The 7 Symptoms of Culture Shock – Indentifying Them and Getting Ahead of the Problem

Whether it hits full force those first few days on foreign soil or starts to simmer below the surface weeks or months into your work, culture-shock is an equal-opportunity malady that can make even the most culturally-savvy and resilient individual feel like a homesick yokel that just wants to be back to where things feel stable and familiar.

I am so tired … Why do they act like that? … I just need some time with my own people … If they would just cooperate I wouldn’t be so frustrated! … What I wouldn’t give right now for some BDubs’ wings and a really good beer, not this local crap, the good stuff…

These are all common expressions of culture shock that play themselves out in your head. You might even find yourself feeling a bit ashamed of how culturally insensitive your inner-voice can sound. You can evaluate the thoughts rationally and you know better than to let these petty feelings interfere with your work, but that built up frustration—both conscious and unconscious—that grows when working in situations where the rules you’ve lived by your whole life suddenly don’t apply is enough to push many to their breaking point.

1. Fatigue

You’re way past jet lag. You’ve been eating well, sleeping enough, and maybe even getting in a little exercise. But you just feel so tired.

When your host explains that they’ve prepared a special evening event for your team all you can think about is how much sleep you’ll lose by attending it.

One of the least recognized symptoms of culture shock, fatigue can come on slowly or hit all at once. Baring a specific medical diagnosis, this can be one of the most common symptoms of culture shock. Some of the ways it might manifest itself include:

  • Lethargy
  • Sleeping more than normal
  • Feeling overwhelmed by even the smallest of problems
  • Just wanting to “veg out” when you get home from work

2. Hyperirritability

As you hand the fruit vendor some cash for a nice looking bunch of bananas, he turns to another vendor and comments: “Bananas. Americans all love bananas. They’re crazy about bananas.”

Even as he speaks you feel something bubbling up in you and before you know it you’re raising your voice to him: “No! My niece hates bananas. My mother doesn’t really like bananas. Guatemalanseat more bananas than we do!”

Thoroughly embarrassed by your outburst (and you actually have no idea if Guatemalans love bananas) you walk away as quickly as possible. What just happened?

Don’t worry. You’re normal. Hyperirritability is a hallmark of culture shock. It often comes out in the most unattractive manner at the worst moments and can look like any of these:

  • Inappropriate venting of anger
  • Blaming the members of the other culture for your negative feelings
  • Assuming the worst out of ambiguous interactions

3. Depression

Lately you’ve felt kind of low and in a funk. Your co-workers invite you to hit the town and explore some local street food—something you would normally enjoy—but the thought just doesn’t excite you anymore.

Depression stemming from culture shock can show up in many forms. Some of the most common include:

  • Loneliness
  • Feeling lost or helpless
  • Feeling especially vulnerable
  • Lack of motivation to do things you once enjoyed
  • Feeling like you’ve lost a sense of your identity
  • Inability to complete tasks

4. Anxiety

Maybe you’ve always been a fairly confident, adventurous person. Lately, though, you feel hesitant to try new things. Your mind processes a catalog of “what if’s” before each new decision. While some concerns are normal, culture shock can cause nagging, anxious thoughts to take up more mental real estate than they deserve.

Common anxieties that show up when facing culture shock include:

  • A general, undefined sense of anxiety
  • Preoccupation with your health
  • Sense of dread
  • Excessive fear of being cheated, tricked, or robbed
  • Inordinate concern over the safety of the food served to you
  • Preoccupation with overall cleanliness
  • Doubts about your ability to navigate this new experience

5. Feeling Ill

Your body aches and you’ve been getting these wild headaches all week. It’s hard to sit through team meetings because you’re so uncomfortable, but you can’t imagine asking for another sick day… you’ve already used up more this month than you usually use in a year!

Sometimes the emotional stress of adapting to a new culture plays out in our bodies. Things you might notice include:

  • Feeling “off” with no apparent explanation
  • Aches and pains – sometimes just when one resolves another starts
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Resurgence of chronic health issues

6. Negative Feelings Toward Your Host Culture

More and more you find your time with co-workers or same-culture friends spent complaining about today’s irritating or baffling encounters. The culture that once enamored you now seems illogical, petty, and unsophisticated. What gives?

Negative thoughts and emotions towards this new culture are completely normal, and part of the adjustment process. These can play out in multiple ways:

  • Wanting to withdraw from the foreign culture/people
  • Criticizing the local culture
  • Daydreaming about being somewhere else
  • Stereotyping: “all [nationality] are [negative attribute]”
  • Idealizing your home culture/food
  • Focusing your energy primarily on relationships back home or with same-culture friends.

7. Self Doubt

Prior to interacting with your host culture you may or may not have struggled with self-doubt. Now, however, you find yourself doubting your choices (big and small) as well as doubting your very sense of self. These doubts can appear a number of ways including:

  • Questioning your decision to do this work
  • Feeling more shy or insecure than normal
  • Questioning long-held beliefs about religion, gender, morality, or other core convictions
  • Feeling like you’re an imposter
  • Questioning your ability to overcome adversity

Diagnosis and Cure

So how are you doing? Are you noticing some (or many) of these symptoms cropping up in your life? Congratulations! You’re human.

Every cross-cultural worker experiences these things eventually. Symptoms of culture shock will wax and wane throughout your career.

Here’s the most important thing for you to know: This is part of the journey, not a sign that you’re on the wrong road. By recognizing these signs for what they are you can actually turn them into learning opportunities that will make you a more effective cross-cultural worker.