What Does Culture Shock Mean in 2023

What Causes Cultural Shock and how the Hofstede Dimensions of Culture works.

Or: What does culture shock mean? Here is the short answer: Cultural shock is a condition experienced by an individual abruptly exposed to a different culture. There may also be symptoms, such as frustration and alienation. It may result from visiting or living in another country. Other terms for this include “culture shock”, “cultural disorientation” or “social disorientation”.

Now get ready for the long answer.

The majority of the first questions when moving out are about living costs, language, bureaucracy, etc. But almost nobody talks about a bold issue: Cultural Shock. Often groups of foreigners on social media will already have a FAQ or index for questions like:

How long does it take to have my resident card?

What is the best health insurance?

Which cellphone company is better?

I will not reply to those questions here. Not only because they differ from country to country, but also because it is straightforward to find those answers since they are the things that everyone asks. The way to find those answers is the same as explained previously: ask the locals on social media.

However, there is another group of questions, and those are barely asked. As a consequence of not answering them, so many expats experience frustration and regret. They are about what culture shock mean.

Hofstede Dimensions of Culture

The Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede[1] organized a study of national cultures using group dimensions that should quantify the core values of a society. Hofstede’s research examines national and organizational settings, tracing a general guideline about how different cultures would act in social and work environments. The findings of his study let us compare the cultural attitude of different countries, including the one we are living in and the one we are moving to.

There are 4 main conflict fields that cause Cultural Shock. They are the Hofstede dimensions of culture[2]:

Moving Out, Working Abroad and Keeping Your Sanity Cover
Book recommended: Moving Out, Working Abroad, and Keeping Your Sanity

1st Culture Shock Dimension – The Rules.

The approach to rules and regulations can be significantly different between certain nations. Germanic and Japanese cultures, on one side, value procedures, systems, and control, focusing on getting things done how they were planned.

On the other side, romance cultures like Iberians or Italians tend to give greater value to ad hoc problem-solving, relationship building, and adaptation to circumstances. Now you can imagine how misunderstandings can appear when a Swiss border official questions a laid-back Latin American student, or an Austrian client can be impatient in a Portuguese café because the waiter is talking too much.

2nd Culture Shock Dimension – The Time.

Time, one of the Hofstede Dimensions of Culture Shock. Image by Pexels.
Time, one of the Hofstede Dimensions of Culture Shock. Image by Pexels.

This is one of the earliest sources of cultural shock. I experienced it profoundly. The different perceptions of time can make an inexperienced expat deeply frustrated and be a common source of friction. In Latin American cultures punctuality is not that important for social gatherings or informal occasions.

An Anglophone that shows exactly as invited, for example, at 9 PM for a party or at 8 AM for the company breakfast, may find himself completely alone in the room and confused. In the same way, my wife was surprised that in Brazil would not be a problem to arrive at a doctor’s appointment five minutes late (because the doctor would just call my name ten minutes late).

Understanding how society handles deadlines is useful to your professional life too. Contrary to some stereotypes, laid-back nationalities like Greeks and Mexicans are among those that make more over-hours on the planet, while Germans are the ones doing less. Try to seek more information about how the people of your new country deal with time, how strict they are with deadlines, and if the dentist will still see you if you are five minutes late. This analysis will be very useful to you sooner than you can imagine.

3rd Culture Shock Dimension – The Humor.

Some cultures, like the Irish or Latin Americans, have humor as a constant component of their behavior, and jokes may surge even when things are not going well. Others, like the British, may use humor as a conversation starter, to break the ice, or even to grant some loans from the US to save their economy (like princess Margaret did in 1965[3]).

On the other side, jokes at Swiss business meetings can backfire because they may see it as a waste of time. In Slavic countries, to laugh with people that didn’t get the joke can be understood as you are laughing at them. I cannot recount how many times people asked me in Poland why I was laughing at things like a baby throwing his cap on the floor (it was really funny).

4th Culture Shock Dimension – The Communication.

As the consultancy firm Expatica explained on their page: Differing communication styles can be a ticking time-bomb, especially in the workplace. Plenty of cultures prefer to engage in lengthy hypothetical discussions with few concrete conclusions; meetings with French colleagues, for instance, might lack structure or even an agenda altogether.

Others prefer discussions with a clear and well-defined structure that allows participants to easily compartmentalize everything that was said. People who speak with a great deal of ambiguity or subtlety in their speech (the British are notorious here) may frustrate those that prefer clear and direct communication, though they may also impress their colleagues that have trouble working out complicated situations.

What are the 5 Stages of Culture Shock?

What does culture shock mean? The first step to answer is to discover in which stage you are.
What does culture shock mean? The first step to answer is to discover in which stage you are.

The 5 Stages of Culture Shock are:

1st – Honeymoon Stage

You’re fascinated by everything you see and do, you feel on top of the world, and you had no idea you could feel this way.

The honeymoon period is usually characterized by excitement and optimism, with little or no culture shock. Relaxation, enjoyment, and a sense of adventure are common during this time as the expatriate adjusts to his or her new surroundings.

The honeymoon stage can last anywhere from a few days to several months, depending on the person, their trip, and the location visited. It is critical to make the most of this time because it will not last long.

2nd – Negotiation Stage

You try to absorb every experience and learn from it, while also retaining some aspects of your home culture. You may begin to feel overwhelmed or as if you are unable to keep up with everything.

The negotiation stage is one of the most difficult for expatriates to navigate because it involves a process of giving and taking between what the foreigner expects and what the new environment has to offer.

The person may be disappointed that he or she did not obtain everything desired and may be concerned that his or her efforts were in vain.

Negotiating a balance between expectations and reality becomes more difficult as work, family back home, and pre-travel anxiety increase.

3rd – Adjustment Stage

At this point, you’re starting to accept the new culture as normal and don’t need to work as hard to understand everything. You may begin to feel jaded, bored, or as if you have nowhere else to go.

Adjustment can last anywhere from a few weeks to several months. During this time, expatriates become more accustomed to their new surroundings and begin to feel at ease with them. They can now see potential benefits that they were previously unable to see, such as exotic foods or entertainment events that were previously considered unusual or undesirable.

4th – Adaptation Stage

You can begin to relax once you accept that culture shock is normal and that you are experiencing it. It’s perfectly fine for strange things to appear strange. You’ll probably never stop considering your own culture to be more normal. But it’s not your job to figure out the new culture; all you have to do is figure out how to fit in.

Now that you know it’s normal to feel strange, you can concentrate on getting through it as quickly as possible and adapting to what really matters in your life where you are now.

5th – Re-Entry Transition Shock

(Just in case you are on a temporary assignment and must return). You start to get excited about going home or to another destination, but you’re not sure how you’ll handle being back in your original environment.

What Does Culture Shock Mean – Conclusion

Culture shock is the distress someone feels when they move and need to adapt to a new culture. They may feel uneasy or put off when they are in an environment where their customs are different from the people around them. Going to another culture can be enjoyable, but it can be overwhelming when you are in an environment that is not familiar.

Different dimensions of culture may also mean different dimensions of beauty and art. Image by Pexels.
Different dimensions of culture may also mean different dimensions of beauty and art. Image by Pexels.

The 4 culture shock dimension

Culture shock often comes in 4 different dimensions, as elaborated by Dr. Geert Hofstede:

  • 1st Culture shock dimension – The Rules
  • 2nd – The Time
  • 3rd – The Humor
  • 4th – The Communication

If you want to avoid feeling uncomfortable when you are in a different culture, the paragraphs above help you to understand the Hofstede dimensions of culture, and discover what is causing the shock in your life.

So, here we come to the question made some paragraphs ago: to do proper research that goes beyond asking about internet providers and insurance plans, you must also know those cultural shock differences. Preferably before you arrive or as soon as you land in your new country. If you are already living abroad, it is still a very interesting exercise and you can discover a lot by doing it.

If you live far from your home, check this article I prepared for you about homesickness.

[1] Research available at https://geerthofstede.com/culture-geert-hofstede-gert-jan-hofstede/6d-model-of-national-culture/

[2] Other details about culture shock and differences can be found in this article.

[3] You can see more details of this story at this link: https://www.mirror.co.uk/tv/tv-news/crown-true-story-behind-princess-20868858

1 thought on “What Does Culture Shock Mean in 2023”

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