The Stages of Culture Shock

Posted by sue on November 17th, 2007

So, it turns out that, psychologically, moving abroad isn’t all that unlike dealing with a death, or the end of a significant relationship, or other event in which grieving is the natural response.

The stages of culture shock, evidently, begin with the Tourist Phase, when you first get there and everything is new and interesting and fun. It’s the “that building isn’t run-down, it’s Quaint and Historic!” phase, so it shares a little with the Denial phase of grief, though it’s more up-beat. Next is the Emptiness Phase, where the difficulty of everyday transactions and the, well, “differentness” of everything makes you feel annoyed and alienated and certainly not hopeful that you’ll ever like it in such a God-forsaken place. But then, thankfully, comes the Recovery Phase, where you start to find ways to cope and places to hang out that you like, and you’ve met a few people who are nice to you, and you start to carve out a little niche for yourself. You certainly haven’t mastered everything yet (and the language acquisition still has a long way to go), but you start to have hope. Finally, there’s the Acceptance Stage, when life starts to feel normal (or at least as normal as life ever feels) and you can appreciate the culture you’re living in and regain your sense of humor.

Our experience of Portugal has been strange because our Tourist Phase was very short. We arrived already a bit weary from travel, and I started a pretty intense course of study within days of arriving. By the time my course ended (June 1), I was already in Emptiness Phase, and honestly, I’ve been there pretty much ever since. Until the past couple of weeks, that is, when I’ve started to feel really happy.

The weather has turned cool and a little wintry (wintry enough for spoiled Californians like us), which I love. They’re putting up Christmas lights all over the city. My classes are going well and I like the people I work for and the people I work with. The Portuguese that I hear is only 80% gibberish rather than entirely gibberish (understanding a little is far better than understanding nothing). We’ve been going out more to fun and interesting places. We’re far from “integrated”, because we still haven’t befriended any Portuguese people, just Americans and Brazilians. But, there’s hope.

31 Responses to “The Stages of Culture Shock”

  1. Heather Says:

    *sigh*

    Emptiness.

  2. Cathy Says:

    Glad you are happier now. Thanksgiving is Thursday. Eat turkey. Feel American.

  3. Daniel Says:

    miss you too.

    Change=
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    Death=
    Change=…

  4. Diana Says:

    I remember the various stages of “gibberish” in language learning. Those mile markers where you know you’re making progress definitely help. When I first started watching TV in Spainsh I felt like waves of gibberish were breaking over me. I rememeber straining to “grab” a word here & there. I was proud to start “catching” entire phrases &/or sentences. Now it makes sense with only an individual occasional word escaping me that I can ask my friend who said it what does that mean?

    I only got a taste while we were on tour. France & Portugal felt very foreign to me. The smallest transaction was a lot of work. I felt comfortable in Spain. After we returned from France to Spain, Tim remarked “it’s like coming home!” Communication makes such a difference.

  5. dan a Says:

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    Maybe I’m nuts nut theres something so elegant about that phrase. It seems to have an undeniable truth and gives me pause each time i see it.

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