Some thoughts on culture shock

What happens when someone moves from one culture to another? We are especially concerned about this when thinking about cross cultural mission. Whilst this primarily applies to Christians moving from one country to another, it might also include moving between communities in one country. Examples might include:

Rural to urban and vice versa

Mono-cultural to multi-cultural

Middle Class to working class and vice versa

North to South and vice-versa

The change experienced is sometimes described as culture shock, especially when someone struggles to adapt to their new surroundings.  One dictionary defines culture shock in this way:

“A sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation.”[1]

In fact, generally the dictionary emphasis was on a sudden, unpleasant experience  resulting in a substantive emotional response. This certainly seems to fit with use of the word “shock.” Note, the merriam webster definition assumes that it is something avoidable if properly prepared for.

Other definitions however, seem to place the emphasis on culture shock as a process which is inevitable. We may be able to mitigate against it but we cannot avoid it. This is seen for example in the Wikipedia article on culture shock[2] and seems to be the approach taken by most mission organisations.

Here I want to jot down just one or two thoughts about culture shock, especially given its implications for urban mission. These are not fully formed thoughts and they are intentionally a little provocative to help get us thinking. It’s probably worth saying at this stage that if you are struggling with the types of experiences and emotions usually associated with culture shock then this might not be the most helpful article for your situation.


  1. The definitions and descriptions available do describe two seemingly distinct although closely related things. One is better described as shock, the experience that comes with being thrown unprepared into a context where the contrast between your current and previous context is sharp. The other, I want to suggest is maybe better described as “cultural transition.” This allows for the possibility that someone crossing cultures experiences change and has to engage with a process which is likely to include challenges and may include both positive and negative experiences. I am not convinced that “shock” is the right word for this.
  2. That ideally, we should not experience culture shock -certainly not in the first way. We certainly can expect to work through challenges as we go through cultural transition but these do not have to overwhelm us.

It is worth explaining at this stage as well how I approach problems as this may give a bit more nuance for those who are finding my suggestion over-provocative. One approach I’ve learnt to use over the years to challenge the assumptions.  I learnt this whilst in industry as I saw the difference between western manufacturing methods and the Japanese approach associated with Lean. Western manufacturers assumed that to make something efficiently, you had to manufacture in batches. Therefore, to speed up manufacture you had to make a compromise between speed and efficiency (and therefore cost). Manufacturers focused on determining the optimum batch size. The Japanese challenged this. Their assumption was that the quickest way to manufacture was in batches of one. Therefore, they challenged the assumption that speed had to compromise efficiency. They asked the question “How can we manufacturer efficiently with batch sizes of one.” This led to innovative thinking. Now, challenging the assumption did not always get them to the stage where they made things in single units but it did get them thinking and solving problems.

So, when I say that ideally we shouldn’t experience culture shock, I’m not saying that you will avoid all the challenges and struggles but it might get us thinking a bit more about what causes the challenges we face when we move between cultures.

What causes us to struggle as we cross cultures?

We struggle in new cultures because of language barriers. This is not only about knowing the language formally but also learning about how people use language and how they communicate including non-verbal clues as well. This is important because it means that cultural transition can be a challenge even when we move within our own language context. For example in English “alright” can mean anything from “satisfactory” – which you would expect it to mean through at one extreme to “it’s a very good thing” and at the other extreme to “It’s terrible but I am too polite to say so.” That can lead to a lot of trouble.

We may also struggle because the diet is different, for example someone used to spicy food may find English food bland.  Another challenge is when people dress differently. Someone who is used to a culture where women cover up may be disturbed to see a lot of flesh on show.

Those examples are perhaps obvious but culture can also include customs and ways of relating that provide a challenge. For example, I have lived in four distinct cultural contexts, West Yorkshire, The South East, a theological college and the Black Country. The Bible College brought a culture all of its own (and may well have been the hardest one for some to transition to!)  so I’ll leave that to one side for a moment.  However, looking at the other three.

Yorkshire culture means that you are at least at a surface level welcoming and hospitable. This means that you are welcome into one another’s houses.  It’s also worth saying that there’s at a deeper level a reluctance to see people who come from outside as ever belonging.  The term used is “off cum’d ‘uns” (people who have come from outside Yorkshire).  Here’s an example of why “culture shock” isn’t the right word to describe the challenge. My Grandma lived in Bradford for thirty years but because she wasn’t born there, she always felt like an outsider. That’s not a “shock” thing, it’s an ongoing struggle.

In a middle class, home counties community, I found that not only did you not get invited into your neighbours’ houses but you rarely even got to know them except for maybe an occasional nod in passing. That was again a challenging culture to fit into.

Finally, in the Black Country, people seem to me to be friendly and welcoming. They want to get to know you and will frequently stop to talk. It is not unusual to stop and talk in the street for a while, even with someone who was a complete stranger.  However, it is rare to be invited over the threshold into someone’s home. I even heard of someone who was offered a cup of coffee by a neighbour but it was brought out to them in the street.

By the way, one of the amusing if frustrating challenges we had when working with a certain missions organisation was that it would provide cultural orientation for short termers coming to the UK. Then when the teams arrived at the church we would have to go through the cultural stuff and correct it because they had been given a stereotypical introduction to English life that bore no resemblance to our context. There’s probably a lesson there too!

Another cultural factor can be the environment, not the climate/weather though that is an affect we will come to later. However, think about things like architecture. Again, growing up in West Yorkshire, I used to find places with lots of red bricked houses seemed harsh, whereas someone coming into Yorkshire might feel that rows of stone built terraces, especially when the stone has become darker from soot and dust bleak and oppressive instead of soft and kind as I experience them.

Finally, there’s just the pace of life. A lot of people who move to London or the South East find the pace intense. We can even detect a difference of pace and even of aggression in driving when moving from Black Country to Birmingham.

What else is going on?

One thing I want to be careful not to do is to lump a lot of things under the heading “Culture shock.” The danger is that once we have a label and are warned we may experience something, then we expect it to happen and we also bracket a lot of experiences under that heading.

So, other things that cause people to struggle to settle might include:

–        The climate, if the weather is too hot, cold, wet.  It will effect physical health and emotions.

–        Physical health -including the possibility that someone is tired/exhausted

–        Personal relationships -how are a couple/family getting on together especially under new pressures? Think also about relationships back home. Even a move to a place 2 hours up the motorway means leaving friends behind. This is important because we can assume that we just make new friends but actually friendships cultivate over years and it isn’t simply a case of just starting again. This means that building trust and being able to share honestly is a challenge. Who do you turn to for help?  Who can you shamelessly cry in front of and who would be freaked out by that? Those in ministry will also have additional factors as they are now privy to things they cannot share even though the burden of carrying those things is enormous.

–        Change and especially loss of status. Unsurprisingly we hear a lot more about reverse culture shock as missionaries return from the field. This is probably because the challenge is increased as they struggle with a loss of role and potentially with that a loss of identity. They are used to being needed. They return to churches that have moved on since they left and which may not know how to use former missionaries.

–        Expectations. It is unsurprising that those seeking to prepare people for culture shock talk about a honeymoon period. All is fine whilst it is an exciting adventure. That’s why you get people wanting to move to places where they’ve had great times on holiday. But also, how I respond to the culture will be affected by whether or not I feel I am succeeding and experiencing fruitfulness.

–        Circumstances. If you are struggling financially then worries may affect how you view the world around you.

–        Idolatry.  There will be occasions when things about the culture are just different to what you are used to but there will also be times when you will be alert to differences that are wrong and sinful. We all have idolatry in our cultures but we are better at spotting it in others.

What can we do?

There are lots of practical things that we can do to be prepared for culture transition. Quite a few of them will step out quite obviously from the problems identified.

One obvious way to prepare for transition and avoid “shock” is to help people step into a culture gently. This means being prepared up front for what is to come. It also means given them time to settle in to the community, to get to know the culture and get used to it. This is one of the reasons I think in context training is helpful, it means that we can use time profitably when we are still not much use on the mission field by being present but giving time to learning.

However, I think the most important thing is to change our perception about cultures. We struggle to transition because we own and love our own culture. We find the idolatry of other cultures disturbing. However, our own community culture should also be an alien culture to us. We should be as shocked by the sin and idolatry in our own communities as we are by the differences in the ones we go to.

So, preparation for culture transition starts way back. It starts as Christians are encouraged to hold onto their own culture lightly and on to Christ tightly. It means that we must find our identity and status in him and not in the success of our mission.