When subjected to an unfamiliar setting we have all felt a feeling of displacement. However, the extent to which we feel a culture shock is different for each individual. We have tried to get to grips with this phenomenon down to the details and we are not alone here because a number of anthropologists, sociologists and psychologist have been examining it since the 1950s.
Lysgaard (1955) outlined a U-curve that seeks to describe the degree of adjustment to the cultural circumstances over time. This simple pictorial representation has seen its use in corporate training regimes and even educational contexts. Elaborations and tweaks have been made to the original theory to this date but we cannot go through all of them because they are far too numerous. But first, let’s introduce the four phases of cultural adjustment.
To begin with, when a person is first exposed to an environment that is wholly new culturally it is called the honeymoon period – think about when you went on holiday, gap year, Erasmus program, mandate, work placement, etc. The initial exposure to the novel surroundings does not induce stress but rather entices the person to enjoy the area. Whatever dreams or expectations one has had about the place at first seem to be true or fulfilled. This period lasts from 0-3 months approximately.
Very shortly after the honeymoon period people have a tendency to enter a phase of crisis – they feel increased anxiety. The cultural differences are no longer perceived as exotic but rather are becoming a nuisance. Plenty of factors contribute to this stage such as: language barriers, public hygiene, congestion, cuisine, food quality, etc. This crisis tends to last between 3-6 months.
After the crisis period, the person becomes accustomed to the environment and slowly begins to adjust to his or her surroundings around 6-12 months. A possible reason seems to be that the subject begins to develop routines and increased knowledge of the area, eliminating uncertainty. Issues that used to be around are now solved with relative ease that pertains to everyday activities.
This phase is commonly called the mastery stage, when individuals begin to feel as if their surroundings have become ‘normal’. Sometimes dubbed the bicultural stage due to the person assimilating nuances from their environment more than ever before. This period naturally begins after a year or so. This is the rightmost tip of the U-curve that is higher than the left tip concerning the honeymoon period.
Interestingly, the phenomenon of reverse-culture shock suggests that this same process may occur for a person when they come back to their domestic environment. Cases include expatriates that have been away for a number of years and come back home yet still feel that familiar feeling of displacement. Culture shock usually addresses a single yet elusive concept, but hopefully the reader has seen, just as much as we have, the complexity of the phenomenon ripe for more interesting research.