7 Things to Know About Culture Shock {The Grove}

The first time I crossed a cultural boundary; I was but 1 year old! And no, it wasn’t my parents whisking me off to some far-off tropical land; it was my family returning to the US after a term of service in Pakistan. My mother says that my older sister and some of the children travelling with her (you should hear THAT story sometime) spent hours in the London hotel bathroom flushing the toilet because they had never seen such a thing before. Obviously, I have no memories of that experience.

My second cross-cultural experience, and the first one that I remember, was 6 years later, when, once again, my family decamped from Pakistan back to the US for a year. I remember that things in the US were different, but don’t remember much ‘culture shock,’ because at that age, so long as your parents are nearby and you’ve got other kids to play with, that’s all that matters. I do remember the easy access to candy, though!

After that home leave, we returned to Pakistan for another two years, before returning to the US permanently. I was 14, straddling 8th and 9th grades (a confused age anyway), so I have vivid memories of the culture shock I experienced then. I’ll spare you the details, but what I remember most clearly is the feeling of alienation, of being different. In Pakistan, I was different — that was simply a permanent state of affairs. What tripped me up when I moved to the US was feeling different in a place where I was supposed to belong!

Then I learned to live in China, and now I am learning again to live in the United States. I may not be an expert a culture shock (who wants to claim THAT title?), but I’ve certainly had lots of experience. Herewith are seven important things about culture shock that I have learned along the way:


  1. The term was coined by Cora DuBuis in 1951, but popularized by Kalvero Oberg in 1954. Workers who served overseas before that no doubt experienced all that we now call ‘culture shock,’ but they just didn’t have a fancy word for it. Maybe they just used the word “hard.” I asked my mom, who began serving in Pakistan in 1956 if she or my dad or her co-workers had ever heard of that term when they went. “Nope,” she said.


  1. There are typically four stages of culture shock: 1) “Yippee! I’m here.” 2) “Whatever was I thinking?” 3) “I can do this.” 4) “It’s beginning to feel like home.”


  1. Each person cycles through and experiences those stages at different rates and duration. This can be especially complicated when spouses or children or teammates are at different points in the adjustment cycle than you. I remember a teammate in my first year in China (1984) who was furious with me because I was still in the “Yippee!” phase while she had already crashed into “whatever was I thinking?” “This (cultural difference) doesn’t bother you, and that makes me mad!” she said as she stormed out of my room.


  1. It’s about the rules. You are in a new place that has a completely different set of rules. Your rules from ‘back home’ don’t apply, and you don’t (yet) know the new rules. What makes this so alienating is that these rules are the basic stuff of life – how to eat, how to communicate, how to get things done. Sometimes the unfamiliar rules have to do with the role you are playing (teacher, doctor, student, preacher). As Don Larson, my mentor in this area used to say, “learn the rules to play the roles.” Good advice, I’ve always thought.


  1. There isn’t a point at which you ever say, “There! Done!” Remember those cycles? Well they go round and round and round. This means that if you have been in a place for years and years, you can still experience the confusion and alienation (and even disgust). Culture shock is a part of cultural adjustment, and that is a forever endeavor.


  1. Learning the language can mitigate the effects of culture shock. There are few things that can make a person feel more alienated than not being able to communicate with those around her (or him). So it stands to reason that learning the language – learning how to communicate – is a big help. It allows you to enter their world and learn how they understand and process reality. It allows you to learn the rules, and to communicate to the locals who YOU are. This is incredibly freeing.


  1. Learning the language can exacerbate the effects of culture shock. As you learn the language you encounter the deep structures of the culture – the values and the beliefs about right and wrong. In some cases this can make things more difficult as you encounter values and beliefs that are diametrically opposed to yours. Adjusting to different eating utensils is one thing; adjusting to looser understandings of truth and justice is another thing.


When dealing with culture shock and cultural adjustment, I have always taken solace Paul’s admonition to his brothers and sisters in Colossae:

“At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison—that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Col. 4:2-6)

Wherever you are in your adjustment process, may this be your prayer as well.


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  1. Anisha August 15, 2014

    Thanks for sharing this Joann! 5 months in Indonesia and I have a reasonable enough grasp of the language to be able to communicate, make friends, and get around.  I completely recognise how much this is helping with adjustment and feeling like part of the community. But you are so right, the flip side is that I am beginning to understand more of what is actually going on and that can be disconcerting too.

    As for the four stages those golden days are definitely gone, but I also don’t have a strong sense of ‘whatever was I thinking?’ It’s more that things are so tough and stressful, but with everyday graces ‘I can do this’. We have another move coming up in a few months as the current town is just for language school. I’m sure that move, to a more interior part of the island, will bring with it plenty of transition of it’s own. I’m saving your post to look back on!

    1. Joann Pittman August 15, 2014

      5 months down? Way to go Anisha! You hit on one of the difficulties that “newbies” often faced — multiple moves within the first year, which can often compound things. Wish there were a way folks heading to a new place could land in one place and stay put for a longer period of time. I think you hit the nail on the head — it’s multiple daily graces that often sustains is the best.

  2. Amy Young August 15, 2014

    Joann, thanks for being here! Cross-cultural training has come a long way from playing card games in a huge room with others preparing for the field as well. So thankful for wisdom like yours!

    1. Joann Pittman August 15, 2014

      Hey, I liked those card games. But not with 300 people, as I did once!!

  3. Lisa Matejka August 15, 2014

    Joann, one thing that stands out to me from training with you is “don’t ask why”!  I think culture shock is easier to deal with when you’re not constantly bombarded with why, why, why… 🙂


  4. Alissa Njiru August 15, 2014

    #5 is very helpful! Good to know I’m not the only one who goes through the cycles over and over…

  5. Joann Pittman August 15, 2014

    I’m sure you do, Alissa! (nice to chat with you here!)

  6. Kristina Krauss August 15, 2014

    Wonderful post, thank you. Number 4 is for me right now, because I just was hit with a new role I have never experienced before, and didn’t have all the rules learned.

    I am an TCK, and been a M with my husband now 9 1/2 years. I speak Spanish fluently, and so many times I feel like I have this thing down. I will never fit in here, and like you said, will never be an “expert,” but I can minimize the offenses, and just keep rolling thru the cycles of #5.

    But this week a good friend of mine passed away suddenly, only in her thirties, and leaving behind her husband and 3 young children. She was my cleaning lady too. This culture is catholic, and I didn’t know all the rituals, or the rules for handling a corpse. (or the lack of rules, really) Normally I wouldn’t need to know, but I found myself as one of only 2 close friends, and had to take responsibility; not only for pastoring the children and husband, but responsible to watch the house with the body, prepping details, buying a casket, and the list was LONG. Things went so VERY different than they did in the states when my grandparents passed away. I was wrong with almost all the details, except for being there for them, and pastoring thru the pain. (I guess grief is international, and death customs are not.)

    It’s been an extremely difficult week. I am going thru the worst sudden grief I have ever experienced personally, at the same time a whole new level of culture shock. Why didn’t they embalm the body? The rapid decay made for harsh memories no one should have! Why don’t they have professionals to clean and dress the corpse? It’s so cruel to make the family do it! Why don’t they have a system for making payments on caskets and funeral expenses? The husband in grief actually would have had to go find someone to give him a small loan in order to be able to pay cash for the casket, land plot, and a million other details like the meal for everyone at the house. Gratefully we were able to help, but what about everyone else in this country? He would have been off trying to get money, while the corpse went downhill visibly, all because he couldn’t afford the embalmment! The hospital doesn’t have anyone to help families thru this? Its heartbreaking, and makes me wish I could start a whole different ministry to families in loss.

    All the while, my house is a complete mess because my cleaning lady is gone. I miss her terribly as my friend, but I also have a lot of work to do. I don’t want to replace her right away. But she was the only one who could start my crazy washing machine. I embarrassed to admit it, but I haven’t done my own laundry in years. I don’t even know where stuff is to clean my house with! She ran my whole house.

    So I guess it doesn’t matter how long we are in a foreign country. There will always be a few surprises around the corner, and new roles to play with new rules. Who knew we had to find a squash, cut it in half, empty it out, fill it with vinegar and onions, and then place it under the casket? I didn’t have that one.

    1. Joann Pittman August 15, 2014

      Wow! That’s an area that most of us never deal with, especially at that level. Grace and peace as you walk through this difficult (but growing) time.

    2. Amy Young August 15, 2014

      Kristina, your comment is (and should be) a sobering one. I have not had to face that part of a foreign-to-me culture and hope you have folks who will let you process and debrief and overall just BE there for you. I hope in a small way we have been that for you. Thank you for sharing.

      1. Kristina Krauss August 18, 2014

        Yes Amy, this group did help me with some of the processing, and I am grateful. Not only is it nice to know that I am not alone in some of the pain, but that others are going thru worse things than I. Just hang in there one day at a time. This grief will slow down, and the shock will go away. Thanks for responding to my post.

  7. Marilyn August 15, 2014

    I knew before I got to paragraph 2 that it was you Joann! SO.GOOD! I am sharing this widely and will link to this tomorrow. I think one of the things I have appreciated the most about reading your pieces the last couple years is that you are so okay with learning to live well where you don’t belong. I wish someone had told me that when I moved to the U.S with 5 kids. I wish I had the common sense to know that….but I was in pain and grief. Having someone hold you by the hand and tell you “You can learn to live well where you don’t belong” as well as through these practical tips on culture shock would have made all the difference. The thing is – I also thought I knew it because I had done this so many times. But never for the length of time that the Cairo – New England move was. So a huge Thank You and I’ve enclosed the picture based on a NY Times quote from someone coming to NYC.

    1. Joann Pittman August 15, 2014

      Thanks, Marilyn.  That concept of “living well where you don’t belong” was something I learned from the great Dr. Larson (of Barefoot Language Learning fame) when I did a pre-field orientation internship with him 20 years ago. It helped me to completely reset my expectations and change the way I thought about it all.

      Unrelated….has it really been three weeks since we were together in Colorado???

      1. Marilyn August 15, 2014

        Yes! Too long I think. You did an amazing job on that panel.

    2. Amy Young August 15, 2014

      Marilyn, love this visual! And the idea 0f living well where you don’t belong is empowering, isn’t it?!

  8. Brittany August 15, 2014

    I have wanted to respond to things several times the last two weeks and I just haven’t been able to find the words.  After 10 months in the field, I am without a doubt in stage two of culture shock.  I’m feeling stuck in the “I just want to go home” thoughts as I’m just completely overwhelmed with where I’m at.  I have been feeling this for several weeks now, but still trying to press on in my language study and trying new things to figure out how to live here well with my husband and two young kids.  I actually was feeling really excited because we found out we were expecting a baby and so for the last two months we’ve been preparing to go back to the States for a bit to have the baby.  Knowing we’d be going “home” in a few months gave me extra drive and determination to live well in these next few months.  But then, all of our plans changed.  At 11 weeks, we lost our baby and I’m feeling right back where I was.  Overwhelmed by this culture that is already so hard, but also thinks I have more than enough children and shouldn’t be sad about losing a baby that wasn’t even born yet, and also grieving the loss of a little trip to spend some much needed time with family. Yeah…I’m fully in the “what were we thinking” stage.

    BUT, it is here that I am learning to depend on Jesus for every breath, for every step.  It is here that He is showing me just how precious He is and how much He loves me.  And HE ministers to my soul as there is no one else here to do it.  I’m going to get through on the other side.  At some point, the switch will flip and I will believe that I can truly do this.  I’m not there yet.  I’m still clinging desperately to Jesus wondering if we are going to survive this.  But I hope even when we get to the “we can do this” and the “this is home” stage, that we arrive there while still clinging desperately to Jesus.  Maybe that’s what the “what was I thinking” stage is for…to get us rooted where we need to stay, abiding in the Vine.

    1. Amy Young August 15, 2014


      I’m sitting her looking at a blinking cursor, tears in my eyes. I’m saddened to hear about the miscarriage and the variety of losses it brought with it. Loss of life, loss of a reason to be with family, loss of “the light at the end of the tunnel” and probably loss of understanding (what’s grief? what’s culture shock?).

      Can we pray for you?

      Oh God, may we be like Job’s friends during the first week, and just sit with Brittany and her family in their time of need. Need for a different emotion towards the culture :), need for time to grieve the losses, need for space to be able to share what is really going on. We ask, oh Great Provider, that you will provide TODAY what Brittany needs TODAY. Help her to be present in the moments and not overcome by the looming days. May she move from small hope to small hope as they slowly restore her bigger hope. May she sense this it’s OK to feel the hot mess of emotions she’s feeling and know that you (and in a small way we) are big enough and love her enough to handle them. Amen

      If there are other ways we can come along beside you, please know we will! xox to you!

      1. Patty Stallings August 17, 2014

        Praying for you right now, Brittany, asking for His presence and provision to surround you and cover you.

    2. Joann Pittman August 15, 2014

      Yes, clinging to Jesus is the key, not matter what stage we are in.

  9. Gloria August 15, 2014

    Thanks for this great reminder as I begin a new year in China with a team in various stages of culture shock. As a Chinese-American in China, I naively thought I could “beat the system,” but it turns out I was still just in Stage 1 =P A turning point for me in getting to Stage 4 after an extended period in Stage 2 was with the help of Duane Elmer’s Cross-Cultural Servanthood and the freeing power of grace: . I would be remiss to not also give a special shout-out to the consistent, wise counsel of Amy Young!

    Thanks for opening this important dialogue about cross-cultural living.

    1. Joann Pittman August 15, 2014

      Great point, Gloria. I think that Chinese-Americans often land in China with expectations about cultural adjustment that are even more realistic than others. After all, “we’re Chinese!” Yes, the Elmers books is good and Amy is wise!

    2. Amy Young August 16, 2014

      Gloria, dialoging over cafeteria food about what it meant to love the city you were in was one of the joys of life. You helped me to refine my thoughts as well! Iron sharpening iron baby!

  10. Jennifer August 15, 2014

    Seeking to live well where you don’t belong does lie I think at the heart of it. Recognizing that after living a few years cross-culturally in a way there is no longer a place anywhere where I really fit. I saw that so very clearly in a short visit this summer back to Australia from China, where the emotional reality of culture shock was so very real, and where coming back home to China has been calm, peaceful and relaxing in comparison.  One of the things which has helped me the most in many ways has been accepting in a sense that “not fitting” is normal and not something I can fix or solve and that trying to do that was actually counterproductive. What I need to do, what I am now seeking to do, is to learn how to live well wherever I am. I can only do that one small step at a time, and sometimes it is so very challenging, and yet it is worth it.

    1. Joann Pittman August 15, 2014

      Which speaks to a deeper question, namely what does “fitting in” actually mean? A fair amount of culture shock perhaps grows out of a definition that may be unrealistic.

      1. Jennifer August 15, 2014


        Definitely true… and often it simply takes time for us to even understand or know what many of our preconceptions or expectations really are, or what our own personal points of sensitivity, things that really matter to us are. It is also true that this changes with time. This journey of ours through culture shock is not one which ever ends. It simply changes as we walk along the road.

  11. Elizabeth August 15, 2014

    Love love love #7. “Learning the language can exacerbate the effects of culture shock. As you learn the language you encounter the deep structures of the culture – the values and the beliefs about right and wrong. In some cases this can make things more difficult as you encounter values and beliefs that are diametrically opposed to yours. Adjusting to different eating utensils is one thing; adjusting to looser understandings of truth and justice is another thing.” Yes. I find daily living here not to be too challenging now, but understanding and accepting the deeper structures — THAT’S hard.

    1. Joann Pittman August 16, 2014

      I think this often trips people up because they expect #6. The deeper you go the more you see things that you don’t like. The question, then, is how to respond to that.

  12. Christina August 16, 2014

    Just landed in Iringa Tanzania and too overwhelmed by both good and bad to begin to process culture shock yet… or maybe not being able to process is part of that….

    Trying to commit to writing at least once a week for now as I find new coping mechanisms and I’m unable to bake yet!

    1. Joann Pittman August 16, 2014

      Give yourself some time, and first focus on the fun of the new-ness.

  13. AnneJ August 16, 2014

    I arrived in Niger 6 weeks ago with my husband and three young children. We had never been here before, and arrived planning to stay 2yrs! I skipped the first phase of excitement and went right to constant sobbing, wanting to pack my bags, and wondering (and actually saying those words!) “what were we thinking?!” Six weeks later I’m still thinking it, but having increasing number of moments where I think I can do this! So I guess I’m teetering on the edge of phase 2-3! I have a hard time even thinking I can ever reach the “this is home” phase. I’m happy if I can mostly stay in phase 3, haha! This was a good reminder that those cycles go round and round and not to be shocked when that happens!

    1. Joann Pittman August 16, 2014

      And maybe that’s the point — don’t be shocked by culture shock! Blessings as you persevere.


  14. Jenny August 16, 2014

    Living in Northern Europe culture shock is sneaky. I remember struggling to describe how things here were different to my family when I first arrived… but the longer I live here the more I see how fundamentally different much of the worldview is, though on the surface much looks and feels like the US. There are SO many unspoken rules about everything (and no one ever tells you when you are breaking them so it’s years until you finally realize you have been doing it wrong forever)- rule about how to cross the street, what shoes are acceptable for which activity, and how much silence is ok. It still catches me off guard. I live with nationals and am pretty conversant, but after a recent week long vacation with other Americans, hanging out with a friend here the next day was a bit of a rude awakening.

    On the flip side- I also wonder if at times, I have over-adapted to the culture here and an effort to fit in and am no longer pursuing biblical culture, condemning my american-ness and judging other foreigners. I’m interested to see how this comes up in the next months, as 4 new teammates (in varying stages of language and cultural adjustments) begin to settle in.

  15. Joann Pittman August 16, 2014

    Interesting phrase “condemning my American-ness.” I think that’s a trap that many people fall into, thinking that it will help adapt to local customs. My take is that it’s not only a trap, but a lie. I do not believe that condemning our own culture is or should be part of the adjustment process. For one thing, it will only make matters worse when we do return to our home cultures.  This is also a good reminder that culture shock is real even in places that seem, on the surface anyway, to be similar. I think I would have serious culture shock if I moved to England. England!!!

    1. Laura August 17, 2014


      “I do not believe that condemning our own culture is or should be part of the adjustment process.” Thank you for saying this. I’m on my third “second” culture, and this is the first time I’ve felt the pressure from others to “condemn my Americanness.” I haven’t, and I needed to be reminded that it isn’t part of the adjustment process, even though those around me seem to think it is.

  16. Jan Millsaps August 16, 2014

    Eleven years of being on the field, first three in Nicaragua, last eight in Mexico. I have experienced these phases all many times and I have been a mentor to several younger overseas workers as they try to adjust to the cultures.  I’m thankful for the advice given to me by a seasoned overseas worker while still in my first week in Nicaragua, just to accept and pass through it, resting in the fact that I would get to the other side.  What I see in many younger people is that they think they will be the different, strong one, and they won’t experience culture shock.  As much as I tried to prepare them, if they wouldn’t accept that they would experience it there was not much I could do to help them.

    So, my two cents would be to just acknowledge from the get-go that you will have difficulties adjusting and it’s okay to have rough times and even experience disappointments, grief, frustration, and sadness. That doesn’t make you less of a Christian or a weaker person. It just makes you human, one who must lean into Jesus and rest in His arms.  Blessings from Mexico!

    1. Joann Pittman August 17, 2014

      Agreed! We experience disappointment, grief, frustration and sadness even in our home cultures. Why wouldn’t we experience those in a foreign culture?

    2. Kristina Krauss August 18, 2014

      I totally agree Jan! It helps to face that there will be difficulties ahead. Its fun for me to hear of another lady in Mexico! 🙂  Where are you stationed? We are 1-hour outside of Mexico City on the east side. We do children’s ministry materials for churches in Spanish, Sunday school and VBS. (Although VBS season is now over, with the kids starting back today to school.) If you need any free Sunday School materials, check us out: http://www.losninoscuentan.com.  I’d love to here about what you are doing!

  17. MK Gilbert August 18, 2014

    Good article! I was interested to read about what you’ve been doing in China! If I had the energy I’d want to do the same! Just got my ESL certification a yr ago (I only subst teach, tho, due to chronic fatigue/depression) I took a refresher course in Mandarin for the extra language credits I needed. I was happy that I had retained so much of the language from childhood (learned some simplified characters in class which was fun, but I have NOT retained much of that!)

    My parents were single overseas workers to China back in the late 1940’s where they met (married in Hong Kong in ’49) They had to leave when the Communists took over. I and  2 sibs were all born in Taiwan (“Free” China) in the 50’s, and that was home ’til I was 15.  I also had to go thru culture shock at that tender age. I was painfully shy and out-of-date, but a friend took me under her wing. She’s now an ESL teacher herself! I still often feel like I don’t really belong anywhere…I know I lot of it is due to the severe depression which clouds my thinking. Just SO very thankful for the new Magnetic Stimulation treatments I’m getting, giving me hope for getting better, and the friends that accept me “as is” with all my baggage! (NOT that I want to stay bogged down! I want to continue to let the Lord free me from all the weight, and go on to serve Him in whatever way I can.) If I had the energy, and could convince my hubby, I’d sure love to go teach English in China! Our church has an outreach to international students, many of whom are Chinese, (we live in a university town), and I hope to start a conversational English class for wives, mothers, or whoever wants to come, this fall! Love from a “double MK”!


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