How to minimize culture shock/stress? (final post)

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

How to minimize culture shock/stress:

1. Prepare in advance. Some people recommend keeping a diary (completely confidential of course) of how you are doing in relating to people and places, even before you leave your home country. In other words, get to know yourself and the spaces you are in.

2. Develop skills in empathy; if somebody really upsets you, figure out why.  What is it about the way they are or the way they behave that drives you crazy?  Are they trying to upset you, or are they operating under a different set of expectations than you are? [Are there certain personal buttons in you that are being pushed?]

3. Develop skills in observation – watch people. What are they wearing? Describe a scene…everything in the room . . . not just what is remarkable, but what is ordinary.  Learn to take mental inventories. When you arrive on the scene of a new culture, choose someone to model yourself after.  (Someone you can trust).

4. Once you are in the middle of a new place, jump in. The problem is this: stress is inevitable and will inevitably go up the more involved you get with a community. If you aren’t a tourist, you are seriously going to have to concentrate on learning, identifying, and communicating, which will hurt. Our tendency – our instinct – is to avoid pain, so the natural thing to do of course is to run, hide, and then rationalize our failures. The results are littered all over the map – missionary ghettos, wazungu clubs, isolation from the people we thought we came to be with, loneliness and guilt for our failures. So, I  hate to say it, but one of the ways to reduce culture stress (in the long run), is also one of the causes for stress in the first place –   involvement. [No pain; no gain!]

Thanks for all this, Joyce!!

Additional comment: The key is you. How are you responding to new circumstances? Are you flexible? To Christianinize it a bit, are you demonstrating the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, generosity, and self-control. You are going to need a good dose of all of these as well as humility.

It’s okay to think that your way of doing certain things might be a better way, but you have to appreciate that there are other ways of looking at the same issues. There are desired outcomes that you may be totally unaware of. Different cultural value systems can revolutionize the way you think about the world. Focus on remaking you, and the way you think.

Sometimes coping in the middle of culture stress is as basic as telling yourself: “This is normal. It sucks, but it will someday be history. In the meantime, I’m going to try to stay calm and find one thing I really enjoy doing each day. Look forward to your daily treat – raise those endorphine levels!

At the same time get comfortable with the fact that you will never totally fit in anywhere again. If you succeed in moving through the stages of culture shock, even when you return to your “home” culture, you will never totally fit in again. There will always be a part of your “adopted” culture that you have come to love and value. You are now in the realm of third culture people – never fully at home anywhere. Congratulations!

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.]

Indicators of cultural stress

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

1. Withdrawal and rejection of new “host” culture.
You gather your courage in both hands and go to visit someone in their courtyard, and a hundred children follow you till you feel like the pied piper, and people all talk at once, and laugh, and it is so difficult and you feel humiliated. So the next day you decide maybe you won’t go visiting. You’ll stay home because there’s so much to do. So you rationalize. And one withdrawal leads to another.

How the problem of withdrawal shows up:

1.1 Avoidance. You find more and more reasons to avoid the host culture, sleeping, writing letters home, reading …. All of these are extremely necessary activities, but if they become the only thing you do, someone needs to ask some searching questions about how you are working on culture learning. An overemphasis in some activity can become a symptom of withdrawal.

1.2 Endless complaining and fault-finding

Displayed bitterly in statements like:

  • “All the people in this culture are completely unreasonable” (implying that if they were reasonable they’d do everything my way).
  • “These people are lazy and indifferent (read ‘inferior to me’).”
  • “These people are so selfish.” (They only think of me as a source of money and material goods. They’re always asking me for money. They’re always asking me for things and trying to take advantage of me….)

1.3 Everything back home takes on an immense importance.

  • Friends and relatives back home begin to look like the saints and angels.
  • I spend fruitless hours thinking about the food back where I came from. (Listen to a couple of Americans sitting around wishing for a hamburger, french fries, a coke and an ice cream.)
  • I become intensely patriotic. My country can do no wrong.

1.4 I become obsessive about health, and germs. Here we’re not talking about ordinary health precautions. But I remember one woman who used to make all her guests take their shoes off and soak their feet in lysol before they walked into her house. Or take the example of some Swiss tourists in Mali who insisted on taking baths with filtered water.

2. Another (and quite different) indicator of culture shock or stress: “going native” in which a person totally rejects his or her home culture. The rationale is that the home culture has failed …. by not preparing me for the difficulties of this situation … so my own culture is worthless and I will simply abandon it, as it is useless to me here. What is more, other people from my home culture do not understand, so they are not to be trusted.

The result of this kind of denial is that the person in culture shock, doesn’t have any objective way to valuate his or her situation, and swallows the new culture whole, without exercising any judgment.
They begin to lead a life of imitation, mindless imitation, and emotional dependence.
The way they cope is by saying that everything in the new life is good, and everything from the past is bad.

4 Responses to Culture Shock

[By a friend – see previous post]

Four kinds of responses that people tend to make when they are caught up in cross-cultural situations:

1 passing – the individual, particularly in contact situations in which the second culture has a higher status, may reject the (old) culture of origin and totally fall for the new culture.

2 chauvinist – the individual, after coming into contact with a second culture, rejects those influences as alien, and retreats back into their culture of origin and becomes a militant nationalist and chauvinist.”

3 marginal – the individual vacillates between the two cultures, feeling at home in neither, an effect that has been referred to as the ‘marginal syndrome’.

4 mediating – some people seem to be able to synthesize their various cultural identities, the equivalent of integration at the personal level, and acquire genuine bicultural or multicultural personalities. Such individuals are relatively rare, and Bochner has referred to them as ‘mediating persons’.

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

Ultimately Furnham & Bochner suggest that one’s viewpoint must be different. The situation will not be different, but how we approach it will be. All new situations are traumatic, even in one’s own culture. But the hope is that in learning, not merely adjusting, we who are sojourning in another culture will learn to accommodate to the new situation, and recognize that we are in a growing period.

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

Why missionaries quit 4 – culture shock

Patrick Nabweramissionary attrition among Kenyan missionaries:

Nabwera familyThe inability to adjust to a new community or society is an issue for many missionaries and easily leads to attrition. One missionary who left a mission field because of culture shock was heard to comment, “hawa watu ni wachafu, wananuka” (these people are dirty, they stink). The same missionary found it difficult to eat with the people out of a pot that was used not only for washing and cooking, but also was dirty. In the missionary’s culture, it is not right to eat from a pot. This missionary felt disoriented when the cultural map and guideline he learned as a child (you cannot eat from a pot, leave alone a dirty one) no longer worked. Hiebert calls this culture shock (Hiebert 1985, 66). The issue is not one of dirt or poverty, but of disorientation experienced when the new culture varies from what the missionary is used to.

According to Kraft, culture shock becomes a problem when people from different societies and different worldviews come in contact with each other. The local people behave on the basis of different assumptions from those of the missionary. They do not see why the missionary is having a problem in the first place (2004, 57). In this case, the missionary should not expect the local people to understand why he cannot do things (like eating from the pot) in the way they do. Lowered expectations can reduce the stress of culture shock. Because missionaries seek to live right in the context of the community of their calling (the incarnational approach, as seen in chapter two), they are forced to enter deeply into the new culture. According to Hiebert, this creates room for culture shock to strike. One cause of culture shock in such a community is the inability to communicate (1985, 66). A missionary confessed frustration at the difficulty of learning the language of the people. This missionary had not been able to learn the language, even after being in the same field for eight years, and he sadly left that field without learning that language.


  • Hiebert, Paul G. 1985. Anthropological insights for missionaries. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
  • Kraft, Charles H. 2004. Anthropology for Christian witness. New York: Orbis (Orig. Pub. 1996).

© Patrick Nabwera 2008

[More on culture shock tomorrow]