I just came back from spending 3 weeks in Bali, Indonesia. Bali is a hugely diverse island with a rich Hindu animist culture. Its landscape offers anything from stunning beaches, lush rainforests, and impressive volcanoes and waterfalls. Its culture is deeply rooted in Hindu beliefs, and Balinese people are very tolerant and welcoming to foreigners and people from different cultures.

While all of these are prerequisites for a perfect holiday destination – and don’t get me wrong, I had a fabulous time there – I did find myself exhausted at some point halfway through my vacation. Exhausted from trying to decipher the unfamiliar ways Balinese people behave, interact and communicate. I felt lost, unable to orient myself in an unfamiliar social and cultural environment. All I wanted for breakfast was my beloved coffee and croissant instead of Nasi Goreng. Then suddenly it hit me: I am experiencing culture shock!

Have you ever felt disoriented, lost, even irritated when you were on holiday, or living, studying or working abroad? If so, the culture shock model will help you understand why, and make sense of your experience.

What is culture shock?

The Oxford dictionary defines culture shock as disorientation experienced when suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture or way of life. The term culture shock was first coined by anthropologist Kalervo Oberg in 1960. To this date, it remains one of the most powerful and practical concepts to explain behavioral reactions that occur when people attempt to live, work, or study in unfamiliar cultural contexts. Here is how it works:

When you expose yourself to a foreign culture, you go through 4 phases.

1 – Honeymoon: You will feel excited, fascinated and stimulated by the newness of everything: new food, different pace of life, people’s habits. The differences are intriguing; you see the new culture in an almost romantic light. However, as with most honeymoon periods, it doesn’t last.

2 – Distress or Crisis: After a while, the differences between your own and the new culture will become more apparent and start to wear you down. The initial excitement gives way to feelings of frustration, maybe even anxiety or hostility. Language is often a major barrier, which can make it difficult to manage common day-to-day activities, such as shopping or transportation. You might feel homesick, longing for familiar food and surroundings.

3 – Recovery or Adjustment: Slowly but surely you will get used to the new culture and develop abilities to cope with and adjust to the differences. The culture begins to make sense to you, and you start appreciating where you are. The fog is being lifted.

4 – Adaptation or Feeling at Home: From here on, you’ll really start to adapt to the new culture, embrace its differences and accept what it has to offer. You’ll feel confident and comfortable, and are fully able to participate in the new cultural context, even making friends, building social relationships.

Moving through the stages of culture shock is completely normal and can be a great personal learning experience. It’ll make you more aware of aspects of your own culture and broadens your horizon. If you understand the phases of cultural adjustment, it can help you cope with stress and negative emotions when you are travelling, working or living in an unfamiliar culture.

Has this been helpful? Have you recently experienced culture shock yourself?