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  • Writer's pictureKatie Brown

Navigating Culture Shock

There’s a popular saying that goes, “don’t cry over spilled milk,” but what about sour cream? I never imagined myself crying in a grocery store over a dairy product, but that’s what culture shock brought me to. Five years ago, I had moved to Eastern Europe for a job and spent the first several weeks in the honeymoon phase as I transitioned to my new home. One day, I was asked to stock up on groceries and told that sour cream was an absolute necessity. To complete the task, I walked to the store with my Google Translate app in hand. Once I arrived, I searched the store for over an hour, but this grocery staple was nowhere that I could see. After I completed what felt like my tenth pass through the aisles, tears started welling up in my eyes and there was no stopping them. In that moment, all my suppressed frustrations with the differences and unfamiliarity rose to the surface. The store felt “wrong” to me because it was organized completely different from what I was used to in the United States. Everything was written in a different language from my own, which meant I had to translate every label or I would end up with something like salt when I wanted sugar, which would make a very unpleasant cake. The constant mental and emotional effort to understand the new culture was exhausting and this sour cream was the straw that broke the metaphorical camel’s back.


Merriam-Webster (n.d.) defines culture shock as “a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation.” Culture shock can happen whenever your current experiences do not match your preconceived expectations for how your environment should function. Furthermore, it affects far more than just those who travel across the globe.


Culture has multiple layers which impact how we each experience and perceive the world around us. This includes the country or region we grew up in, the specific communities and neighborhoods we have been a part of, the job industries we are exposed to, and the relationships we have with our loved ones. Consequently, culture shock can happen when starting a new job, entering a new school, moving to a new neighborhood, transitioning to new family dynamics and more. Basically, any environment that is different from what we are accustomed to has the potential to create culture shock in us.


So, what do we do when culture shock hits? Luckily, culture shock is a very normal stage of what is called the cultural adaptation cycle. While this is often used to describe international transitions, it holds relevance for any type of culture shift. While you might hear different words used to describe them, there are roughly 4 stages to cultural adaptation:


1. The Honeymoon Phase

During this stage of the cycle, you might feel excited about the new transition and will tend to notice the positive aspects of the new culture rather than the negative ones. Depending on the nature of the transition, it can last for a shorter or longer period. Sometimes, the honeymoon phase is not present at all.


2. The Crisis (or Frustration) Phase

This is where culture shock typically rears its head, bringing a lot of distressing emotions like disappointment, frustration, and sadness. Many symptoms of culture shock and the crisis stage can mimic common symptoms of depression, such as changes in eating or sleeping, withdrawing from activities or social connections, irritability, and feelings of sadness. Consequently, it is especially important to maintain self-care, positive coping skills, and social connections during this stage in order to continue adjusting.


3. The Recovery Phase

The recovery phase happens as you start to learn to cope with the transition. This stage ebbs and flows. It is about recovering from the difficult, confusing, or worrying aspects through positive coping and learning from mistakes. This stage is typically moved through as social support increases within the new environment.


4. The Adjustment (or Adaptation) Phase

In the adjustment phase, you will have meaningful connections with both the culture you came from and the new culture you’ve adjusted to. At this point in the cycle, you have fully adapted to your new cultural environment. If you return to the culture that you came from after reaching the adjustment phase (like returning to visit your family after moving to a new city), you may find that you feel different than you did before. You may even go through a period of cultural readjustment as you recognize how your perception may have shifted.


At some point in our lives, we all go through cultural transitions whether they be familial, regional, national, professional or sometimes even global (e.g. the COVID-19 pandemic). It is important to hold space for our honest emotions as we learn to adjust to the changes. Practicing self-care, utilizing positive coping skills, and seeking out social connections are also key factors in adapting well.


You may or may not be wondering at this point, but I did end up finding the sour cream that day in the grocery store. As my tears began to dry and my frustration began to soften, I was able to see what I couldn’t recognize before. The small round container I was looking for was nestled in the end cap of an aisle which–contrary to my American rationale–was apparently its permanent location. My old perspective prevented me from registering it before, but it had been there the whole time. It can be tempting to try to pretend like that memory did not happen or to be embarrassed. Most people do not exactly want to emulate the woman who lost her composure over a dairy product. However, in a way, it had to happen for me to adapt. A normal part of cultural adjustment often includes coming to terms with frustration. At a certain point, you may learn to process the difficult parts and appreciate the small moments of success. While I may have cried over it once, I always knew where to find sour cream after that.


By: Katie Brown

Master of Social Work Intern

Park University


References

Berkeley International Office (2023) Cultural adjustment.


Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Culture shock. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved January


University of Illinois Counseling Center (2015) Cultural transition and adaptation.

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