When Different Cultures Collide

Author: David Starr-Glass MBA, M.Sc., M.Ed.

Position: Mentor, International Programs (Prague), State University of New York - Empire State College

Here is a sequence of feelings and emotions that people often experience. Do you recognize it?


  • Stage 1. Things are new, exciting, and unexpected and we enjoy that novelty.
  • Stage 2. This usually develops after about six months and often comes as a shock. The excitement has faded. We notice the distance between us and our surroundings; have difficulties in making new friends, sustaining social interactions, and getting on with our lives. We can feel confused, despondent, hostility, and depression.
  • Stage 3. We begin to appreciate the difference of our surroundings and the people we encounter. We learn ways of dealing with difference, even joking about our own inadequacies. We feel more comfortable with the language, more confident in accepting that people here do things differently from what we have been used to.
  • Stage 4. Perhaps a few years after arriving we can cope with the differences that we encounter, but we again feel isolation and distance: more solitary, unwillingness to develop deep relationships, unconnected, and depressed.
  • Stage 5. We overcome concerns and worries. We are now comfortable, confident, and skilled in negotiating difference. Personal comfort and excitement increase. We feel in control and that where we live is “home”.

These five phases – arrival fascination, culture shock, surface adjustment, mental isolation, and integration acceptance – form a W-shaped emotional curve associated with cultural adaptation.

Culture is the set of assumptions, norms, and behavior that provides a blueprint for our lives. Knowing a culture ensures that we can communicate effectively, appreciate social situations, and respond appropriately. As human beings, we deal multiple cultures – in the street, in school, in the workplace – but when we move to a new country the culture does not match ours. It might be similar or totally different. Each nationality has (in broad statistical terms) a characteristic understanding of who possesses power and who deserves respect; whether team-players and preferable to individualists; what it means to be a man or a woman; whether the moment is more important that the future; whether taking risks should be encouraged or avoided, and of many of social constructs.

“Culture shock” was first used in the 1960s by Kalervo Oberg, a Finnish-Canadian anthropologist. He noted that Scandinavian students in North America developed depression and negative outlooks about six months into their stay, and correlated this with their adaptation to North American culture. When we step out of our national culture – when the language changes, assumptions are unclear, and behaviour is unfamiliar – the first experience is one of excitement and novelty. Culture shock sets in as we realize that we do not really understand the new place and the new people that we encounter. We become confused, often depressed. Later, we make a surface adjustment to the new culture. We don’t really understand the deep culture, but we know how to get by. We can speak the language, read the newspapers, chat with the locals, but we realize that we are different and apart. Social interactions are limited and we tend to stay with people of our own nationality, slowly retreat into our private worlds. We sense isolation, we worrying about it, we might be depressed. Eventually, we break out of this low point and accept our integration into the new culture.

Managers and those working abroad go through this cycle. This is well known to their employers, because worker productivity and creativity decline significantly during the culture shock and mental isolation phases. International students also go through this process. If you study abroad for several years you will probably move through all five phases of the W-shaped curve. But most students who experience culture shock and mental isolation are unaware of the cause; all they know is that they are confused, irritable, and depressed. They need to know that these are low points on the curve; they are not illnesses or “problems”. They are common, inevitable, and indicate that you are moving along the W-shaped curve and heading for fuller cultural integration. Still, culture-shock and mental isolation can be unexpected, unpleasant, and hard to cope with.

So what can you do if early in you stay in Prague you start feeling disorientated and depressed?

The root of the problem might not be culture adaption; many other factors including academic stress, broken relationships, and homesickness produce similar feelings. But if you think that your confusion, lethargy, and depression have a culture adjustment root there are a number of things that you can do.

First, remember that just as the culture adaption curve goes down, it also goes up. In time you will start to develop a deeper functional knowledge of your new culture. You will start moving up the curve and feel better about being able to cope with your new country. Second, research shows that simply writing down your thoughts can be very beneficial because it helps you recognise and organize your feelings. Write about your experiences, feelings, and sense of alienation. What you write and how long you write is not important – 15 minutes a week for a couple of weeks has been found to be effective. Keep the journal private; there’s no need to share it with others, and you can write down things that you might not want to share with others. Third, if the depression persists you should make an appointment with UNYP’s counselling service. They are well aware of cultural adjustment issues and can provide you with help and support.

Depression has many causes and many levels of intensity. It may be culture-adaption related, it may not; it may be intense, it may be mild. But for students all depression has a negative impact on their academic performance and on their social lives. Whatever the cause it pays dividends to recognize it and to get the help and support that you need. Culture shock and mental isolation are part of being international students and international workers.

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