Culture shock

Travel is not all moonlight and roses. Relocating to a foreign environment for a longer period of time can bring culture shock. The more we travel, less likely we are to experience it, or we will experience on a smaller scale. Can culture shock be avoided? Not entirely, but if we prepare correctly before arrival to somewhere new and different, transition will go more smoothly

What is a culture shock?

Culture shock is personal disorientation you may feel when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life. It can occur due to immigration or a visit to a new country, sometimes even only a move between social environments can cause it. Or a travel to another type of life. One of the most common causes of culture shock involves individuals in a foreign environment. Culture shock can be described as consisting of at least one of four distinct phases: honeymoon, frustration, adjustment, and mastery.

bus, Indonesia, locals

First days in a new place are full of new sights.

What are the phases of a culture shock?

If your visit is short, you won’t have time to experience all of them. But what would an immigrant, an expat or possibly an Erasmus student on a six months exchange feel?


This is the first stage. You arrive to the new country. Everything and everyone is exciting and great. You want to experience and try everything. It can last for the first few weeks or even up to half a year, if the expat is surrounded with only other expats of his nationality, and if he is not often exposed to the local culture. This can occur in closed communities, for example with families living in military camps abroad or with students, which only hang out with other students from the same land. So they are based abroad, but do not really notice it that much.
The usual traveller will return home from his holidays, before the next stage starts.

small shop in Indonesia

In honeymoon phase, life is great.


After a while, the differences between the old and new culture become apparent. Anxiety will start. You will start noticing differences between your and their way of life. And it can feel annoying, and you might feel anger. Some things might offend you. There will be more and less sun light than back at home, which will lead to daylight drowsiness or insomnia. Different food and water will send you to the toilet more often than in your country. And you will have to explain your symptoms to a doctor, which might not understand your language, and pills he prescribes are probably different type to those you are used to.
When you are adjusting to your new home, you will feel homesick and lost, specially, if you don’t speak the local language. Students might start isolating themselves from outside world and Skyping with friends at home a lot.


After six months to one year, one should be in an adjustment phase. He doesn’t criticize the local way of life anymore. The foreign land is now home. He has his favourite bar, where he regularly meets his friends, knows where to buy fresh vegetables and where to fix his car. The short days don’t affect him anymore, and maybe he has taken on a local sport.

Morocco, bath, bain

Learning the local language is a big plus.


This is the most pleasant stage. The expat is completely emerged in the new land. He sits in local bars, drinks local beer, and not only with expats. He orders rounds in a local language, but with an accent, of course. He knows the name of the mayor of the town he lives in and follows local newspapers. And he cares about the park they are going to destroy to build the new housing complex. He knows which topics are appropriate for bar chat and which are taboo. He has figured out when to shake hands and when to greet someone with kisses as well. He belongs there.

And then it is time to go home

When we return we experience reverse culture shock. When we are away we start forgetting the bad things and only remember the good about our fellow countrymen. And we pick up some habits that are highly unusual in our culture. We expect things to be the same as they were when we left, but world changes. Cousins grow up and dogs die while we are abroad. Your friends have married, divorced, had children or moved to another country while you were working in Japan. This stage can be even more unpleasant, since people don’t expect problems when they return.

How do I know I am experiencing cultural shock?

Well, these are some of the symptoms, you might experience during the Frustration stage:
– Homesickness
– Boredom
– Eating, cleaning, drinking or gaining weight too much
– Stereotyping host nationals, being hostile towards them
– You have mood swings, fatalistic thoughts, glazed stare, unexplained crying…
– You experience typical physiological stress reactions
– You are feeling helpless and want your home and old friends


sea, woman, Indonesia

Don’t turn your back to people, find new friends in your new environment.

How to avoid it?

Even seasoned travellers will probably experience some culture shock, but less with every relocation. And with preparation before the voyage, quite a lot of stress can be avoided.

  1. Learn the local language in advance. It will make your life easier and you will find friends faster. Funny and free way to do this is Duolingo.
  2. Read as much about the country you are going to as you can. What are the cultural norms and customs? The more you know in advance, the better you will react.
  3. Are there any fun places you really want to see during the weekends? That can motivate you to cope during the long working week.
  4. Find groups of expats or students who already live there. They had to go through the same process and now know where the best language schools are, where to get insurance and what card for the metro you need. You can check the area in advance, on the google maps.
  5. Stay active. There are probably some groups who do the same sports or hobbies you did at home. Find them, but also find some new local ones. There might not be much mountaineering in Brussels area, but there are inside sport climbing centres and walking events. And they are Tolkien fans in places you woldn’t believe. Easy way to find friends is MeetUp.
  6. Keep in touch with friends and family. Over Skype, Facebook, snail mail, phone or visits. That way you won’t be so shocked when you visit and find out your niece is not a toddler anymore. And your friends know you and will notice if you start showing symptoms of stress.

Don’t go abroad to stay with expats from your home country or spend all your free time with them. You won’t gain much from the experience and you will miss a lot.

Since goblins love to travel, but usually do it on budget, we use Airbnb. By using this link to subscribe, you get 22 euro of your first trip, and we get a little discount on our next. If you are not into Airbnb, there is a link on the right side of our page. Find cheap rooms in hostels or hotels, and … travel as much as you can.

Posted in Deep thoughts, Travel smart.
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