Culture shock as an expat: What you need to know

Expat life
09 Jan 2024
8 mins read
Written by Team Instarem

Culture shock is a very real phenomenon that many expats experience when they move to a new country. In some cases, culture shock can be so severe that it leads to depression or even homesickness. 


If you are an expat, it is important to be aware of the symptoms of culture shock and how to handle them.


In this blog post, we will define culture shock and discuss some of the most common symptoms. We will also provide tips for how to cope with culture shock and maintain your mental health while living in a foreign country.

What is culture shock?

Aptly named – it can leave you feeling disoriented and alienated in a place that is, at least on the surface, very familiar.


It’s the sensation you get when you realize that the way you’ve been doing things all your life is not necessarily the only way, or even the best way.


Culture shock can be caused by many things – travel, moving to a new city, starting a new job, or even going away to college. It can be head-spinning stuff, especially if you’re used to being in control of your world.


There are 5 stages of culture shock:


  • Honeymoon: This is the stage where everything is new and exciting. You are full of hope and possibilities.
  • Confusion: In this stage, you start to realize that things are not as perfect as they seemed at first. You may feel like you are losing your sense of self.
  • Frustration: This is when the culture shock really starts to set in. You may feel angry, homesick, and hopeless.
  • Adjustment: In this stage, you start to get used to your new culture and find ways to cope with the differences.
  • Acceptance: This is the final stage of culture shock. You have accepted your new culture and made it your own.

What are the symptoms of culture shock?

The most common symptoms of culture shock include:


  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Homesickness
  • Withdrawal from social activities
  • Loss of appetite or overeating
  • Insomnia or sleeping too much
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Loss of interest in hobbies or activities

Examples of culture shock

We will use Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory to provide some examples of culture shock.


Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory is a framework for cross-cultural communication that describes the effects of a society’s culture on its members’ values and beliefs.


The six dimensions are:


  • Power Distance: the extent to which people in a culture accept that power is distributed unequally.


Example:  In many cultures, it is considered impolite to ask a person their age. In Korea, however, age is an important piece of information.


This is because Korean society has a much higher power distance –   based on hierarchy and respect for elders.


As a result, people will often ask about your age to determine how they should address you. Younger people will also typically use more formal language when talking to older people.


  • Individualism vs. Collectivism: the extent to which people in a culture value individual autonomy or group membership.


In the United States, individual freedom is highly valued. People are free to pursue their own interests and goals and to live their lives as they see fit. This contrasts with Japan, where group harmony is prized above all else. In Japan, people are expected to conform to societal norms and to work for the good of the community, rather than for themselves.


For example, in Japan, it is considered rude to talk loudly in public places like trains, while in the United States people generally feel free to speak as they please.


  • Masculinity vs. Femininity: the extent to which gender roles are defined by biology or culture.


In masculine cultures, such as Japan and the United Arab Emirates, men are expected to be assertive and tough. Women in these cultures are typically expected to be more nurturing.


In feminine cultures, such as Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, there is less of a distinction between gender roles. Both men and women are expected to be gentle, caring, and emotional.


  • Uncertainty Avoidance: the extent to which people in a culture feel threatened by uncertainty and ambiguity.


In cultures with high uncertainty avoidance, such as Singapore, people tend to be more risk-averse. They prefer rules and structure, and they like to know what is going to happen in advance.



In contrast, in cultures with low uncertainty avoidance, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, people are more comfortable with change and ambiguity. They are more likely to take risks and to be comfortable with new situations.


  • Long-Term vs. Short-Term Orientation: the extent to which people in a culture value long-term planning or immediate gratification.


In long-term oriented cultures, such as China and Japan, people are taught to think about the future and to plan for it. They value thriftiness, delayed gratification, and hard work.


In contrast, in short-term oriented cultures, such as the United States and Australia, people tend to focus on the present and on immediate gratification. They are more likely to spend money rather than save it, and they value innovation and change.


  • Indulgence vs. Restraint: the extent to which people in a culture enjoy life’s pleasures.


Indulgent cultures tend to enjoy life’s pleasures and have a more relaxed attitude toward work and leisure. Example break time for meals in France is typically two hours or more.


In contrast, in restrained cultures, people are more likely to work hard and focus on self-control. They may view leisure time as a waste of time. An example of this would be Germany where workers take their lunch breaks at their desks.

Reverse culture shock

A term used to describe the feeling of disorientation that can occur when someone returns to their home country after an extended period abroad.


It’s often said that it’s easier to adjust to a new culture than it is to readjust to your own, and this is certainly true for many people. After living in a foreign country for a while, you can start to feel like a stranger in your own land.


This can be a disorienting and even overwhelming experience. However, there are a few things you can do to ease the transition.


First, try to avoid comparing everything to your experiences overseas. It’s natural to want to share your stories with others but remember that not everyone will be interested in hearing about your time abroad.


Second, take some time to familiarize yourself with your surroundings. Even if you’ve been away for only a few months, things may have changed in your absence.


Finally, try to connect with other expats or people who have also travelled extensively. These people will understand what you’re going through and can offer helpful advice and support.

How to handle or cope with culture shock?

If you are experiencing culture shock, there are some things you can do to help yourself feel better:


  • Talk to someone who understands: whether it’s a friend, family member, therapist, or counsellor, it can be helpful to talk to someone who has been through culture shock before. They can offer support and advice.
  • Join a group: There are often groups for expats that can help you meet new people and adjust to your new culture.
  • Stay connected to your family and friends back in your home country: hearing from loved ones can help ease homesickness and make you feel more connected to your old life.
  • Take a break from social media: social media can make culture shock worse by triggering FOMO (fear of missing out) or making you compare your life to others.
  • Find a hobby: Doing something you enjoy can help take your mind off of your culture shock and make you feel more connected to your new home.
  • Keep a journal: Writing down your thoughts and feelings can help you process them and make sense of what you’re going through.
  • Stay positive: It’s important to focus on the positive aspects of your new culture and remember that culture shock is only temporary.
  • Be patient: It takes time to adjust to a new culture, so be patient with yourself.

Culture shock is a normal part of the expat experience

By being aware of the symptoms and how to cope with them, you can make your transition to a new culture or country smoother and more enjoyable.


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*Disclaimer: This article is intended for informational purposes only. All details are accurate at the time of publishing. Instarem has no affiliation or relationship with products or vendors mentioned.

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