The Shocking Semantics of Culture Shock

So the powers that be, whoever they are, have determined Culture Shock has four stages. 

However, I’m not convinced Culture Shock has only four stages, just as I’m not convinced public speeches have only three parts (introduction, body, and conclusion).

I’ve heard speeches before that were all body; I’ve heard speeches that were all conclusion; and I’ve heard speeches that were all introduction.  I’ve also heard speeches that weren’t much of anything, and wondered why I was wasting my time listening to them.

In my opinion: reality defies description.  And life is messy.  Yet this doesn’t stop the powers that be from putting Speeches and Culture Shock into tidy boxes.

When I say the words “culture shock,” I’m referring to that mouth-opening, jaw dropping, deer in the headlights SHOCK one experiences upon seeing certain foreign practices (like electronic toilets, suited people picking up trash with salad tongs, or men in gourds wielding bows and arrows). 

My version of of culture shock has only one stage: shock.

The four scientific stages of “culture shock” seem to rather describe four stages of “cultural adjustment.”  Concisely, they are:

  1. Excitement / Holiday / Honeymoon (0-3 months)
  2. Withdrawal / Negotiation / Anxiety (3-6 months)
  3. Adjustment / Confidence / Feeling “normal” (6-12 months)
  4. Mastery / Enthusiasm / Comfort (12 months+)

I love how the stages even come with precise monthly timelines.  Shucks, I’ve gone through all four of those stages before in a New York minute.

Take, for instance, the time I saw a group of Hippos down by a lakeside in Kenya:

  1. First, I felt Excitement at viewing such monstrous animals sooo close!  It felt like I was on a Holiday, perhaps even a Honeymoon (except I was by myself, so not really).
  2. Then, in my Excitement to get even closer, I accidentally touched a high-voltage electric fence separating me from said hippos, which resulted in Withdrawal, Negotiation, and dare I say? Anxiety
  3. Next, I Adjusted to the situation, standing back from the fence, and after some time even began snapping photos with Confidence, and several minutes later, when the tingling died down in my leg, started feeling Normal again.
  4. Finally, having Mastered the situation, I turned my back on the lumbering mammals and with a satisfied chortle, muttered under my breath, “Veni, vidi, vici,” as I returned to the Comfort of my lodgings.

So, in a nutshell, that’s the shocking version of Culture Shock.

On a serious note, when it comes down to it, Culture Shock is simply dealing with differences – first noticing differences, then reacting to them in some manner.

The reaction may be naively happy (stage 1), overboardily grumpily (stage 2), with toleration (stage 3), or cheerfulness (stage 4). Other reactions include yelling, belligerence, and manic-depression, to name a few.

Now, regarding re-entry shock I’ll refrain on commenting as I’m still re-entering, and haven’t been away from home long (only 6 months) so am predicting a mild case, if anything. 

One of the first observations I did make upon arriving in the USA was how I could now understand ambient conversations again.  This was surprising as I’m used to only hearing gibberish from strangers. 

The first time I noticed this was while heading towards the immigration check-in counter at the Honolulu airport.  The man behind me was grumbling about how slow the moving sidewalks were: “They just built this wing of the airport, you’d think they could have made the sidewalks a little faster! it’s like half a mile we have to go here and good gracious, we have elderly folks, they can’t stand up forever!” 

Sorry buddy, it’s only survival of the fittest here.  Those who can’t stand longer than the two minutes required to reach immigration are gonna get left behind, turns out the only law they follow in Hawaii is the law of the jungle.

Honestly, I’m thinking to myself, “Only in America do we complain about the speed of the moving sidewalks!”

3 thoughts on “The Shocking Semantics of Culture Shock”

  1. My mother absolutely died of laughter while *re-reading* your version of the 4 stages of culture shock, so I’m guessing she was practically hyperventilating her first read through… Regardless, I loved it as well!

  2. Hey Paul, glad you guys found it funny! Hey, looking forward to seeing you all again soon.

    Yes Amanda, that would be a disturbing statistic if it were true, which it technically is, but not exactly as I portrayed it…

  3. Nick, I’ve laughed about your example of culture shock all night and am still laughing this morning. In fact, I keep sharing it with people (family, co-workers) because you write soooo well.

    I can’t believe you’ve already left Hawaii! Anyway, so glad you’re blogging. 🙂 Enjoy Oregon; are you visiting your brother?

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