| Culture Shock
by Sheida Hodge,
Managing Director, Worldwide, Berlitz Cross-Cultural
Culture shock is what happens when a person suddenly
finds himself in a place where yes may mean no, where
a fixed price is negotiable, where to be kept waiting
in an outer office is not a cause for insult, where
laughter may signify anger. It is what happens when
familiar psychological clues that help an individual
to function in society are suddenly withdrawn and replaced
by new ones that are strange or incomprehensible.
The Sea of Culture
Living at home, we never think about culture. Culture
to humans is like water to fish—the fish never
stops to reflect on what it means to live in the water.
It just swims and goes about its normal routine. But
if you take the fish and throw it on a patch of sand,
water takes on a whole new meaning. The fish flops around
desperately looking for the water it never knew it had!
The experience of culture shock is similar. When you
encounter a new environment, all the habits and behaviors
that allowed you to get around and survive at home suddenly
no longer work. Things as simple and automatic as getting
lunch, saying hello to colleagues, or setting up a meeting
become difficult and strange. The rules have changed
without anyone giving you a copy of the new ones.
Whenever we are faced with unfamiliar behavior, we
go through varying degrees of culture shock. Symptoms
can vary from confusion, loneliness and anxiety to feelings
of inferiority, fear, depression and psychological withdrawal.
Culture shock is often expressed as intense hostility
to another culture. Other people simply shut down. In
Cultures and Organizations, Geert Hofstede comments
that culture shock “returns us to the mental state
of an infant.” Not understanding the rules of
the game leads to “feelings of distress, helplessness
and hostility towards the new environment.”
Hostility, anxiety or depression can affect a person’s
judgement and ability to communicate during delicate
negotiations. Managerial duties can become a daily encounter
with the enemy. Culture shock is a leading cause of
early repatriations that can be quite costly for the
company. Younger people generally have an easier time
adjusting to new cultures and situations because they
haven’t formed a rigid view of the world and how
things “should” be done. Adults are more
likely to see the differences of other cultures as deficient
or threatening. Living abroad can be especially difficult
for spouses or children who come along on overseas assignments.
Without a job to give them direction and a stable point
of contact with the other culture, they can feel especially
lost and helpless.
Chinese Water Torture
The effects of culture shock accumulate slowly. A few
seemingly harmless negative experiences can end up poisoning
your attitude about another culture. It is like Chinese
water torture - the first few drops you don’t
even notice, but as time goes on the drip, drip, drip
can drive you crazy. On a trip to China several years
ago I met a businessman in the throes of culture shock.
I had gone to China to visit factories and evaluate
industrial products for G.E. Trading Company of New
York. I stayed in an old hilltop hotel in Guiyang with
one of the most dramatic settings I’ve ever seen.
The view from my balcony was stunning: a peaceful river
wound through craggy mountains forming a picture as
perfect as a Chinese painting. The rising mist from
the river made it seem like the hotel was floating on
a green island in the clouds.
One evening the hotel manager asked if I would like
to meet another Westerner staying at the hotel. A short
time later he escorted a tall man clutching three enormous
bottles of Chinese beer into my suite. The poor fellow
looked as though he’d had several bottles before
he got there. My first reaction was to ask him how he
liked being in this exotic and magical spot. To my surprise,
he responded with a tirade about how much he hated the
place and how sick he was of China and the Chinese!
He’d been in China five months on his first foreign
assignment installing a communication system. He accused
his Chinese counterparts of being “sneaky”
and hard to deal with. He complained about the size
of the soap (I hadn’t even noticed the soap) and
the roughness of the toilet paper. After he got off
work, he had nothing to do so he just sat in his room
Just imagine how this man’s state of mind affected
his work! He was so depressed it was a wonder he was
getting anything done at all. And his suspicions and
resentments must have made it torture for his Chinese
counterparts to work with him.
Of course, not everyone ends up experiencing this degree
of culture shock. People vary a great deal in their
ability to deal with different cultures. Some people
get severely depressed or hostile after just a few days
in another culture. Others seem to thrive on the excitement
of living in a new place and working with new people;
they may only experience occasional irritation or confusion.
Still others adjust well to one culture but have a terrible
time with another.
The Stages of Culture Shock
In Cultures and Organizations, Hofstede describes the
stages one goes through while adjusting to life abroad.
The first stage involves a romance with the surface
features of a culture. Tourists and business people
on short trips experience other cultures in this stage.
Everything is new, different and exciting and feelings
for the new environment are very positive.
(From Cultures and Organizations, page 210.) The second
stage is culture shock. The lack of familiar reference
points and behavioral norms leads to overload and withdrawal.
Feelings for the new culture become very negative. This
stage often arrives for business travelers after the
initial greetings and ceremonies are over and they find
they have to survive in a new environment on their own
without being treated as the “honored guest”
The third stage is a gradual period of acculturation
during which the visitor learns to operate according
to the norms and values of the other culture. This period
requires work - getting out and interacting in a meaningful
way with people in social and work settings. Finally,
in the fourth stage one arrives at a stable state of
mind that marks the permanent level of adjustment to
the other culture. This stable state can remain negative
(the person feels more or less permanently alienated),
neutral (a good healthy bi-cultural ability) or positive
(the person “goes native”).
What Can be Done to Deal With Culture Shock?
The best defense against culture shock is knowledge
of how other cultures operate. In Culture Shock: Psychological
Reactions to Unfamiliar Environments, Adrian Furham
and Stephen Bochner point out that culture shock is
not a psychological disorder but a lack of social skills
and knowledge needed to deal with a new environment.
Even when things seem alien and disorienting, knowing
some of the rules gives us reference points and a degree
of confidence. Dealing with other cultures, in other
words, is a skill that we can learn.
The degree of culture shock you experience does not
necessarily depend on how long you’ve spent in
another country. You don’t absorb other cultures
through osmosis. Going out to eat in local restaurants
and dealing with merchants isn’t enough. You have
to spend time with local people and learn how they live
One businesswoman returning to the U.S. from an assignment
in Poland was astonished by the American expat ghettoes.
Associating only with your own countrymen is a sure
sign of culture shock. It shows you are seeking the
comfort of the known and the familiar rather than confronting
and learning about difference. To really adjust to a
new culture you need to learn ways to operate in the
world. They may never be “your” ways, but
unless you learn to use them you’ll always be
on the outside.
The Ugly American Syndrome Many Americans are so sensitive
about appearing disrespectful to other cultures that
they ignore their own rights and needs. This can exacerbate
the experience of culture shock. When Judy Lukas’s
husband was transferred to Spain, she followed with
a great deal of excitement. A few days after their arrival,
they were invited to an afternoon fiesta. They accepted
expecting a leisurely lunch and festivities in the town
square. When they arrived they were shocked to find
that the fiesta was really a bull fight! The atmosphere,
she said, was a combination of an American football
game and a slaughterhouse. Young children were there
eating candy while bulls were being butchered in front
of their eyes. They found the idea of staying very distasteful
but felt that if they walked out they would offend their
hosts. They ended up spending the afternoon looking
at their shoes in extreme discomfort.
After hearing this story, I called a senior executive
from Spain who lives in Southern California. His first
reaction was that all of his American friends love bullfights.
But then he pointed out that Spaniards are very direct.
“If you object to doing something,” he said,
“just tell them. They’ll understand. Just
don’t preach to them about the unfairness or brutality
of the event.”
The Flip Side of Culture Shock
For many people a foreign assignment can be the opportunity
and thrill of a lifetime. The Wall Street Journal (11/19/97)
reports the story of John Aliberti, who had spent his
career working to become a mid-level manager for Union
Switch in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Aliberti seemed
like an odd choice for an overseas assignment. He had
no experience in international travel, but when he was
chosen to represent the company as technical expert
and representative in China, Aliberti responded with
enthusiasm: “Back home, the work we do, it’s
been done for decades. In China you’re breaking
new ground. It’s a milestone in the history of
By viewing his China assignment as an exciting adventure,
Aliberti largely bypassed the negative effects of culture
shock. According to the Journal, “The crowds and
chaotic lines don’t phase him. He becomes animated
telling stories of long train trips to out-of-the-way
cities like Nanchang, where Union Switch is helping
to build a railroad yard... In the last four years,
he has become an expert at dealing with the infuriatingly
slow Chinese bureaucracy.”
Aliberti’s enthusiastic attitude and his active
interest in learning about the culture and business
practices in China have helped him become a central
figure in his company’s China operations. His
job in Pittsburgh is two rungs below vice president.
In China, according to his boss, “he acts like
a president or CEO. That’s got to turn him on.”
What Can Companies do to Deal with Culture Shock?
To get around the adjustment problems of American executives
and their families working abroad, U.S. companies have
turned to talented locals or dipped into the stock of
“off-the-shelf” immigrant Americans. But
this seemingly obvious solution can give companies a
false sense of security. Immigrants who have lived away
from their home cultures - often since childhood - can
feel just as out of place as any foreigner. Returning
emigrants don’t get the benefit of the extra consideration
locals extend to native Americans. And local hires -
regardless of how talented they are - still need to
adjust to the new rules and culture of the parent company.
Managers should remember that some people are simply
much better suited than others for work in foreign cultures.
Many American companies send people abroad because of
technical skills or company organization. But it would
be well worth screening people going abroad for their
aptitude to living and working abroad - especially on
long-term assignments. In Working in America, Takashi
Kiuchi, a managing director of Mitsubishi Electric Corporation,
describes the kinds of people inappropriate for assignment
in the U.S.: Unless the person is interested in the
history and culture of the country it is quite meaningless
to live here. Another condition of living in a foreign
country would be to have a feeling of appreciation for
the host country. I, myself, am very appreciative of
the opportunity to live in the U.S.
The same advice applies to Americans going abroad.
Companies should seek people with a sense of adventure
and the ability to adapt to new situations. These qualities
can often be just as important as language skills or
detailed cultural knowledge. Careful preparation and
training can prevent costly problems down the road.
Learning the proper skills for dealing with other cultures
can reduce or eliminate the negative impact of culture
shock. Intercultural education should be a regular part
of corporate training programs - both for executives
going overseas and for the domestic workforce. Returning
Home: Culture Shock in Reverse The homecoming of returning
expats is often just as shocking as the experience of
going abroad in the first place. The Wall Street Journal
(12/12/95) reports the case of Ira Caplan, who came
back to the United States after 12 years living in Japan:
He had never heard of Rush Limbaugh: “I listened
once and it was enough.” He was so politically
incorrect that he didn’t know what “PC”
meant: “I got a book on it.” Prices astonish
him. The obsession with crime unnerves him. What unsettles
Mr. Caplan more, though, is how much of himself he has
Once people adjust to living abroad, they often find
expat life exciting and glamorous. “I was running
briefing breakfasts for congressmen and senators,”
said Caplan. Now he’s just another mid-level executive
in New York.
Coming back to their “old job” is often
the most traumatic part of returning to the U.S. Ways
of doing business have been changing dramatically in
the U.S. -just as they have all over the world. The
old job usually doesn’t exist anymore, and expats
often find they don’t fit into the new scheme
of things. After a time, many are laid off or simply
The problems of adjustment and culture shock for returning
employees can be as severe as those involved in sending
them abroad in the first place. Companies make an enormous
investment in their expats, and they should think carefully
about how to utilize the expertise they have gained.
As Caplan remarks about his experience: “You’re
a source of wisdom overseas. Once you get back, it’s
all over. Nobody can relate to your experience.”
Or, to quote from the “Marble Faun” by Nathaniel
Now... they resolved to go back to their own land; because
the years have a kind of emptiness when we spend too
many of them on a foreign shore. But ... if we do return,
we find that the native air has lost its invigorating
quality, and that life has shifted its reality to the
spot where we have deemed ourselves only temporary residents.
Thus, between two countries, we have none at all...
It is wise, therefore, to come back betimes, or never.