4 typical stages of culture stress

These four stages of culture shock are fairly well known, but somehow when we are in the midst of them, we tend to forget. The critical phases are 2 and 3; how we respond will determine whether or not we ever fit in (4).

Adapted by Joyce and friends from T. Wayne Dye’s “Stress-producing factors in cultural adjustment” (Missiology 2 1974: 61-77) – “transmogrified Dye”:

1. The honeymoon: an initial reaction of fascination, enthusiasm, admiration for everything, and cordial (friendly) but superficial relationships with your hosts.  At this stage you are highly motivated.

You want to learn everything. However, you are protected at this point (most probably) from a direct confrontation with the new culture by friends of your own culture, colleagues, and people who’ve gone through a western-style of education.

You, the newcomer, aren’t supposed to know anything, so the expectations of your competence are not very great. People around you give you the benefit of the doubt when you make mistakes, for the time being.

2.  The honeymoon’s over: you begin to experience feelings of hostility and aggression.

Things aren’t fun anymore. The uniqueness of the adventure has worn off. Life in this new world isn’t exotic anymore…it is inconvenient, for one thing.

It takes an hour to make a phone call. You finally get through and then just before you can get your message across, you’re cut off. Or you’ve learned to be streetwise, and are being extremely careful how to carry valuables, and you still get robbed. Or you can’t stand going to the market for food. The meat is hanging up in great slabs with flies all over it, and no matter how much you argue the butcher will throw in pieces of lung and stomach along with the piece you wanted. And charge you for it. And the vegetable sellers all scream at you at once to buy from them. And there is the inevitable crowd of children making a circle around you. And you realize for the one hundredth time that you are really a shy person.

What else happens when you’re into this stage of culture stress? You are easily angry. And as often as not, you feel as though they can’t do anything right either.  You may even behave irrationally.

The fact is, as a stranger, you have the capacity to provide people with endless hours of amusement. Every time you open your mouth there’s a chance you will say something ridiculous. What’s more, people will lie gleefully in wait for you to get it wrong.

So the immense frustration in not being able to communicate – you, who have already got a lot of education and know perfectly well to behave in your own society, and have got lots of technical skills and creativity, and must now with great humility become like a little child again. It’s stressful!! It’s a shock to your system. Don’t be surprised; expect it.

3. The third stage of culture shock/stress is self-discovery, and it can be a part of the healing. The shock (surprise or dismay) comes because we didn’t expect to be so vulnerable. The healing can come if we face the truth about ourselves and do something about it. And along with facing the truth about yourself, it helps to know how to laugh at yourself, and have someone you can really talk to, who’s been through this sort of thing and can offer some perspective.

4. At  some point along the way, you will notice that you are beginning to fit in. You understand what’s going on.

[Tomorrow we will post recommendations for dealing with culture shock.]

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2 thoughts on “4 typical stages of culture stress

  1. Ranger says:

    Wow…thats the truth. Ive been in China for about a year and a half. I hit stage three about three months ago, after a few months in stage two. Getting through stage two was really, really hard. It was a period of doubts in faith, fears in life and marriage and struggles in culture. Those doubts and fears are only harder when nobody is around to help you work through them (I had my wife, but she was struggling too). Fortunately, I pulled through and grew in the process.

  2. Ben says:

    Thanks for sharing your story. When we were in France, I was surprised by how much I questioned everything – even things I thought I’d never question. When you are in the middle of it, it’s hard to any light at the end of the tunnel.

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