Culture shock/stress – intro & definitions

As noted by the last post of Patrick Nabwera’s thesis (Why missionaries quit 4), culture shock is one of the biggest challenges for someone working cross-culturally. Patrick said (and this will become clearer when he makes recommendations) that preparation and more realistic expectations can go a long way toward improving quality of life and the success of cross-cultural missionaries. Recently I was talking to a wonderful friend here on campus – a friend so great that she didn’t want to be named – and found out that she had given lectures on culture shock based on T. Wayne Dye’s “Stress-producing factors in cultural adjustment” (Missiology 2 1974: 61-77). With her permission, I am going to post parts of her lecture on culture stress – “transmogrified Dye” – over the next couple of days. (We well resume posts on Patrick’s thesis a bit later.)

As a good introduction, Mark Fowler writes elsewhere:

Many missionaries arrive on their fields feeling as though they are well prepared for an inevitable culture shock. After having lived some time on the field however, the missionary will come to realize that this was not entirely true. What often happens is the people graciously make allowances for new missionaries and adapt their responses to their cultural context.

As time moves on, the people make fewer allowances expecting the missionary to adapt and integrate into their society. The missionary’s ability or inability to do so will determine two essential factors [frustration and effectiveness].

Culture Shock Definitions:

Kalervo Oberg, (in an article in Practical Anthropology, 1960) was among the first to talk about what he called “culture shock”: Culture shock is the “anxiety that results from losing all our familiar signs and symbols of social…relationships”. Wayne Dye (an article in Missiology, 1974) makes a further distinction saying that what Oberg calls “culture Shock” should be renamed “cultural confusion” or “cultural stress” – the result of losing a familiar set of cultural cues. The real problem, according to Dye, comes when a person begins to realize that she needs to change to a new way of living. This second situation can last, he says, for many years.

The problem with both definitions above is that they come out of a clinical approach to dysfunctional behavior. They imply that the person facing a different culture is going to experience breakdown, failure and defeat (which sometimes does happen–it is true), but perhaps a defeatist attitude is not the most helpful way to approach the subject.

Adrian Furnham and Stephen Bochner, Culture Shock (1986) make the point that in the previous thinking of Oberg and others, the assumption lying beneath the surface was that a normal, healthy person, in confronting another culture was confronting some kind of inevitable breakdown and failure. A newer model (which these authors proposed) suggested that the traveler , or “sojourner” is not so much in need of therapy as in need of programs of preparation, and “acquisiton of culturally appropriate social skills” so that they develop strategies for learning to behave in socially appropriate ways (p. 13).

What Furnham and Bochner are really recommending is (p. 14) that the sojourner not necessarily capitulate to a new culture, but learn its salient characteristics and thus become cross-culturally competent – knowing how to push and shove to get on a train in Toyko, and stand quietly in a queue in England (and hopefully not be in any confusion about which country they are in).

p. 28 “…a more useful conceptual framework…draws on the principle of integration. ‘Integration’ refers to the accommodation that comes about when different groups maintain their respective core cultural identities, while at the same time merging into a superordinate group in other, equally important respects.”

Bochner, Stephen and Adrian Furnham. Culture Shock: Psychological Reactions Unfamiliar Environments. London: Methuen Publishing, 1986

Koteskey goes further to focus on culture stress, which lasts a lot longer than the initial shock. Another helpful resource: What Missionaries Ought to know about Culture Stress by Ronald L. Koteskey
He writes:

How is culture stress different from culture shock?

As culture shock was originally defined (honeymoon, crisis, recovery, adjustment), culture stress was considered to be a part of it. However, the word “shock” connotes something sudden and short-lived. Thus, many people today think of culture shock as the crisis stage (confusion, disorientation, and lack of control) and the recovery stage (language and cultural cues more familiar). These stages begin when the new missionary leaves the enthusiastic, exciting, optimistic tourist mode, usually beginning in a few weeks, worsening for about six months, and basically ending within a year or two.

Culture stress is the adjustment stage in which people accept the new environment, adopting new ways of thinking and doing things so that they feel like they belong to the new culture. This takes years, and some missionaries never complete it. This may go on and on.

What causes culture stress? Find out by clicking – What Missionaries Ought to know about Culture Stress;

From Missionary Care Resources: Resources for Missions and Mental Health

2 thoughts on “Culture shock/stress – intro & definitions

  1. Abraham says:

    Hi,my name is Abraham from Indonesia. I’d like to have a several question for u. Because I’ve CCU(Cross Cultural Understanding) class’s assignment.

    Have you ever had a culture adjustment in your living place? Can you accept the cultural changing in there? How did they(the people)accept you? Is any requirement to become one society with them?

    Thanks for your help. I appreciate if you reply my comment.

    • Daliana Duran says:

      Hi Abraham,
      Are you still interested in cross cultural Understanding? It would be nice to chat with you.

      Best regards,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.