Culture shock experiences from expats

What is Culture Shock? How does it develop over time? Here you can find an introduction to culture shock and accounts from expats about their experience with it.

Cultural shock

If you have ever felt in the wrong place after moving to a new city, or went through a stage of continuously criticizing people around you after expatriating, or felt irritable after relocating, you’ve probably suffered from culture shock.


You may not even have known you were suffering from culture shock.
Did you experienced some to several of the following symptoms sometime after relocating abroad or to another part of your own country?

  • Homesickness
  • Night unrest
  • Disliking locals
  • Tendency to criticize local customs
  • Judging local customs as (partly) immoral
  • Considering native culture as ideal
  • Appearance of new physical ailments
  • Being highly irritable by small issues
  • Feeling alone
  • Feeling inadequate
  • Depression
  • Voluntary isolation from others

These are typical symptoms of culture shock


A few lines above, I was intentionally vague as to when culture shock reaches its peak. That varies with individuals. We are not all the same.
However, culture shock reaches its peak in average from 6 to 12 months after relocating.

Culture shock peak is actually a low in mood and well-being and it is only one stage of the adjustment pattern people experience when they move to another place / culture.
Here are the five stages a typical adjustment pattern is made of:

  • Honeymoon phase
  • Culture shock
  • Initial adjustment
  • Mental isolation
  • Full integration

Cultural shock adjustment pattern

Honeymoon phase
Everything is new, exciting, and good. This is the initial phase in which people enjoy the advantages they found in the new place if compared to their old life: a new job, more money, more opportunities, etc. Such an approach is useful in order to overcome the challenges of starting over. However, by accentuating the good things of their new life, people hide the disadvantages, and this prepares the ground for the next phase.

Culture shock phase
Just the opposite of the previous one. Instead of emphasizing the positive aspects of their new life, people seem to notice negative aspects, and what is worse, only negative ones. In this phase things can look quite difficult. This is the stage where many wonder if they are ever going to make it.

Initial adjustment
Finally a more objective approach: advantages and disadvantages faced with the new life are taken into account.

Mental isolation
It’s been a long time since close contact with family and good friends has been interrupted. Feeling more comfortable doesn’t mean you’re not missing them. Besides, having accepted local customs and way of doing things has brought an unpleasant side effect: nostalgia.
“My native language sounded like music.” “People at home used to ask me how I felt,” or – on the contrary – “I had so much more privacy back then.” And so on. We could find dozens of examples, but you get the point.

Full integration
It’s the final and permanent stage that occurs after at least two years after moving. It could be also called integration, although I don’t like such a generical term.

Direct experience on adapting to a new culture from expat bloggers

By Alex and Bell of Wanderlust Marriage

When we first moved to the Netherlands, even the boring task of grocery shopping was exciting. There were so many new things to look at and try (like “Filet American”- raw hamburger in sauce ready to put in a sandwich. Just like Americans….don’t). However, there is a “honeymoon” phase to all this. In the Netherlands it lasted about a year, whereas this period was shorter when we moved to Dublin. We attribute this to Ireland being more similar to our cultures than the Netherlands. Also, this was our second go with this. We’re not sure we ever got over the negative aspects of living in the Netherlands for a few reasons. One of the biggest problems was our living situation. In short, we had a landlady from hell. It tainted all of our perceptions of the country unfortunately. With Ireland, we feel that despite the difficult economic times, the country and its people have treated us well. We do miss our families and social networks though. It takes time to really develop these. Without a solid network we’re not sure if one can move to acceptance and integration into a new country. We feel this is what will get you through the tough times. But it is really important, in our opinion, to spend time with both expats and locals as the locals will provide you with stronger ties to the new country and expats are quicker to draw you into their immediate circle. Our experiences of living abroad have changed who we are and taught us a lot about life. Despite the challenges, it’s been a pretty great adventure!


By Aisha Ashraf of Expatlog

The first three or four months in our new surroundings were great, we enjoyed the end of a beautiful summer, swimming in the lake and exploring the trails around where we lived. All the differences we encountered were entertaining (Ooooh, those funny Canadians!) and the learning experience was invigorating. We were in the honeymoon period.

With winters approach came the mood swings – feelings of insignificance, questions of purpose. I’m sure I must have driven my new friends up the wall with my constant comparisons with things “back home”. You develop an “us and them” mentality. It almost feels like you’re under siege – I know it sounds stupid but that’s the best way to describe it, especially when I used to look out the window and see all those lucky b******s with cars!
Or, conversely, it’s like being on the outside, looking in. If culture is the shared reality of a group of people, then the expat inhabits a parallel reality, they’re in the same place but see everything differently. There are so many subtle differences in communication, the way things are said, implied or referred to. Vocal inflections and body-language are different, even though the language may be the same. We often found ourselves wishing Canadians would just say it straight. Browsing through expat forums has shown me that this is a common feeling among expats whichever country they’re in. It takes time to re-learn how to “read” people. […]
I remained a po-faced, contrary cow until spring. Then I started to feel more positive. This summer, following our Canniversary in July/August, I finally confided to my husband with certainty, that I didn’t want to go back to Britain.

You can read the full article by Aisha Ashraf here.


By Mike of Earthdrifter

As I’m living abroad for the third time, I sometimes feel that I’m almost desensitized to culture shock, although, this isn’t the case. No one is immune.  The best advice I have to someone living in another land or region of your own land, is to remember to keep an open and optimistic mind set.  Every thing and place in life has its pros and cons. Just as if you’re at home, focus on the positives as often as possible.  There are good reasons for your relocation. Maybe you’re there because you’re in a relationship or a more enjoyable or more lucrative job. Perhaps the experience is helping you to achieve personal or career goals. Maybe you’re just trying to broaden your horizons. Whatever your good reasons are, focus on them. I’ve seen people who only focus on the negative things. These people don’t tend to last. On the other hand, if you simply can’t handle the new culture, there’s nothing wrong with leaving.  You make the rules. At least you tried.


Thank you so much to all those who gave their contribution!


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8 Thoughts on “Culture shock experiences from expats

  1. Hi there, thanks so much for including my personal, bewildering experience of culture shock in your post. It’s the hardest part of any relocation, though internet access has made it easier to endure as you can communicate with others in the same boat. It’s always a joy to discover such an insanity isn’t peculiar to just you :-)
    Aisha from Expatlog recently posted..Walking Tall – freedom from sexual harassment in CanadaMy Profile

    • Thanks to you for allowing me to share something you wrote.
      If there is one thing I’ve learnt is that assumed “insanities” are mostly shared by many if not the majority of mankind in the end!

  2. Great article! My husband and I have been expats, in Qatar, for a year now and I can honestly say we adjusted well. I think it has a lot to do with a persons perspective. While there are definitely things that are different and can be annoying, how you handle it makes all the difference!

  3. This is an important post and thank you for including our story!! After residing in 2 different European countries for a total of over 5 years, I can certainly attest to the validity of the psychology here…Everyone is a little different, but when you want to just punch a random Dutch person on their bicycle who dings their bell for you to get out of their way, you are probably experiencing culture shock :)

    Well done with this!

    • Thanks to you for sharing your experience here!
      My rule is: when you see what looks like an odd behavior, don’t jump to conclusions, you could be getting it wrong! At least if you’re new to the local culture.

  4. It’s not going to be easy the first few months, that’s for sure.
    Kathryn Dilligard recently posted..The Site OwlMy Profile

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