Culture Shock Insights

My husband recently taught a class on cultural adaptation and I believe  that these excerpts from his notes on culture shock can be as helpful to someone else as it was to me.  If you’re not a missionary please take the time to read these and carefully pray for your missionaries around the world!!


What is Culture Shock?

Culture shock describes the anxiety and feelings (of surprise, disorientation, confusion, etc.) felt when people have to operate within an entirely different culture or social environment, such as a different country.

Culture Shock expresses the lack of direction, the feeling of not knowing what to do or how to do things in a new environment, and not knowing what is appropriate or inappropriate.

Culture Shock Symptoms:

Excessive concern over cleanliness and the feeling that what is new and strange is dirty

This could be in relation to: drinking water, food, dishes, and bedding.

Fear of physical contact with people in new culture

Continual offering of excuses for staying indoors.

Feeling of helplessness

Heightened irritability

Irritation over delays and other minor frustrations out of proportion to their causes.

Delay and outright refusal to learn the language of the host country.

Excessive fear of being cheated, robbed, or injured.

Great concern over minor pains and irruptions of the skin.

Preoccupation with returning home.

Terrible longing

to be back home

to be in familiar surroundings

to visit one’s relatives

to talk to people who really “make sense.”

Unwarranted criticism of the culture and people.

Constant complaints about the climate.

Utopian ideas concerning one’s previous culture.

Preoccupation with returning home.


Culture Shock Triggers (For the missionary)

1. A naive ethnocentrism (belief in the superiority of one’s own ethnic group) – Ethnocentrism – is the tendency to view one’s own culture as superior and to apply one’s own cultural values in judging the behavior and beliefs of people raised in other cultures.  We hear ethnocentrism statements all the time.  People everywhere think that their familiar explanations, opinions, and customs are true, right, and proper.  They regard different behavior as wrong.

I judge everything using my own culture as the measuring rod without being consciously aware of what I’m doing.

2. Absolutist thinking 

Insisting that things are not to be questioned: “It’s my way or the highway”

An overly legalistic concern for maintaining form, precedents, and established customs

3. An embracing of naive realism 

“As we see things, that’s the way they are.”

Naive realism says that we can know things in the world directly without taking into account our own filtering processes. Naive realism is the view that when we perceive something, we have perceived it exactly as it is. It is believing that our perceptions of reality are not colored or mediated by anything else.

4. Lack of respect for other people’s ways 

5. The evaluation of customs and perspectives on the basis of one’s own culturally learned assumptions and values (worldview) 

This grows out of the sense that one’s views have been arrived at because they are superior to any other views.

6. The use of negative terms to describe customs different from one’s own 

This may even be done innocently simply because one has not thought through the baggage, which those terms and phrases carry because of the way they have historically been used.

We often talk about British drivers driving “on the wrong side” of the road. Why not just say “opposite side” or even “left hand side”?

We talk about written Hebrew as reading “backward.” Why not just say “from right to left” or “in the opposite direction from English.”

Ethnocentrism leads us to make false assumptions about cultural differences. We are ethnocentric when we use our cultural norms to make generalizations about other peoples’ cultures and customs. Such generalizations—often made without a conscious awareness that we’ve used our culture as a universal yardstick—can be way off base and cause us to misjudge other peoples. Ethnocentrism also distorts communication between human beings.


Some Practical Ways To Fight Culture Shock:

Increase your quiet time and let God show you what He is doing.

Develop a hobby

Don’t forget the good things you already have

Be patient, the act of immigrating is a process of adaptation- It is going to take time.

Include a regular form of physical activity in your routine.

Relaxation and meditation are proven positive for people passing through periods of stress

Maintain contact with your ethnic group. Reduces your feelings of loneliness and alienation

Maintain contact with the new culture. Learn the language. Volunteer in community activities that allow you to practice the language that you are learning. This will help you feel less stress about language and useful at the same time.

Establish simple goals and evaluate your progress.

Find ways to live with the things that don’t satisfy you 100%. 

Focus on similarities rather than differences.

Measure success in little things (ex. you got a smile from the taxi driver).

Talk and pray your feelings out with someone who is not in the valley.

Use your sense of humor and laugh at yourself.

Write in your journal including at least one positive experience daily.

Keep busy; concentrate what you have done; not on what you cannot or have not done.

Remember, there are always resources that you can use If you feel stressed, look for help. There is always someone or some service available to help you.

  Recognition. Realize that culture stress is inevitable for those attempting to become at home in a host culture, and look at what factors cause you the most stress.

  Acceptance. Admit that the host culture is a valid way of life, a means of bringing Christ to the people who live in it.

  Communication. Beware of isolating yourself from everyone in your home culture, those with whom you can relax and be yourself, those with whom you can talk.

  Escape. You need daily, weekly, and annual respites. God made the Sabbath for people, so be sure you keep it. Reading, music, hikes, worship (not leading it), and vacations are necessary..

  Activity. Since stress prepares you for fight or flight, and as a missionary you can probably do neither, you must have some physical activity to use that energy. Sports, an exercise plan, and active games with family or friends can reduce stress.

  Befriend nationals. Get close to nationals just for fun, not just to learn or evangelize. Learn how to have fun in that culture

1 Samuel 30:6,  “…David encouraged himself in the LORD his God.”


Hope this was helpful!!


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  • 6 thoughts on “Culture Shock Insights

    1. What a blessing! My two oldest girls are presently in the Philippines for a short term trip and both feel the Lord may be calling them to the mission field. This article was a great eye opener in how to pray for them and for other missionaries. Thanks

    2. great article Corli! I like the part that says a lack of direction! I’ve been through this and have seen many other missionaries go through this also!

      1. Culture schock is such a big part of a missionaries life Beth! If I knew how to identify the symptoms earlier on, I could have perhaps handled the “shock” better. It’s being in that strange and unfamiliar daze of confusion and disorientation that throws one off : )

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