day 26: on culture shock

How to get through culture shock as an expat

Hi friends. I took a wee break over the weekend from writing to enjoy the amazing sunny autumn weather with my husband and friends. We’ve six days left of my series 31 days to embrace expat life. It’s been so fun hearing your feedback on these posts, and your different perspectives and experiences! Thanks for being here…


Culture shock is one of those mysterious things that you’re told to expect but you’re never quite sure how it will turn up. It’s always different for each individual and depending on where you are moving to, what context you’re living in.

For some people, culture shock is the small everyday surprises in the first weeks or months – the “they do it that way here?!” moments that show up at everything from rubbish collection to post offices to interactions with strangers on the bus. They’re like the static electricity shocks you’ll get from your car or an escalator sometimes. They’re momentarily shocking and somewhat unpleasant, but you get past them quite quickly.

For other people, culture shock is a bigger challenge to face and if that’s you, you need to know it’s entirely normal.

Culture shock is described as “personal disorientation when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life”. It’s that state of not knowing the cultural and practical rules that everybody around you takes for granted.

There are four or five “phases” to culture shock that are passed around online. Of course, it’s difficult sometimes to fit actual experience into a model (I can’t really do it) but maybe this will help you.

  1. It starts with the honeymoon phase, where everything is exciting and romantic, you’re launching off on your big adventure and it’s all fascinating! Amazing! So interesting!
  2. Then the phase of crisis and negotiation sets it. The initial enthusiasm wears off and this is just hard and not at all fun like it was supposed to be. You experience a sense of disconnection from your surroundings which can be very disorientating.
  3. But then you begin to adjust. Nothing really has changed (except maybe you) but you start to look at your new life here in this context in a positive light. It’s different but variety is the spice of life, right?
  4. And with that adjustment and positivity, you start to master your new surroundings, to become independent. You’re not entirely assimilated (that can take a lifetime, if it’s ever possible) but you’re comfortable, you begin to embrace a bicultural identity which fits well.

Do you see your own experience in these steps? My own story has show that those first three steps can sometimes be all mixed up in a different order or, more confusingly, sometimes coming all at once!

But that second phase can be a lonely and frustrating time. And if you’re there right now, I want to encourage you: it won’t last forever. You get through this phase, and even if this is never your favourite place on earth (it happens – you don’t have to love your expat experience), you have the chance to embrace this phase in your life and make it a time you can look back on without regret.

And in the meantime…

  • Don’t give up. It’s hard but it’s not impossible to adjust to your new home. Many people have done it before you and one day you will look back and realise you did make it out of that crisis phase.
  • Be patient. It takes time to adjust. Like learning a language, it doesn’t happen overnight. There will be multiple conversations you stutter your way through with appalling grammar and questionable vocab. But in a few months you’ll be having easy conversations with your neighbours and friends. It will come.
  • Remember this is normal and you’re not alone. Seek out people, either locally or online, who have gone through the same adjustment. Talk it out, vent if you need to, and then take encouragement from the fact that this is totally normal.
  • Stay active. The tendency is to hide. I know that tendency well. When you don’t quite know what you’re doing, and you’re pretty sure just walking out the door will result in multiple mistakes, it’s tempting to just stay in. But don’t. Leave the house, even if just to walk around the block. It helps to stay active.
  • Look for the positive. This is advice for life really, but your attitude affects so much of how you perceive your world and what you get out of it. Find something positive in each day, even if it’s the smallest thing. That list will grow over time and you’ll be surprised how much you can find to be positive about when you look for it.
  • Remember that this does not affect you worth. I think I’m writing this for my own benefit as much as yours today. When we find ourselves in crisis mode, how easy it is to start thinking “I really suck”. Tell me this happens to you too?! It’s not true. You do not suck. I do not suck. We are integrating into a foreign culture and we’re doing our best. This actually means we suck less. I know! It’s mind-blowing!

The best advice I’ve heard, is to embrace this mantra:

It just is.

There’s such a need to try and explain or “figure out” the whys and hows of a new culture. Or your own feelings. And sometimes that’s just not possible. It just is. And I don’t mean that we should just have a blasé attitude about everything, goodness no. I’m all for intentionality and embracing this new life!

But there’s a freeing that comes with letting go of the need to explain or understand everything right this minute.  Sometimes it’s enough for right now to just say, it just is. And leave it at that.

Have you ever experienced culture shock? What helped at the time? Do you see yourself in any of these phases?


This post is part of my 31 days to embrace expat life. I’m writing every day through October on this topic. Click on the button to see all the posts so far…

Yesterday’s post – Foreign – A Poem.