Immigration and culture shock

5 Jul 2012

■ Mahtab Hosseini

Moving from one culture to another can be like an exciting experience or even a full of stress experience. Establishing connections between different cultures is as old as history. People raised up in their origin culture have always translocated for different purposes, like business, education or visit and the new society accepted them if they were generous or opposed them if they came for loot or to occupy; all of them experienced some personal and cultural difficulties. Difference between past and now is in a large amount of people that crossing cultures due to different aims. (Ward et al., 2001, p.4).

According to Kalervo Oberg(1960), culture shock refers to the “anxiety that results from losing all of our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse. “ or according to Peter S. Adler (1975), can be defined as “a set of emotional reactions to the loss of perceptual reinforcements from one’s own culture, to new cultural stimuli which have little or no meaning, and to the misunderstanding of new and diverse experiences. (Bennet, J.M., 1998, p.215)

Day to day by increasing intercultural connection it seems the effect of cultural shock may decrease but research is going to identify who are more suffering from this change specially who need to live for a long period of time in a new culture. (Harris, P.R. and Moran, R.T., 1991, p.224)

Culture shock is a real of fact that many people touch it in unfamiliar place, they should try to decrease its malfunctioned impact and increase the chance of cultural experience. (Harris, P.R. and Moran, R.T., 1991, p.225)

Immigration, refuge, going abroad as a student, tourist or for trading purpose or even move from one part to another part of the country of origin with different culture, marriage can be examples of cultural shock.


Regard (Bennet, J.M.,1998, p.215). Cultural shock can be considered as a subcategory of transition shock. The symptoms of cultural shock are different from one person to another in different time. They may appear as worries about health over washing hands, defencelessness, petulance, social demand of previous environmental living, physiological feedback like headache, anxiety and paranoia. (Bennet, J.M.,1998, p.217)
More attention to eating, in excess of need sleeping, making excuse and delay in learning new language, being inclined return to home (Kalervo Oberg,1960, P. 142).
Different level of cultural shock:
We can define four different emotional levels with regard to cultural shock:

1: the first level is honeymoon that in this level the individual feels satisfaction and happiness of the new environment.

2: the second level is crisis that the individual feels a lack of ability and anger and depression.

3: the third level is recovery that the individual searches solutions for his problems and is always following new knowledge in the new culture.

4: the fourth level is adjustment that the individual became agreeable with the new environment and enjoying the connections in the new culture.
The U-curve hypothesis was first expressed by Lysgaard (1955) for the above-mentioned four states of horizontal passage from one cultural shock to another cultural shock. He conduced a study on foreign students in the United States of America and found that in the first 6-18 months after arrival, students showed less adjustment attitudes. This feeling is more intensive in the period before the first six months and after 18 months. The U-curve hypothesis moved further and was studied for return shock by Gullahorn (Ward et al., 2001, p.80).

In this part, a small beginning from various cultural shock phases in different points of U-curve is studied:

Different people might show different reactions towards cultural shock and their compatibility degree might vary from one to another.
The first stage or honeymoon phase might take up to 6 months as per environmental conditions, people’s situation, events and positions the individuals face. Ordinarily, this period might be a time when everything looks fresh and new for the newcomer. This period usually starts from arrival to the hotels and if the newcomer is an important person, such as those who have important political and social ranks, everything goes well and beautiful. They are constantly in contact with different associations and they even might be able to write a book about the sweet experiences of this period; however, this period will not take long, particularly, if it is supposed the stay will be long and the individual should handle new life conditions and fit himself/herself mentally and psychologically. This is the point where the second phase will start. One of the characteristics of this period could be a hostile and angry look at the host country. In this stage, problems and difficulties double for the person since usually in this time, the individual should handle problems in school, new language, finding house, transportation services, purchasing or dealing with the people of this new country. The host country people try to understand and help you but you see them unsuitable and believe people neither see the worries nor care much. As a result of such condition, the statement “I don’t like this people” forms in mind. This stage is in fact the critical stage and if you can pass through it, you could remain in the new country; otherwise, you definitely would not have a successful passage of this second stage and should deal with it. In reality, if after the initial confusion you could find yourself and learn the language of the new country, you could start finding ways to arrive into the new culture and new environment.

You will still have problems but now there is a stage where you would say, it is my choice and I should pass through it. You are now in recovery stage and you might even share jokes with the host country people and understand theirs. You could even help others who have less fortunate positions and experience less favourably than you and this would improve your self confidence. Your ability in talking, finding yourself and fitting in the environment has increased.

In the fourth stage or adjustment, the individual has adopted the culture of the new country and has selected it as a new way of life. The individual might even participate in cultural environment and activities in new country without feeling stress or anxiety.

In this stage, even if the individual does not have a full perception of all social signs and symbols of the new country, he still has full command on his self and the past worries and anxieties leave him. After a long time, people could see what people of the host country are actually saying and they might not be ascertained of the actual meaning of statements. Perhaps in this stage, you might have already adopted yourself to foods, drinks and customs of the new country and even share with them and enjoy very much so far as when you go back to your country, you could not forget the culture and people of the country you had just become accustomed to. (Kalervo Oberg, P. 143)

Researches show that children have better adaptability to environment than adults do and among the latter, women are more sensitive and vulnerable; however, this depends on the partner and husband of the woman and his cooperation and helps. The degrees of his familiarity with the environment or on the contrary, his being preoccupied with his own business, all play a great role in this adaptation.

In any event, any person who experiences cultural shock, in return to his previous and main culture faces a challenge named return shock.

In this respect, those who suffer from symptoms of cultural shock – as explained before – postponed learning new languages more than others and prefer to either stay alone or return home. In any event, there are individuals who experience a new crisis and become troubled. This might lead them to growing habits such as alcoholism, narcotic drugs or suffering from problems in job and marriage. It is better if such people return to their country for treatment and recovery.

Cultural shock is neither good nor bad in its own sense. It is neither a must nor an unnecessary thing. It is a mere fact that people face and in some unfamiliar and unpredictable condition should deal with. In such conditions, the best solution is to underestimate their problems and difficulties and magnify the opportunities and changes they might have in the new environment and work on them. In this connection, governments and associations could reduce the unfavourable effects of cultural shock so people who migrate to other countries for work could have more efficiency and output and handle their problems easier. Usually, those who are able to work in international environment have some personality indexes, such as flexibility, compatibility, social maturity, innovation and creativity.

From the viewpoints of states and companies, travelled and experienced people with international work experiences are better candidates for working in new international environment because they less likely become homesick, depressed or fail in compatibility with new environment.
Of course, on the other hand, the realities and problems in passing from one culture to another should not be denied. The newcomer might experience problems in his digestive system and intensive or be exposed to the local diseases of the host country, especially if the latter is not in good health situation. In such cases, a mere vaccination or having new antibiotics before travelling could not be a strong defence line.

Water system, transportation, power…could bring problems in those countries and the person might not be able to find a suitable place to live.

In some cases, the reality of the problem goes back to the inability of the individual in communication with people of host country or adopting himself to new climate, culture and tradition.

Despite this, it is man who makes culture; therefore, shocks which occurred due to social and economic differences between the two countries could not go beyond tolerance and an inter-cultural experience could be both suitable and constructive. It might contribute improvement and development of people and become a base for familiarity with a new world and new people. (Harris, P.R. and Moran, R.T., 1991, Pp 225,226)

In this part, an unsuccessful experience of cultural shock is discussed.
After graduation from university and a few years of work and business in my own country, I moved my own company to another one for more communication with international companies and since developing business always demands more investment; I had to continue my work by taking a business partner with 50% share of investment.

At the beginning of this move, everything seemed so interesting and new to us. At a first glance, the existing differences in business and social laws looked great and we thought every thing would go all right.
The first stage was to find a suitable place for the company. This had its own problems. Ultimately, after bearing large expenses, we found a place and the company was founded. We wrote articles of association, determined the equity of the shares of the shareholders and then, it was the turn for personal works; that is, a stage we had to put a step into society.

My previous environment was still a business environment with some differences in my own country. When I arrived into the second phase for finding a house and adjusting ourselves with new conditions and climate, my business partner showed signs of problems and, to some extent, rejection attitude. He became fearful and one of the most important reasons of such fear was his lack of ability to establish good verbal communication with people of the host country. At first, his discomfort showed itself in being easily offended by people and dissatisfaction of the way they ate and behaved. In the beginning, I thought he could adjust himself with the new condition although it should not be denied that the climate condition of the new country was not pleasant at all but I thought that we had other aims and I should open trading ways. Nevertheless, in conclusion, it turned out that it became intolerable for my business partner to stay and live in the new country. He first decided to manage the work from the original country and travel between the two countries often. In fact, his presence was necessary for working in that condition.

Due to lack of communication with people and culture of the host country, in each trip to the host country, he suffered from many problems and finally, he quit partnership and since his share incoming was a large amount, I could not continue my work either- regarding the fact that a 50% share is a greatly determining factor. As a result, I faced many financial problems in that large competitive environment and had no choice but returning home. It was a bitter experience of cultural shock in my business activities.

What is the relationship between people and culture?
The answer to this question and thinking this subject is very important in achieving solutions to cultural shock problem. In addition, the environment people live in is made of a physical environment and an environment consisting of special ideas and parameters. People are not born with a special culture but they come to world to learn. Their present culture is the product of education they acquired in society. They have capacity to learn many things and it is not only parents who play a role in those teachings, but the culture of any individual is a result of history and civilization of that society. It is as old as man’s appearance on earth. The items children gradually learn become a lifestyle and a way they believe in, are familiar with it and could communicate to their surrounding and ultimately, it becomes a vale. Sometimes culture is only an issue which is accepted by people and sometimes, it becomes a valuable subject and is looked as the best form. For this reason, people used to believe that threatening me is threatening my country and threatening my country is threatening me. Modern societies are in fact a combination of various societies which have communication. It is a combination of various groups, divided from each other by religions and even geographic regions, such as urbanism or rural residence. Each group has its own culture and characteristics; nevertheless, despite all those differences, they might have an official language and shared communication signs and culture. So, they made a nation and it could be easily seen that familiarity of a person with a culture is not an easy task. There are different judgments, ideas, geographic conditions and languages that make cultures complicated. (Kalervo Oberg,1960, P. 145).

What is the solution?

The adjustability responses of people differ based on their personality and characteristics. This sometimes makes the solution look too easy. The characteristics could include complexity and creation of a cultural unity with new culture. In this cultural transition, man constantly asks himself “Who am I?”

Interruption in the frequency of asking this question and overcoming the feeling of being stranger and alienation with new culture could be a great help in solving this problem.

In a cultural shock experience, in the first stage, we should be familiar and coordinated with our own culture and nationality. We should perfectly know the values, ideas, belief, culture and nationality of our own and have command on them. This helps us to understand values and beliefs of other nations easier. Sometimes people might think that cultural unity means meddling the host country’s affairs but this assumption is wrong. The reality is sharing viewing the world and your country with them. In fact, it is a worldwide participation . There is no need to think on our situation and focus on changing conditions constantly; rather, we should try to adjust ourselves with the new culture and conditions. This cultural unity helps us to make communication with the new culture easier and the newcomer could show adoptability reactions (Bennet, J.M., 1998, Pp 220,221).

A few hints in making an easy pass through culture:
1. Information input: One of the most usual solutions in passing through a culture is having necessary information on the destination culture. This is accessible through libraries, books, associations and other communication media. Information such as different types of food, water, climate, social communication, special religious ceremonies of the destination and similar points. However, the disadvantage of this method is that, all information is only theoretical and too general and there might be times when in practice, issues take other forms and become too detailed.

The cultural sensitisation is the next education. This education not only gives a series of information on the other culture, but also increases man’s knowledge on his own cultural trends. The goal is to compare cultural differences and reviewing social behaviour in cultural perspective.

The next effective technique is imitation or showing off. In this method, the person imitates all social behaviours of the host country where they are completely opposite to the social behaviours of his own culture. This education is used only in state organizations, schools and nursery schools. The individual puts himself in the shoes of an individual of the opposite culture and acts contrary to his own culture. One of the most famous games or education is Bafa Bafa teaching as practiced in the USA. Researches show that the practical learning via this method is much more effective than memorizing information on the destination culture.
Another technique is the method of critical exposure (critical encounter). This technique gives explanations on social contacts that might give way to misunderstanding and incompatibility of people in different cultures. This technique discusses a series of events that result in emotional and behavioural reactions in person and the trainee learns how to make problems easier after such events instead of being harmed or hurt.

The next technique is the cultural replication technique. In fact, this method is the more complicated version of critical encounter techniques with the difference that in this technique, the common cultural characteristics and role they play to make inter-cultures communication easier are discussed. An effective inter-culture relationship needs to adopt common characteristics and understanding those common points in order to use those perceptions and understanding in the person for their common reactive behaviours (Ward et al., 2001, pp257-261).

A few things for overcoming cultural shock from my personal experience
I have experienced various situations of cultural shock in other countries due to my frequent visits to other countries either for study or work. One of the greatest factors of this shock in my view is the foreign language. This shock might be in some cases paralysing in economic, mental or emotional respect because the person is unable to make a suitable communication with the host society and they do not understand the visitor either. Language in such conditions is the key to all closed doors. In an effort to adjust to unfamiliar and strange culture as soon as possible and gaining a new social identity in another society, we should do our best to learn the language of that society. This, of course, should not be started after immigration and settlement in the destination country. It should start before arriving into the new culture to be completed in that culture. When we are able to understand the language of a society, we can learn para-lingual contracts and patterns of social communication through using the regulations of making verbal communication. These rules include using suitable phrases as per the situation, the way to look, and the way to use body language in speaking…

Nonetheless, it should not be forgotten that such an extensive education could not be done unless growing a feeling of unity and sympathy with the new culture, respecting the culture and tolerance before differences; for, many social cultural patterns are reflected in language and the learner sees the mental frameworks and ideology of the destination society in the mirror of that society. Therefore, language could be a medium to other cultures and finding an easy and smooth method to learn language, in my view, is the greatest step in overcoming cultural shock and growing adjustability with people of a given society. For this reason, people who arrive into this stage – mostly adults – should behave as they were children and use language unconsciously and learn in the same way. Perhaps, it might not be easy in the beginning because our self-image as an adult does not give us that room to be highly flexible to learn language like children. One should not be afraid of making mistakes in using the new language and should not worry too much about verbal mistakes. This very fear acts as a barrier in establishing communication.

Another point is that, in facing a new culture, one should not take an aggressive attitude towards the new society. After arrival into a new society, let us have a time to rest our mind and give time to our self to find itself and search for ways to adjust with the new culture. Some items of the new culture could be borrowed and some points of our own culture might be given.


Limitations, restrictions, susceptibility and correlations caused by cultural encounters lead to different individual reactions along peoples with different cultures or entities. The cultural shock is a term that reveals in fact that this condition is a cold and stressful situation; however, despite the definitions given on cultural shock during these years and showing it as a negative trend, people will ultimately come face to face with it. Therefore, the individual should acquire some skills in order to have a positive and active encounter with this process and learn how to organize his emotions, behaviours and thoughts when exposed to a new culture and condition.

When a person arrives into a strange environment, he certainly experiences confusion, perplexity, anxiety, suspicious and agitation. A series of educations and personal abilities, such as self confidence, accepting confidence and finding social supports could help to deal with a new situation. The reason is that thoughts, rules, contracts and assumptions creating inter-human relationship, verbal or non-verbal, vary in other countries. People who pass through culture might show behaviours, verbal or non-verbal, that in the opposite society and new culture could be even taken as a crime. Therefore, it is necessary for an individual planning to start in a new environment, to acquire some education of principles, basic communications and effective social skills in the new country as well as to learn some points on philosophy, history, basics of society policies and philosophy of the target country.
Culture has various meanings, cultural principles which are implied by people as personal communication, official and mental communication are in fact the manifestations of a culture and differ from one culture to another (Ward et al., 2001, Pp 270, 271).
Ultimately, the effects of cultural shock for me increased my self-confidence, creativity and creation of effective relationships between people of different nations and learning various cultures or teaching our own culture.


Bennet, J. M.(1998): Transition shock. Putting Culture Shock in Perspective.
Ward, C., Bochner, S., and Furnham, A.(2001):The Psychology of Culture Shock. 2th ed.,Hove : Routledge [u.a.].
Harris, P. R. & Moran R. T.(1991): Managing Cultural Diferences. High Performance Strategies for a New World of Business.
Oberg, K. (1960): Cultural Shock: Adjustment to New Cultural Environments.

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