Culture shock: Why some deal with it better

Culture shock: Why some deal with it better

Culture shock is the period of adjustment a person goes through when taken out of their home culture and put into a new one. It often comes with periods of alienation, frustration and homesickness, and isn’t very nice.

We all go through it, but it appears to affect some more than others.

The phases of culture shock

There are generally speaking four phases to culture shock:

 Honeymoon phase

The first phase of culture shock is the so-called "honeymoon" period: it’s like being on holidays, everything is new and exciting.

You’re amazed that the whole country seems to cycle, the cheese shops sell approximately 17,597 types of cheese and the cute houses along the canals look like they might fall over.

 Dissatisfaction phase

Then reality sets in. You get used to the bikes, cheese and cute leaning tower of Pisa houses and begin to realise that things are different here; the people are different.

Welcome to phase two: a.k.a. the "I don’t really like it here" phase. And let’s be honest, it’s not nice: you miss home, feel depressed, get annoyed by the Dutch (it’s okay, you can admit it, many of us have been there), alienated, frustrated, angry at your partner for making you come here, etc.

 Acceptance phase

Moving on, we come to the "I’m beginning to get it" phase where you start to work it all out. You understand a bit more of the culture and the people and begin to learn to accept (or tolerate!) the differences.

 Enjoyment phase

Finally there’s the "I actually enjoy living here" phase. You’ve got it sorted.

You need not necessarily like everything about your new home (but let’s face it, can you really say that you like all aspects of your home country and its culture?) but you’ve got a good life here. There are ups and downs, but basically you’re happy!

Why doesn’t everyone get to phase four?

Everyone recognises the honeymoon phase (usually with a smile on their face!). Those who have been here for more than a couple of months are familiar with the "I don’t really like it here" phase (and they’re not smiling anymore).

But after that there is no set rule. There are people who have been living here for 10 years who are still going through the hardships of phase two, and there are people here for a year who are happily working their way, or have made their way, to phase four. What’s the difference?

Time to get angry...

Everything in life is a choice. You always have a choice. And yes I know there are readers out there who will get very angry at me for saying this, but that’s what I believe: YOU made a choice to come here.

Fair enough, the alternative may not have been overly enticing: a broken marriage, a career going nowhere, being stuck in the town you were born for the rest of your life, etc.; but for whatever reason, you made a decision to come here and how you deal with the consequences is entirely up to you.

Culture shock depends on...

Let’s look at some of the factors that influence how well a person deals with (or doesn’t deal with, as the case may be) living away from home.


In my experience, how well someone settles in very often comes down to attitude.

There’s a huge difference between the people who realise that they have a choice and make a decision to give it their best shot, to (try to) be open minded and curious (some people are naturally like this, others need a bit of a helping hand), and those who feel like they were forced to come here and are now stuck here, not liking the locals and unable to see a way out.

It’s very easy to get stuck in a rut: you have a few experiences that cause you to form a negative opinion and this opinion remains at the forefront of your mind. In all your encounters, this opinion is confirmed (in your eyes) and becomes stronger and harder to break.

 How well can you handle the unknown?

Some societies like to have rules and order, and like to know that everything is under control. Ambiguous or unknown situations are feared and should be avoided. What is different is dangerous.

Other societies have a tolerance for ambiguity and curiosity of the unknown. There’s a "let’s see what happens" way of thinking.

Your family, community and the society in which you were raised will play a part in your views on the "unknown." In turn, how you feel about unknown situations will play a role in how quickly you settle into a new environment.

Those who are more curious, show more interest in what is different and willingness to accept (or tolerate) those differences will likely settle in quicker that someone who feels that "what is different is dangerous."

 Do you really want to change?

We all know someone who doesn’t want to tackle a difficult situation: whether it's dealing who a boss who is always picking on them, a neighbour whose trees block their sun, a friend who borrows money but never pays it back, etc.

They will complain endlessly about their situation, but for whatever reason will do nothing about it. Unfortunately, denial and ignoring a problem won’t solve anything.

It’s the same in this case. In almost every workshop I give there will be one person who just doesn’t want to change: the Dutch (every single one of them) are bad and that’s it.

It makes no difference what I (or anyone else says), that’s the way it is. One lady told me that when she moved in her neighbour said that she should paint her apartment. Yes, this is a typical example of the Dutch having an opinion on everything and not being afraid to tell it.

This is not something which is neccesarily appreciated in many other cultures, but her neighbour probably didn’t mean anything bad by it. However, this lady still has an issue with it...15 years later!

 Self-confidence & Optimism

Research has shown that self-confidence and optimism play a role in how we deal with culture shock.

The lucky ones with lots of self-confidence believe that they can overcome obstacles; they have less anxiety facing troubles as they have the confidence that they will succeed.

Those with little self-confidence, on the other hand, often have an expectation that they will fail. Therefore they give up more easily and feel more anxiety.

Similarly, optimism plays a role here: explaining negative impressions optimistically can decrease depression and anxiety, making it easier to let something go and move on.

How to fight culture shock

Can you do something about it? Of course you can! Remember what I said earlier about everything being a choice? Well, get over being angry for a second and have a think about it. There are many people who make it to phase four, so there’s no reason why you can’t.

 Attitude: you choose your attitude, you can choose to change it

 Fear of the unknown: it’s very hard to change the basis of your thinking, but it is possible. Start small, do something that would normally make you feel uncomfortable, break a little rule... and when the world doesn’t collapse, break another rule!

 Do you want to change: well, do you?

 Self-confidence and optimism: people often think that you have to be brilliant at everything to be self-confident and optimistic. In fact, you don’t.

Start looking at the bright side and telling yourself that you can do it. You never know where it will get you...

Good luck!

Caitriona Rush


Caitriona Rush

Caitriona has spent 18 years living and working in 9 countries around the globe. She works as a cross-cultural consultant and provides workshops, trainings, consultancy and one-to-one sessions to both...

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David Denny 14:44 | 21 October 2018

HI! I came across your site while surfing to help a pal who lives in The Netherlands. That is an EXCELLENT article. My background is that I'm British and I settled in Perú nearly 6 years ago. I didn't, and don't, have any wish to leave and was highly motivated to make the move. Even so, many of the items you describe are familiar to me. Why can't they call a gear lever a gear lever for goodness's sake? is the stuff my dinosaur brain would come up with. I got a driving licence and learnt to drive on roads that have somewhat of a more nervous geometry than I guess you have in Holland. But it took at least four years to get to this point. I would add, if it is not there already, "MOTIVATION". Mine was culture based, in particular music. Yours could be anything. It could be something intensely personal or it could be a trick you play on yourself to find something, anything (Cheese anyone?) that will help you stick it out... even taking in a stray kitten. Anything that will FORCE you to interact and have to start searching out "how things are done here". If you are male and you want to settle in a country with a female who belongs to that country, beware of dependency: you will be, for a long time and in many ways, dependent, and without motivation the dependency thing can grate, and spoil things. I hope this helps! Great article, thanks.