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Chasing Magic Under Foreign Skies

Overcoming culture shock

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“A magic dwells in each beginning…” writes Herman Hesse, and what better beginning and bigger magic than embarking on a new chapter in a new country? Every year, more people are finding themselves with prospects of international relocation - some for work, others for adventure. More children are growing up between cultures, as their parents navigate alien grocery isles and negotiate multinational deals. Global experience has become an asset, not only for corporate recruiters but also for dinner hosts who can entertain with stories about ringing in the New Year at a shrine in Kyoto or eating cheese fondue in the Swiss Alps. Yet, despite the allure of new beginnings, despite the well-documented advantages of cultural and linguistic immersion (increased brain function, boosted creativity, delayed dementia, anyone?), despite the pre/post-arrival efforts to develop intercultural competence, the failure rate of foreign assignments remains very high. A few months into the new life, the promised magic fizzles into the unfamiliar landscape of novel values and strange behaviors. Suddenly, the new language sounds nauseating, the new acquaintances do everything wrong, you miss your old friends and your shabby Sunday sweatpants. And when you unexpectedly decide that you are not that fond of cheese after all, it is time to meet your newest travel companion: Shock. Culture Shock.

The term culture shock was coined in the 1950s, and in its original conception referred to the anxiety that results from “losing all our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse” (Oberg, 1960:177). Since then, researchers have ventured to plot the phenomenon into variously shaped curves and models, some even calling it the occupational disease of sojourners. Culture shock goes hand-in-hand with the expatriate experience and has come to include a gamut of the affective spectrum - from mild irritation with the local eating habits to deep depression and loss of identity. True to its name, culture shock is a serious affair. It can shrivel wide-eyed excitement into angst; turn cordial open-heartedness to hostility. While the degree of culture shock will depend on diverse factors (e.g., personality type; previous intercultural experiences; distance between native and host cultures), and while measures can be taken to minimize it (e.g., learn the local language and culture; make new friends; keep old friends), it cannot be abolished altogether. And perhaps it shouldn't, either. Because it is in the throes of culture shock when one comes face-to-face not only with a new set of cognitive, affective and behavioral constructs, but also with an opportunity at profound self-awareness and growth. In time, you might even realize that it wasn't only the new culture that you were laboring to tackle - but also yourself.

When you find yourself in a burly embrace with culture shock, weathering the highs and lows of your new chapter a few time zones away from home, consider these three tips commonly given to sojourners that are in fact grounded in psychological theory.

1. Adopt a tourist mindset

The emotional trials of foreign relocations can plague everyday interactions with setbacks, at times making it challenging to leave the familiarity of our walls, let alone queue up in front of medieval cathedrals. However, a tourist mindset can facilitate a crucial shift in perspective, resembling the cognitive reframing and reappraisal often used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Reminding yourself that the experience is temporary helps put a distance between yourself and your circumstances and veer your attention towards the positive outcomes of your move (e.g., the new friend; the smell of the ocean; the local bakery). Be a tourist. Be an explorer. View each footstep in your cross-cultural journey - however poised or mud-caked - as invaluable in its transience.

2. Discover the best souvenir

What are some of the virtuous attributes that you have noticed in your host culture: Efficiency? Friendliness? Warmth? Deliberately and proactively looking for behaviors that align with your own values, then adopting them into your repertoire will not only feel as an authentic way of moving towards cross-cultural proficiency, but will also assign positive meaning to ordinary events, creating a buffer against the stress of culture shock. Moreover, such intentional practices can increase the occurrence of positive emotions. These momentary positive emotions, in turn, can cultivate resilience and cognitive resources necessary for dealing with future challenges and are crucial for life satisfaction (Cohn et al., 2009).

3. Take the good (feelings) with the bad

“The sojourner is likely to have many vivid experiences, both pleasant and unpleasant, and the extreme intensity of these experiences may be of value in developing a greater understanding of one’s motives and behaviors,” wrote Kenneth David in 1971. Cross-cultural transitions provide invaluable opportunities not only for cultivating self-awareness, but also for observing the impermanence of feelings, good as well as bad, and for adopting a mindful, non-judgmental attitude towards them. After all, accepting unpleasant emotions rather than suppressing them - taking the good with the bad - can lead to improvements in psychological well-being (Adler & Hershfield, 2012), build resilience (Davis et al., 2004), and have long-term health benefits from the ability to find positive meaning in stressors (Larsen et al., 2003).

Another cognitive construct that deserves an honorary mention here is humor. Even when culture shock begins to feel like the neighbors (the Shocks?) who insist on pointing out all your differences and missteps, a dash of good cheer can still make most experiences palatable. So before you slam the door at the Shocks, consider this: maybe they, as inconvenient and infuriating as they appear, are there for your own benefit. Invite them in for a cup of tea and listen to what they have to offer. Give them some time (3-6 months), and suddenly, those are the stories you are telling at dinner parties, and instead of commiserating, your guests are laughing. As are you. Take it from someone who is about to embark on her 8th cross-cultural relocation, the sooner you start smiling at the Shocks, the sooner they will guide you to the magic.


Adler, J. M. & Hershfield, H. E. (2012). Mixed emotional experience is associated with and precedes improvements in psychological well-being. PLoS ONE 7(4): e35633.

Cohn, M. A., Fredrickson, B. L., Brown, S. L, Mikels, J. A., and Conway, A. M. (2009) Happiness Unpacked: Positive Emotions Increase Life Satisfaction by Building Resilience. Emotion, 9(3), 361–368.

David, K. H. (1971) Culture shock and the development of self-awareness. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 4(1), 44-48.

Davis, M. C., Zautra, A. J., & Smith, B. (2004). Chronic Pain, Stress, and the Dynamics of Affective Differentiation. Journal of Personality, 72(6), 1133–11.

Larsen, J.T., Hemenover, S.H., Norris, C.J., Cacioppo, J.T. Turning adversity to advantage: On the virtues of the coactivation of positive and negative emotions. In: Aspinwall, L.G., Staudinger, U.M., editors. A psychology of human strengths: Perspectives on an emerging field. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; 2003. pp. 211–216.

Molinsky, A. (2013) Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behavior Across Cultures without Losing Yourself in the Process. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Oberg, K. (1960) Culture shock: adjustment to new cultural environments. Practical Anthropology, 7, 177-182.

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