S. (2003). Culture shock due to contact with unfamiliar cultures. In W. J.
Lonner, D. L. Dinnel, S. A. Hayes, & D. N. Sattler (Eds.), Online
Readings in Psychology and Culture (Unit 8, Chapter 7),
Center for Cross-Cultural Research, Western Washington University,
Bellingham, Washington USA.
This material is copyrighted by the author(s), who have kindly extended to the Center the right to use the material as described in the Introduction to this collection and the form entitled "Agreement to Extend License to Use Work."
UNIT 8, CHAPTER 7
SHOCK DUE TO CONTACT WITH UNFAMILIAR CULTURES
School of Psychology
University of New South Wales
topic of this chapter is the social psychology of cross-cultural interaction. We
discuss the psychological processes that take place during and after meetings
between individuals and groups who differ in their cultural backgrounds. We
identify two types of cross-cultural contact: a) meetings that occur between two
societies when individuals travel from their place of origin to another country
for a specific purpose and a limited amount of time, such people being called sojourners
in the literature; and b) meetings within multi-cultural societies among its
ethnically diverse permanent residents. Contact with culturally unfamiliar
people and places can be unsettling, and the term "culture shock" is
frequently used to describe how people react to novel or unaccustomed
situations. Although the unknown can be terrifying, we nevertheless argue that
"culture shock" is not inevitable, or for that matter as widespread as
is often suggested. Indeed, in many circumstances culture contact can be a
satisfying experience. We draw on the ABC model of culture contact to provide a
framework for the discussion, that is, we distinguish between the Affective,
Behavioural and Cognitive components of cross-cultural
interaction. In the chapter we describe the conditions that determine whether
the contact will have positive or adverse consequences, and the psychological
techniques that can be deployed to increase cross-cultural understanding among
the individuals, groups and societies in contact.
of us live and work in familiar surroundings, usually in places where we grew up
or like those where we were raised. And by and large the people whom we meet at
work, school or play tend to be similar to ourselves, in the sense of having
comparable ethnic backgrounds, matching beliefs, shared values, and speak the
same language or at least a dialect variant of it. Technically, this can be
called inhabiting a culturally homogeneous space.
living in accustomed circumstances is the rule for most people, there have
always been exceptions to this pattern. The history of humankind is full of
examples of persons and groups who travelled to foreign lands for a variety of
purposes, the main ones being to work, study, teach, conquer, assist, have fun
in, or settle in the country. The journals of Captain Cook, Marco Polo and
Christopher Columbus provide very good descriptions of what we have referred to
elsewhere (e.g. Ward, Bochner & Furnham, 2001) as between-society
culture contact. Modern day examples include employees of international
organisations, guest workers, overseas students, tourists, immigrants, refugees,
missionaries, and peacekeepers.
term between society culture-contact refers to individuals who travel
beyond their countries of origin for a particular purpose and for a specified
period of time, and the relationships they establish with members of the host
society. The term sojourner has been used to describe such culture
travellers, indicating that they are temporary visitors intending to return home
after achieving their aims. And the term host-society member is often
employed to distinguish the visitors from the visited. Travelling between
societies inevitably involves some personal contact between culturally
dissimilar individuals, and in the case of the sojourner, exposure to
unaccustomed physical and social manifestations. This can be unsettling,
particularly if the transition is abrupt, and is the origin of the concept of
"culture shock", the subject of this chapter.
term within-society contact describes inter-ethnic relationships in
multi-cultural societies. Successful multi-cultural countries may contain many
diverse ethnic groups integrated by institutional arrangements that support
shared values and produce a common sense of nationhood. The United States from
its earliest days was characterised by a great deal of internal diversity. In
such social systems people will inevitably meet others who are dissimilar to
themselves in appearance, ancestry, values and customs. In countries that favour
ethnic diversity, such cross-cultural contact enriches the lives of its
citizens. The opposite is the case in countries where inter-group relations have
an ethnocentric bias.
the last 40 years, the incidence of humans shifting across national boundaries
has greatly increased. Reasons include the invention of the jumbo jet that made
international travel quicker, easier and cheaper. Changes in the world economy
have also played their part. The term "globalisation" is much
in the news nowadays, and relates not only to industry and commerce, but also to
education and leisure. For example, in 1999 overseas assignments by United
States companies exceeded 350,000 business persons, a figure that does not take
into account all the other nations sending their executives abroad. It has been
estimated that at any given time there are about a million and a half students
and scholars attending educational institutions abroad. The figures for tourists
are even greater: The World Tourism Organisation has projected that by the year
2010 the number of international tourist-related journeys will rise to a total
of 940 million trips per year.
and human-made disasters such as floods, famine and regional conflicts also play
a major role in stimulating cross-cultural travel, and include growing numbers
of refugees, immigrants and guest workers. However, people in these categories
do not fit our definition of a sojourner as most of them do not intend to or are
unable to return to their countries of origin. Consequently, their reactions are
more appropriately considered from the perspective of within-society culture
phrase culture shock has been attributed to the anthropologist Kalervo
Oberg, who in an article in 1960 used it to illustrate how people react to
strange or unfamiliar places. In our book (Ward, Bochner and Furnham, 2001) we
have suggested that readers should be cautious about taking the expression too
literally. There is no doubt that it reflects some of the feelings and
experiences of travellers who suddenly find themselves in new, strange, or
unfamiliar places. The unknown can be an uncomfortable and at times terrifying
experience. However, the use of the word "shock" places too much
emphasis on the threatening circumstances of contact with novel situations,
without acknowledging that such experiences may also have beneficial
consequences for the participants. This led us to contend that over the years
"culture shock" has become a widely misused term, both in popular
language as well as in cross-cultural psychology. This article will identify
some of the empirical conditions under which travel across cultures can be
stressful, offer a theoretical explanation for such an outcome, and provide a
brief account of the strategies that can be used to reduce contact-induced
stress. As such, we will restrict ourselves to the "culture shock" of between-society
culture contact, that is, the psychology of the traveller or sojourner who
ventures across cultures. Other articles in this series deal with immigrant and
refugee experiences, or the psychology of acculturation that characterises within-society
may questions why we have included tourists in the discussion of culture shock.
That is because although tourism is promoted as a tranquil and relaxing holiday
experience, many studies have shown that tourists are prone to exactly the same
psychological stress as other between-culture travelers.
Determinants of Culture Shock
robust finding in social psychological research is that individuals have a
preference for people who are similar to themselves; and are less favourably
disposed to others regarded as being different. Similarity is a complex matter,
because individuals and groups can be alike in a variety of ways. Even so,
studies have found that most non-trivial aspects of similarity have an effect on
how people will respond to and perceive each other. In general, individuals are
more likely to seek out, enjoy, understand, want to work and play with, trust,
vote for, and marry others with whom they share characteristics they regard as
important. These include values, religion, group affiliation, skills, physical
attributes, age, language, occupation, social class, nationality, ethnicity,
residential location, and most other aspects on which human beings differ.
should be emphasised that we are addressing perceived rather than actual
similarity, which is inferred, sometimes quite erroneously, from characteristics
such as skin colour, accent, clothing, and other visible cues. To cite a
personal example, some years ago we were visiting a stately home in Britain, and
encountered a middle aged man attired in a scruffy outfit engaged in pruning a
rose bush. We assumed that this person was one of the many gardeners employed by
the estate, until we observed a similarly-attired workman approach the man,
deferentially doff his cap, and address the person as "My Lord". Many
intercultural encounters are marred by such fallacious inferences.
technical term for preferring like-minded people is in-group bias. The
theory underlying it is based on the principle that the similarity of another
person is reassuring. The world is a complex place with many choices and
alternatives to offer. It is
frequently unclear as to how people should behave in social situations that are
often ambiguous. Such uncertainty can be unpleasant, and actors will seek
guidance about how to "correctly" conduct themselves. Books and
magazines on etiquette provide one source of advice, as does religious doctrine
for the devout. However, a more common solution is to ascertain how other people
deal with the problem, the technical term for this process being consensual
validation. Individuals with similar values and practices provide
confirmation that our opinions, actions and decisions are righteous and correct.
And conversely, a dissimilar person may undermine such security.
the term "culture" has been defined in a variety of ways, common to
all of them is the principle of culture as shared meanings. It follows
from this definition that contact between culturally diverse people will take
place among individuals who are dissimilar, quite possibly with respect to
important, deeply felt issues. A further implication is that such interactions
may be aversive and cause "culture shock", that is, create anxiety,
and in extreme cases fear and loathing in the participants.
much of it reviewed in our book, has shown that the greater the cultural
distance separating interacting participants, the more difficulty they will have
in establishing and maintaining harmonious relations. This effect has been found
for most sojourners including tourists, overseas students and expatriate
business persons, all of whom perform less effectively in their personal and
professional lives in cultures that are significantly different from their own.
Importantly, the distance between the cultures of the participants will have an
effect on the smoothness of the interaction. For instance, Australian sojourners
in Britain should have an easier time of it than is the case for Australian
sojourners in Mainland China. "Culture shock" defined in this way is a
function of the degree of separation between the cultures of the sojourners and
their host societies.
in Core Values
special case of culture distance derives from differences in values, and can be
another major source of culture shock. Interactions between members of societies
diametrically opposed on core issues can quickly descend into rancour and
hostility. For instance, the lower standing of women in some societies attracts
condemnation in cultures that value non-discriminatory gender relations.
Conversely, members of male-dominated societies regard the occupational and
sexual independence of Western women as repugnant and offensive. Probably the
single most potent source of friction stems from differences in religious
beliefs and practices, as many historical as well as contemporary examples
of Culture Shock
this section we review some of the psychological effects of exposure to culture
contact. We will be suggesting that contact does not necessarily lead to
negative reactions. However, there is no doubt that cross-cultural interactions
are inherently stressful, and an analysis of any potential adverse reactions
must be included in the discussion.
Research in Historical Perspective
bulk of past research was conducted from the perspective of culture contact as a
one-way flow of influence. That is, most studies set out to describe the impact
of the new culture on the sojourners. The term typically used in this context
was "adjustment", implying that sojourners had to accommodate to the
host culture or suffer the consequences. Until quite recently any reciprocal
effects of the visitor on the host country tended to be ignored. This was
because it was assumed that a host society is too monolithic to be significantly
touched by such temporary residents. The exception to this trend were studies of
the impact of tourists on the sites and cultures they visit, but even here this
was mainly with respect to their economic consequences. We will not be able to
discuss this issue further as it would take us beyond our immediate focus, but
readers should be reminded that the sojourner-host member relationship is very
much a reciprocal transaction, and that both parties can experience
early sojourn literature was characterised by four features: First, it was
assumed that culture contact is a noxious, or at least a painful experience for
the sojourner. Second, flowing from the belief that cross-cultural contact is
inherently unpleasant, most of the researchers conceptualised the outcome of
contact predominantly in affective terms, concentrating on the negative
emotions, fears and anxieties that sojourners supposedly experienced.
this in turn gave the field a distinctly "clinical", intra-individual
flavour, particularly when it came to accounting for individual differences in
adjustment and coping. Personality traits such as "tolerance for
ambiguity", "authoritarianism" and "neuroticism" were
used to explain why some culture travellers failed and others succeeded. One
consequence of this approach was to stigmatise those who "broke down".
The many Peace Corps Volunteers in the early days who had to be repatriated
because they could not cope are a good example.
most of the research was basically a-theoretical, consisting of shotgun surveys
of various samples of convenience, which meant that the results were difficult
studies of "culture shock" tend to be much more theoretically driven,
look at social as well as internal determinants, and allow for the measurement
of both positive as well as negative outcomes.
ABC of Culture Shock
our book, we have developed what we called the ABC theory of culture contact.
Unlike earlier formulations, the ABC model does not regard the response to
unfamiliar cultural settings as a passive, largely negative reaction, but rather
as an active process of dealing with change. The term coping behaviour is
sometimes used in the literature to emphasize this active aspect. Additionally,
the model makes an explicit distinction between three components of this
process: Affect, Behaviour, and Cognitions; that is, how
people feel, behave, think and perceive when exposed to second-culture
influences. The ABC model also links each of these elements to particular
theoretical frameworks. Finally, the model has implications for interventions
aimed at decreasing "culture shock" and increasing the likelihood of
achieving positive culture-contact outcomes.
affective approach to culture contact is captured by Oberg's depiction of
'culture shock' as a buzzing confusion. To be fair, he had in mind people who
were suddenly exposed to a completely unfamiliar setting and overwhelmed by it,
a phenomenon particular to the jet age. Nevertheless, it became fashionable to
characterise all culture contact in terms of negative affect, such as confusion,
anxiety, disorientation, suspicion, even grief and bereavement due to a sense of
loss of familiar physical objects and social relationships.
recent formulations of the affective component in inter-cultural contact draw on
the stress and coping literature (reviewed in our book), which treats
socio-cultural adjustment as an active, adaptive response. Self-efficacy as
described by Bandura (1986) has also been a prominent feature of this approach.
intervention techniques implied by the affective model tend to be variants of
traditional counselling procedures, their aim being to reduce anxiety, increase
self-efficacy and emotional resilience, and to develop effective coping
the 70' and 80' it became obvious, at least to some of us, that culture contact
did not always lead to culture shock. Some sojourners seemed to thrive in what
were for them exotic locations. And it was also apparent, at least to those of
us trained as social psychologists, that culture contact was manifestly an
interpersonal, interactive event. Intra-personal characteristics and traits
certainly played a role, but that was really only one part of the story, and a
minor one at that. The present writer spent some time at Oxford with Michael
Argyle, and was greatly impressed by his (Argyle, 1994) model of interpersonal
behaviour as a mutually skilled performance. Specifically, Argyle said that
social interaction is a highly rule-bound activity, even though the participants
are mostly unaware of this underlying framework. The guidelines that control
social behaviour are largely taken for granted, rather like the presence of
oxygen in the air. Only when the oxygen is reduced or missing, as in smog or
carbon dioxide emissions, do we take notice of it. And the same is true in our
social world, we really only become aware of the presence of a behavioural
imperative when it is infringed or disregarded.
at that time Argyle was constructing his social skills model without explicit
reference to any cross-cultural implications, its utility in explaining
culture-contact phenomena was obvious to the writer, leading him to develop what
he called a culture-learning model of contact. In this he was assisted by two
books by E. T. Hall (1959; 1966) that did take a transcultural view - The
silent language and The hidden dimension.
The culture learning model extends Argyle's social skills account to
propose that the rules, conventions and assumptions that regulate interpersonal
interaction, particularly verbal and non-verbal communication, vary across
cultures. One implication is that sojourners who lack culturally relevant social
skills and knowledge will have difficulty in initiating and sustaining
harmonious relations with their hosts, or in the case of immigrants, with
mainstream members. Their culturally inappropriate behaviour will lead to
misunderstandings and may cause offense. Indeed, research has shown that
culturally unskilled persons are less likely to achieve their professional and
personal goals. Expatriate executives may alienate their local counterparts and
lose market share, overseas students may fail their courses, hospitality
industry workers may offend tourists, and the job prospects of migrants may be
of the above effects have been confirmed empirically. The present writer has
conducted numerous studies of the social networks of various groups of
sojourners to confirm that poor social skills have adverse effects, exacerbated
by the extent of the distance separating host from visitor (or majority from
minority) cultures. A critical factor in sojourner adjustment was the extent to
which they had host-culture friends, the reason being that these persons acted
as informal culture-skills mentors. Those visitors who socialised exclusively
with members of their own cultures did less well on a variety of measures than
sojourners who had established non-trivial links with their hosts.
The relevant empirical literature has been comprehensively reviewed in
our recent book.
culture learning approach emphasises the behavioural elements of culture
contact. It is equally relevant in explaining encounters within as well as
between cultures, and it is interactive rather than just concentrating on the
visitor or newcomer. It has clear implications for remedial action: For
individuals to function effectively in a second-culture setting, they have to
acquire relevant skills and knowledge specific to the new culture; that is, they
have to learn about the historical, philosophical and sociopolitical foundations
of the target society, and acquire and rehearse some of the associated
behaviours. This approach does not stigmatise those who stumble in their
second-culture interactions, because the reason for their failure lies not in
their personalities, but in their competencies. And it is a lot easier to learn
new skills than it is to change personalities.
third element of the model is the cognitive component, and owes its place
in the theory to what has been called the cognitive revolution in psychology,
that is, to the greater emphasis during the last ten or so years on cognitive
processes. Again, we have taken developments within "mainstream"
monocultural psychology and extended them to culture contact issues. As
mentioned earlier, the broadest definition of culture is as a system of shared
meanings, very much a cognitive proposition.
interpret physical, interpersonal, institutional, existential and spiritual
events as cultural manifestations, and these vary across cultures. When
different cultures come into contact, particularly 'distant' ones, such
established truths lose their apparent certainty. For instance, when persons
from a society that values individualism, as is the case in most Western
countries, sojourn in a collectivist culture such as Japan, the conflict between
these two orientations will drift into the cognitions of both visitors and
hosts. It will affect how the participants see each other and themselves, and
whether either party will change their views as a consequence of the contact.
Relevant theoretical models and research topics include attribution theory,
prejudice, ethnocentrism and stereotypes, and social identity theory.
based on the cognitive component of culture contact involve some form of
cultural sensitivity and awareness training. These techniques emphasise the
cultural relativity of most values, the validity of the unfamiliar culture, and
more generally the advantages of cultural diversity, including the commercial,
aesthetic, and adaptive advantages of a culturally heterogeneous global system.
the final analysis the As, Bs, and Cs of culture contact are defined
operationally in terms of the constructs and procedures used to measure them.
Some typical measures of B and C (behaviour and cognition) include
Colleen Ward's Sociocultural Adjustment Scale, Kelley & Meyers
Cross-Cultural Adaptability Inventory, and the Social Situations Questionnaire
that Adrian Furnham and Stephen Bochner developed to measure the extent to which
sojourners experience difficulties in their new settings (Furnham & Bochner,
behavioural dimension is sometimes further divided into three
sub-categories: Instrumental Adjustment, defined as the ability to
navigate through the new environment. Examples of items include "I know
where to shop for what I need." Interaction Adjustment,
defined as casual interactions with host members "When I experienced
unsatisfactory service, I did something about it; I have no difficulty in asking
strangers for directions". And Relational Adjustment, defined
as maintaining non-trivial friendships and social networks with host members
"I made friends with people of different ethnic backgrounds." We have
also developed a scale that measures Host-Language Proficiency, found to
be a good index of behavioural adjustment.
cognitive dimension can also be regarded as having three distinct
components: Interest in Other Cultures "When I meet people different
from me, I want to learn more about them"; Tolerance for Cultural
Differences "When I meet people from other cultures I tend to feel
judgmental about their differences"; and Positive Attitudes Toward New
or Unusual Cultural Environments "I believe I can live a fulfilling
life in another culture".
the years, the author has been measuring the cognitive dimension of ethnic
or cultural identity with the I Am Test, which consists of a sheet
of paper listing ten incomplete statements beginning with "I am.....".
This measure is sensitive to whether participants are mono-cultural with respect
to their new or original culture, marginal with respect to both, or bi-cultural
or culturally hyphenated individuals (e.g. Chinese-Australians). The procedure
has its theoretical basis in Stephen Bochner's
(1981) Mediating-Person Model. We also sometimes use a one-item
test in which we simply ask people to write down what ethnic group they belong
to. Colleen Ward and her colleagues have explored identity by conventional
questionnaire items that measure how individuals perceive and relate to their
own cultural groups and to members of other groups.
Adjustment is usually measured by means of scales adapted from the clinical
literature to gauge the amount of stress and physical and mental ill health the
sojourners experience, or in positive terms, the extent of emotional well-being
and satisfaction. Sub-scales include measures of anxiety, confusion, low
self-esteem, homesickness, and a sense of helplessness. Subjective estimates of
health are also often included, using questionnaires such as the General Health
me conclude by commenting about the relationship between the A, B,
and C elements of the model. In our book we regard each of the components
as influencing and being influenced by the other two elements. Technically, this
can be described as a continuous feedback cycle reverberating among the three
components. In other words, what we feel will affect what we do and think, and
vice versa cubed. And because there is no direct research regarding the relative
importance of these three processes, the A, B, and C
components have been accorded equal status by default. However I tend to the
view, which is not necessarily shared by my co-authors, that the primary
determinants of culture shock as a negative reaction, and cross-cultural
adaptation as a positive response, are in the behavioural domain. I believe that
affective (emotional) responses are essentially retrospective evaluations of
inter-cultural experiences, that is, behavioural episodes, which can range from
the aversive to the highly satisfactory. And I assume that the main function of
cognitive responses is to rationalise these emotive reactions. If these
speculations can be supported by empirical evidence, this has implications for
intervening in and managing inter-cultural contacts, in particular that more
weight should be given to facilitating the culture learning of the participants.
M. (1994). The psychology of interpersonal behaviour. 5th Edition. London:
A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social-cognitive view.
Englewood Cliff, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
S. (Ed.) (1981). The mediating
person: Bridges between cultures.
Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman.
A., and Bochner, S. (1986). (Reprinted 1989, 1990, 1994).
Culture shock: Psychological reactions to unfamiliar environments.
E. T. (1959). The silent language. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
E. T. (1966). The hidden dimension. Garden City, NY: Doubleday
C., Bochner, S., & Furnham, A. (2001). The psychology of culture shock.
Second edition. Hove, UK: Routledge.
Stephen Bochner is a Visiting Professor in the School of Psychology at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. He is a cross-cultural applied psychologist, with a special interest in the psychology of culture contact and acculturation. He is the author of several books, and numerous chapters in books and journal articles. Topics on which he has published extensively include the adaptation of overseas students and expatriates, and the social psychology of culturally diverse work places. His most recent publications are as co-author with Colleen Ward and Adrian Furnham of the book "The psychology of culture shock: Second edition" published in 2001 by Routledge; and "Organisational culture and climate", a chapter in the forthcoming book "Organisational psychology in Australia and New Zealand", edited by M. O'Driscoll, P Taylor & T. Kalliath to be published by Oxford University Press in 2003. E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Questions for Discussion
1. Why is it easier to communicate with individuals who are similar to you than with people who are different?
Canadian students enrolled in a university in the United States are probably
going to make the transition more easily than if they were attending one of the
universities in Hong Kong that use English as the medium of instruction. What
are some of the reasons for these differences in coping?
What would be a useful working definition of culture?
Adapting to new cultural settings involves changes in the way in which
sojourners feel, behave, and think. If you have had personal exposure to
unfamiliar cultures, reflect on your experiences and share these with your
colleagues, using the A, B, and C categories as a framework for your account.
What do you believe is an effective way to prepare people for living and working
in unfamiliar cultural settings? Again, use the A, B, C framework to organise