Culture Shock – it can make you or break you

Amsterdam winterPersonally I cannot stand boxes.

Naturally I don’t like being put in a box or putting other people in a box. Today, for the purpose of this article I will use the framework of the generally identified stages of Culture Shock. Not to identify with these stages and hold them for true but to do just the opposite. The idea is to grow awareness and knowledge to go beyond them. So we can fully use our own influence to the fullest and have optimum freedom of choice.

What is culture shock?┬áCulture shock is a subcategory of a more universal concept called transition shock. Transition shock is a state of loss and disorientation predicated by a change in one’s familiar environment, which requires adjustment.

As short as possible I will describe here the 5 generally identified stages of Culture shock:

1. The Honeymoon stage

Everything seems interesting in your new environment. It’s all so fascinating and you feel enormous enthusiasm to explore and get to know this new place. This can last for days or weeks even. As long as things are easy.

2. Frustration stage

Differences between your old and new culture become apparent. You have daily struggles finding out the differences between how life functions at home and in this new place: is the weather always like this, what’s with these agenda’s, I don’t understand my GP, why are people rude to me? This can leave you feeling dissatisfied, angry and sad. Note this is where you can tend to start judging the people around you and the culture.

The most important change is in the way of communicating. While adjusting to the Dutch culture you might feel lonely because you are not yet used to the new environment and meet people with whom they are not familiar every day. The language barrier may become a major obstacle in creating new relationships. In the beginning you have to pay special attention to culture-specific body language signs, linguistic faux pas, tone of conversation, linguistic nuances and customs and so-called friends that appear to be unreliable.

3. Adjustment phase

By now you have learned the necessities of your new life. You know how to ask for things you need and you understand how things function around you. It starts to make sense. The problems you encounter seem smaller now and you are able to laugh over obstacles that might come your way. You may start to feel a bit of belonging.

4. Mastery phase

You have completely adjusted. You know from experience now which ‘good’ and ‘bad’ things this place has to offer. Your life becomes more ‘normal’. You no longer worry and are able to enjoy the good things. You start to make friends with local people.

5. Re-entry phase

You return back home. Many things might be new to you since you’ve been away for a number of years. Your friends have moved on and you still miss the friends and connections you’ve made in the place you left. People often find this more surprising and difficult than the initial Culture Shock. You don’t expect this to happen. You are ‘supposed to’ feel at home in the place where you’re from.

Do you recognize one of these stages? Maybe not in yourself but in your child or partner. If you experience unexplainable symptoms they may also point to Culture Shock. Varying from irritability and anger to feelings of helplessness and withdrawal.

Now that we have the concept clear we can talk about what our options are when we find ourselves in a certain stage. I will discuss this in the next article.


  1. Thanks for this article Mirjam! Looking forward to read your options “what to do” in your next blog.

  2. I skipped the first Honeymoon stage and stayed in the second – Frustration – for quite long.
    I’m in the Adjustment phase, at least I hope so. I would like to come to Master phase as soon as possible and to enjoy life again!
    Thank Mirjam for clearing it!

    • Mirjam Boogaart says:

      Thank you Rasa for sharing. As we talked about the other day, the hardest thing is having expectations that don’t come true. Adjusting and finding a different way to get to what we need is challenging when you have no one to tell you how. Especially when you find yourself in a vulnerable position like no knowing the language and just arriving to the country, having to spend money on housing, or not enjoying your optimal health and looking for good doctors advice… I will dwell on that subject a bit more in one of my upcoming articles! Let me know how it works out in April!

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