you are encouraged to find the manner that suits you, your family, and your particular lifestyle. It is a unique experience to understand another culture from first-hand knowledge; it can provide rich and broadening rewards. Savor the uniqueness this opportunity presents, knowing it will probably end one day, and knowing there will be many stories to tell when it does!

Above all, be patient with yourself: It takes time to adapt, and to assimilate the many cultural differences that inevitably exist.