Models of Culture Shock

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September 6, 2012 by Nadia

            Have you ever felt like you did not fit in a certain group, city, or country? I did, and during my MA I could find out a little bit more about the reasons and how it is normal to have this feeling. I felt enlightened and would like to share my writings with you.

Culture is a complex concept that constitutes an essential dimension of the human being. According to Hofstede – the same scholar who wrote about cultural taxonomies – culture is ‘the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one human group from another’ (1984, p.21). It involves a ‘cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions acquired … in the course of generations’ (Hofstede, cited in Zami, 2007, p.1). We acquire these cultural aspects from the community we are raised in, but in a world shaped by a wide cultural diversity, it is not surprising that this programming of the mind varies across cultures.

It is in this context that the shock across cultures occurs. However, Adler claimed that ‘one need not sojourn outside one’s own country’, because cross-cultural experiences can even ‘happen to minority students entering college, to parolees from prison, to returning veterans, to married couples who divorced, and to those who change roles or occupation in midcareer’ (1975, p.13). Culture shock is thus about contacting and entering another group that was programmed differently. Even within one country, several sub-cultures can be found. There is a very interesting article that was wrote by Natalie Braber concerning the barriers that Germans had to manage and overcome after the unification in 1989, as the East and West of Germany lived apart for 45 years and were conducted by different political and economical systems, hence, growing apart.

Oberg and Adler suggested models to explain these feelings of unsuitability (1945, 1975). Oberg treated the shock like a ‘malady’ (1954, p.1) explaining that due to the fact that an individual loses ‘familiar signs’ and ‘symbols of social intercourse’ (1954, p.1) in another cultural context, anxiety and frustration spring up. The usual guidelines of our previous routine seem to no longer to be appropriate or even accepted in the host culture. One feels like a ‘fish out of the water’ (ibid., p.1).

Oberg’s model has four phases. The first phase is the ‘honeymoon’ and is characterised by enthusiasm and positivism towards the new. The contact is still superficial to detect incompatibilities so there aren’t barriers, solely the euphoria of being in a new adventure. Then, comes the unfamiliar that triggers a sensation of discomfort, unsuitability, rejection and a ‘’gap’ between the familiar, which has been left behind, and the new … [is] perceived for the first time’ (Lewis, cited in Armitage & Powell, 1997, p.508). It corresponds to the ‘crisis in the disease’; ‘if you overcome it you stay, if not, you leave before you reach the stage of a nervous breakdown’ (Oberg, 1954, p.3). The third stage is a regression. The attitude changes and the interest for the host culture arises, hence one feels more accepted. Finally, the individual recovers by accepting the other culture and adding a second pattern to his behaviour.

Adler understood the shock as a necessary transitional experience that presumes the development of the personality, the evolution of the individuality through its disintegration and then rebuilding when acquiring new values and beliefs expressed by behaviour, concluding that it is ‘the movement from a state of low self- and cultural awareness to a state of high self- and cultural awareness’ (1975, p.15). Adler’s ‘alternative view on culture shock’ (1975), goes beyond description and substantiates the importance of culture shock for the development of the human being’s awareness against ethnocentrism through five phases. His model seems to cover what is missing on Oberg’s, whereby it makes clear that before the rejection there is a disintegration of the personality, which is the first moment of the evolution of a new identity. It corresponds to moment where optimistic feelings felt during the first contact change due to the confusion and disorientation felt by the individual (Adler, 1975). It is then in its third stage that one’s capability to overcome this period defines whether the individual stays in the group or abandons it. Through the following stages, similarly to Oberg’s, one learns more about the culture and the most appropriate way to behave, which leads to a better understanding of the group’s members. Hence, preconceived and ethnocentric ideas are progressively abandoned and one becomes ‘capable of giving as well as illiciting a high degree of trust and sensitivity’ (ibid., p.18).

Both have a common evolution, whose culmination generates a positive modification of the initial attitude towards the members of the other culture. But they have limitations, as they do not consider genders, the age, the economical context/status, or the country of origin. These models resulted from the assemblage of patterns among different people and are too simple, lacking of specificity.

Both were aware that their models could not be applied evenly because during cultural adjustment ‘there are … examples of failure, total withdrawal, breakdown, and complete inability to cope with new experiential demands’ (Adler, 1975, p.20), and conversely there are people who adapt without much difficulties and do not necessarily go through all the phases proposed by the models. As Selmer would say, ‘not all sojourners start out with a ‘honeymoon phase’ or with a period of euphoria and optimism, and although depression occurs with some frequency, it is far from universal’ (1999, p.520). However, it gives more insight into why sometimes it so difficult to fit.


Adler, P. (1975). The transitional experience: An alternative view of culture shock. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 15, 13-23

Armitage, K. & Powell, L. (1997). A re-examination of expatriate recruitment for education in developing countries. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 16(6), 504-517

Braber, N. (2005). Language and intercultural communication problems (online). In Leeds University in Linguistics. Retrieved December 11, 2011, from:

Hofstede, G. (1984). Culture’s consequences: International differences in work related values. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications

Oberg, K. (1954). Culture Shock. In Youblisher in Bobbs-Merril Series in Social Sciences, Retrieved December 11, 2011, from:

Selmer, J. (1999). Culture shock in China? Adjustment pattern of Western expatriate Business Managers. International Business Review, 8, 515-534

Zami, M. S. (2007). Cultural Antecedents to Campus Landscape Architecture Development in Africa (online). In Mundo Online in African Architecture Today in Paper, Retrieved December 11, 2011, from:


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