Sometimes, after a few days or weeks in a new place, a traveller starts to feel stressed about the unfamiliar language and customs, irritated at the people and culture, homesick, and altogether in a bad mood. This is culture shock.
It's especially likely to happen if you're travelling for a longer period of time or to a place that's very different from where you're used to. An American travelling to Canada may not get culture shock, but an American travelling to India likely will. But don't assume you're immune just because you're going to a country that you don't think is very different—sometimes people experience culture shock even when moving within their own country, which is especially jarring because it's so unexpected.
Long-term travellers may even experience a form of culture shock on returning home after adapting to another culture; various things that always seemed normal before will now seem strange. One study of alcoholism among American university faculty found that anthropology was the discipline with the most drunks, and attributed it to this sort of reverse culture shock.
When first arriving in a new culture, you'll probably have a "honeymoon" period, when the new culture seems fascinating and exciting. It may last for just a few days or for several weeks.
When the honeymoon phase ends, many travellers gradually start to feel some anxiety and stress about the cultural differences. The traveller continues to encounter misunderstandings and frustrating experiences because of their unfamiliarity with the customs, and the stress may be exacerbated by a language barrier and different standards for hygiene and infrastructure. Even if the traveller speaks the local language, aspects of communication like body language and politeness can cause misunderstandings and make it harder to make friends, which can lead to loneliness.
Over time, you'll get used to the new culture, and culture shock should subside. This happens gradually, as you learn how things work and the culture starts to feel normal, and as you develop better strategies for dealing with unfamiliar or tricky situations. Naturally, this adaptation comes with gaining a deeper understanding of the place you're visiting—which for many people is a reason for travelling in the first place! In the meantime, you can also expect to question your beliefs and preconceptions and learn a lot about the culture you came from; in some ways, you can't truly understand your own culture until you've experienced a different one.
If you've been abroad for a long time (months or years), expect a certain amount of "reverse culture shock" when you finally come back home. Not only will you have half-forgotten how some things work in your native country, things will also have changed since you left, which can be disorienting and jarring. In some cases you may even find yourself wondering "Why can't we do it like in country X?" - just the same like you used to wonder "why don't they do it like in my country?" when you first went abroad. Be patient with yourself and give yourself time to adjust when coming home after a long period, just like when you go to a new place.
The following can be symptoms of culture shock:
- Being overwhelmed by small problems
- Excessive sleep, eating, or drinking
- Feeling overly shy, insecure, lonely, sad, or vulnerable
- Headaches and other pains
- Hostility or excessive criticism of the host culture and idealizing your home culture
- Irritability, especially towards people from the host country
- Obsession with health and cleanliness
- Withdrawal and feelings of isolation or helplessness
Be ready to recognize culture shock if it happens, and remind yourself that it is an emotional reaction you may not be able to control, and that it's normal and will probably be temporary.
Try to learn about how the culture works. Remember that it does make sense from the locals' perspective, and if you can understand the underlying logic, it'll make more sense to you too. Try to find someone, such as a local or experienced expat you can trust, who you can go to with questions about things you don't understand.
Be patient with yourself. When travelling, it's easy to feel like you need to fill every hour with new experiences and activities so that you're taking full advantage of the opportunity—but if you're feeling culture shock, overwhelming yourself will just make you more stressed out. Give yourself rest and privacy when you need it. And if it'll help you recharge to splurge once in a while on a nicer hotel or a meal at a restaurant that feels like home, don't sweat it. (See "rupees and whoopies" for more on this.)
On the flip side, don't retreat and withdraw from the host culture. Even if you're feeling shy and out of place, force yourself to go out and become part of the community. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but it will get easier.
If you're going to be abroad for months or longer, make a support network, including other travellers who will understand what you're going through. But don't use them as a crutch to isolate yourself from the host country—doing so will make it take longer to adjust.