There’s an all too common pattern to the beginning of an overseas assignment: a period of high excitement and exhilaration, followed by an emotional crash, known colloquially as “culture shock.” Initial feelings of elation and excitement at being in a fascinating new place may be followed by confusion and depression as you encounter one baffling difficulty after another. Once you start to figure things out, however, your emotional curve starts back up. The classic model of culture shock, consists of four stages: honeymoon, crisis, recovery, and adjustment.

The “shock” in culture shock can be mild or severe; brief or long lasting. At its mildest, culture shock can be little more than a vague, free floating sense of anxiety, mild depression, or frustration. In some individuals, it becomes serious enough to interfere with normal work and life, and may require medical treatment. Table provides a list of symptoms of culture shock.

Table 1 
Some Commonly Reported Symptoms of Culture Shock

Mood swings Spending time with your own people Negative talk
Irritability Reading all day Anxiety
Fluctuating appetite Boredom Depression
Reduced sex drive Lack of energy Alienation
patterns Confusion Physical illness
Spending time alone Homesickness Stereotyping

Although almost everyone experiences some form of culture shock, it may not hit immediately. In fact, your first few days or weeks in a new environment are often wonderful. You start by finding everything in your newly adopted country charming, exotic, and exciting. At get together with other foreigners, you can’t say enough about how much you like it here.

Gradually, however, your point of view begins to shift ever so slightly. Whereas at first you played up the differences between here and home, and spoke positively about them, now you find yourself trying to minimize the differences, in an attempt to find some sort of common ground you can relate to. “They may look and act different,” you hear yourself saying, “but we’re all human beings under the surface, right?”

When the search for common ground doesn’t produce the results you’d hoped it would, you turn into a student of difference. You go back to focusing on distinctions now, seeing yourself as fundamentally unlike “these people.” The differences seem less quaint and exotic now. Some of them actually seem threatening.

Finally, if you’ve accumulated some frustrations and setbacks along the way, you’ll start to play up these differences, exaggerating them and considering them as insurmountable, negative obstacles to getting anything done around here. As one of my friends put it, “I keep trying to adjust, but they keep treating me like a tourist!”


You’re now in crisis mode, and there’s no end in sight. You’re not a tourist; you live here. You can’t just browse through the culture, as and when you feel like it: You’re dealing with all of it, all the time. You’re having cross-cultural encounters every day — at work, in the streets (where the sidewalk vendors and the kids still think you’re a tourist), in the shops and marketplaces, in schools and in offices. And although you’re surviving, and perhaps even thriving in some ways, you’re also making mistakes. The mistakes are raising your anxiety level, and the locals around you are picking up on some of your negative reactions. There’s a self-reinforcing cycle going on here, since you’re also reacting more intensely to what’s happening. A host of questions runs through your mind: “What’s wrong with these people?” “What’s wrong with what I’m doing?” And finally, “What’s wrong with me?”There’s really nothing wrong with you. Culture shock is a normal, near-universal, and actually healthy response to radical change. Culture shock is a learning experience, as you make the transition from one frame of reference to another. Your perceptions and assumptions are challenged, and you have the opportunity to learn and grow. The stress in culture shock, although uncomfortable, is basically a frustration reaction, and in manageable amounts, stress can actually improve learning and awareness. Managing the stress begins, therefore, with understanding why it happens.

Why Culture Shock Happens

In a sense, culture shock is hardly surprising. As an adult, you’ve spent decades learning to become a functioning member of your own society. Now, suddenly, you have only a few weeks or months to do this in a new and different culture. Two problems appear immediately:

  1. Your new environment makes demands for which you have no ready-made responses; and
  2. Your responses, in turn, do not seem to produce the desired results

This adds up to a situation which literally does not make sense. Social interaction within any culture is a kind of mutually organized performance requiring a high degree of skill. Social encounters across cultures often resemble plays in which at least one actor does not know his lines.

Unless the new situation is highly structured, you are thrown back upon your own resources in order to adapt and make sense of things — evaluating situations, making decisions and judgments, and getting things done in the right way. What makes this change particularly difficult is the fact that your normal coping and management mechanisms don’t work very well. At home, we know what is expected of us and what we can, within reason, expect of others. In a new environment, the rules are different. We’ve lost a familiar frame of reference, and we realize that we don’t yet know how to manage the new system. Sometimes, this can lead to a kind of paralysis. Vasily Matuzok, a Russian who defected to the U.S. in 1984, said: “I tried to comprehend somehow what is American. I was at a loss. I was afraid to go to a store and buy a pack of cigarettes. I didn’t know there were such a variety of goods. I couldn’t make my choices. I was afraid to go in the streets.”

At home, we take many of our cultural cues from groups; people to share our concerns with, to learn from, to get support and guidance from, and to give us a sense of worth. In a new environment, we may have no group to help show us the ropes. Much initial behavior in the new cultural environment may therefore be directed toward finding or establishing a reference group. But often, people in the new culture have little room in their groups for newcomers, especially if they are based as so often happens-on kinship or ethnicity. And so we find ourselves on our own, or stuck in the expatriate “golden ghetto.”


The differences themselves are sometimes unexpected ones. If the porter who takes your bags at the airport when you arrive is dressed in a breechcloth and wears a bone through his nose, you can be pretty sure you’re in for some new experiences. Your antennae go up, and you’re alert to your surroundings. If, on the other hand, the person who meets you looks and acts pretty much the way you do, you may be lulled into thinking that differences are slight or nonexistent. But as Brislin points out, it’s not necessarily the more obvious differences that cause the most trouble:

The adjustment process demands a reordering of daily behavior habits in subtle ways which might escape conscious awareness, such as different uses of the same work, different status symbols that must not be insulted, different traditional values that must be recognized or different views on the importance of personal relationships. These conflict with culturally related behavior habits that can be extremely difficult to change. 

As you’d expect, the points of greatest stress will probably involve your core values. If you’re a monochronic person in a polychronic environment, where everything seems to be happening at once, you’re going to be frustrated initially. If you favor straightforward communication, and you find yourself dealing with people who never say “no” directly, you’ll have even more problems.

Newcomers to the United States also experience culture shock, as their own core values come under assault from aspects of American society. Thai students in the United States, for example, report adjustment problems which center around several differences in core values: the U.S. concern for independence and control versus the Thai emphasis on interdependence and acceptance; American openness vs. Thai restraint; the U.S. emphasis on equality versus the Thai respect for hierarchy; and so on. 

Businessmen from overseas are often bewildered at the intricacy of male-female relationships in our society, and by our complex but unspoken rules governing time, status, and gift-giving. They may not understand the subtle cues which help Americans decide when to talk business and when to relax, when people are sincere and when they are just being polite.

This can be equally bewildering — and shocking — to an American overseas:

Imagine a professional meeting beginning like this: a woman enters an office and introduces herself, extending her hand to shake only to have him kiss it. Next, he helps her off with her coat and takes her by the arm to usher her over to a chair three feet away. He then comments what a pleasure it is to have such an attractive visitor. This is the Polish way; she could sue for it in the United States.  

As you begin to deal with a new cultural environment, you’ve got a limited number of initial response options available to you:

•You can leave, and go somewhere more to your liking.

•You can ignore the new situation, pretend it doesn’t exist, and try to erect walls or barriers to isolate yourself.

•You can try to change the environment itself and the people in it, so that the situation becomes one that you’re more comfortable with.

•You can change your expectations. If the new environment can’t or won’t give you what you want, you change what you want.

There’s a fifth option, which proves, in the end, to be the most effective for cross-cultural adjustment:

•You can become part of the situation. You can embrace the new environment, learn how it works, and start to operate within it.

Not everyone sees this as important: There are expatriates overseas who have managed to isolate and insulate themselves from the culture. They inhabit what one friend of mine calls a “duty-free environment” where virtually no sustained contact takes place with the world outside the walls.


A cross-cultural mindset is based on a simple realization: there are minds out there that think as well as yours, but differently. Someone with a cross-cultural mindset recognizes that all cultures have coherence and an implicit rationale, and that no one culture is inherently better or worse than any other. People who possess a cross-cultural mindset also recognize that they themselves, like those around them, are cultural products. People who have a cross-cultural mindset generally share a set of traits or attitudes, which include the following:

Flexibility/adaptability: a willingness to bend, to try new things, and to change routines and patterns as a result of learning.
Tolerance and patience: tolerance not just for difference, but for the ambiguity and mixed signals that are so much a part of the start of a cross cultural experience, coupled with the patience to let meanings emerge slowly, as experiences accumulate.
A sense of humor: the ability to laugh at oneself and — tactfully — at others is very important for keeping you from becoming too frustrated, angry, or serious.
Intellectual and social curiosity: a genuine desire to know more about people and their way of life, their ideas, and their hopes and fears.
Self-confidence and control: a centered and confident individual will be able to take risks and manage the stress, discomfort, and vulnerability that is an inevitable part of the early stage of cross-cultural learning.
The ability to communicate: this is not just-or even primarily — about words. It’s about the communication of respect, and the management of personal encounters in ways which are perceived by people as fair and proper.

This mindset is the key to successfully managing difference. People who can do this are capable of learning across a range of cultures, and of using what they learn to generate creative and positive results. Arie De Geus reminds us that in the future, virtually the only competitive advantage companies will have is the ability of their managers to learn faster than the competition. “The companies that succeed,” he says, “will be those that continually nudge their managers towards revising their views of the world.” 

Making a cross-cultural transition is an unparalleled opportunity to enhance and extend your existing skills, and to learn new ones. Being able to adapt successfully to living and working in another culture will enable you to learn about that culture and how to operate within it. This ability, in turn, will develop in you the elements of a cross-cultural mindset that we’ve noted above. Having this mindset as part of your personal inventory will then enable you to manage difference positively and productively forever afterward.

K. Oberg 1960, “Cultural Shock: Adjustment to New Cultural Environments,” Practical Anthropology 7: 177-82.
Nancy J. Adler, International Dimensions of Organizational Behavior ( Boston: Kent International Business Series, Kent Publishing, 1986).
Linda E. Anderson 1994. “A New Look at an Old Construct: CrossCultural Adaptation,” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 18, 3: 293-328.
Quoted in David K. Shipler, “After They Defect,” New York Times Magazine ( December 7, 1986): 111.
Richard W. Brislin, Cross-Cultural Encounters (Elmsford, NY: Pergamon 1981): 153.

*this excerpt was taken from the IADB Cross Cultural Awareness Manual,  2010


Honduran adventure!

Teachenglishcaribbean is pleased to interview  Dawnelle Clarke who was a Missionary in Honduras.  We talk about her experiences, challenges and responsibilities in Honduras.

Tell us a little about yourself?

I was born in St. Catherine, Jamaica and I grew up in Old Harbour. I attended Northern Caribbean University in Mandeville. I completed a Bachelor’s Degree in Management Studies with an emphasis in Marketing in 2007.

Where were you living and how did you get there?

I lived in Comayagua, Honduras for almost one year. I applied to be a missionary teacher through the Adventist Volunteer Service website. I had no intention of choosing to go to Honduras but my original choices did not work out. After much disappointment I made up my mind to go to a Latin American country although my heart was set on Asia.

What did you do in Honduras?

As a missionary teacher in Honduras I had a lot of responsibility. I taught grades 5 through 10 and it was quite a challenge. I had to get to know 11 different sets of students. The class sizes ranged from 15-25. I taught Bible, Literature and Economics. I was also in charge of monthly chapel services for over 100 students. Missionaries were responsible for supporting the youth church which held services in Spanish.

Describe the roles  you played  in Honduras.

At school I was responsible for lesson planning, creating exams, supporting school functions and meeting with parents. Although my purpose was to teach in English I still had to learn Spanish to communicate effectively with parents and staff. At church I participated in Sabbath School, sang special music and attended church activities like visiting a children’s home. I also gave a financial lecture as part of a Women’s Ministries certification course.

Are the Honduran and Jamaican cultures similar?

The Honduran culture is very similar to the Jamaican culture. The people are very friendly and caring. They welcomed me with open arms and treated me like family. They are also very laid back like us. If a meeting is to be held at any given time you can be sure it will start late. Their food is different but you will find things like breadfruit, sweetsop, sorrel and guinep. They are not big on spicy food but they do enjoy jerk chicken—at least those who got to try it.

What challenges did you experience living in Honduras as a black woman?

Surprisingly, I did not experience any challenges as a black woman in Honduras. I was located in the central region of the country where few blacks live. Many Hondurans were fascinated by me especially by my natural hair. At school the students would go crazy when I would wear my hair in an afro. They could not stop touching it. They were intrigued by the many different styles I could do with my hair. Since Hondurans have native blacks I could pass for Honduran. A few times people assumed I was from the one of the islands of Honduras. It is there many of the Garifuna (the black population) reside.

Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?

In the next five years I hope to have completed a Master’s Degree. I enjoy traveling and learning about different cultures so I see myself living overseas but owning a home in Jamaica. I also see myself speaking three languages but at this point I am not sure what the third language will be. I put my future in God’s hands and with His leading I am sure I will achieve what I set out to.

Can you pronounce this?

 Happy Holidays everyone! After browsing the web I came across a cute website with the following challenge. Let’s see if you can do it! If you can pronounce correctly every word in this poem, you will be speaking English better than 90% of the native English speakers in the world. After trying the verses, a Frenchman said he’d prefer six months of hard labour to reading six lines aloud! Here we go:

Dearest creature in creation,

Study English pronunciation.

I will teach you in my verse

Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.

I will keep you, Suzy, busy,

Make your head with heat grow dizzy.

Tear in eye, your dress will tear.

So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.

Just compare heart, beard, and heard,

Dies and diet, lord and word,

Sword and sward, retain and Britain.

(Mind the latter, how it’s written.)

Now I surely will not plague you

With such words as plaque and ague.

But be careful how you speak:

Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;

Cloven, oven, how and low,

Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.

Hear me say, devoid of trickery,

Daughter, laughter, and Terpsichore,

Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles,

Exiles, similes, and reviles;

Scholar, vicar, and cigar,

Solar, mica, war and far;

One, anemone, Balmoral,

Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel;

Gertrude, German, wind and mind,

Scene, Melpomene, mankind.

Billet does not rhyme with ballet,

Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.

Blood and flood are not like food,

Nor is mould like should and would.

Viscous, viscount, load and broad,

Toward, to forward, to reward.

And your pronunciation’s OK

When you correctly say croquet,

Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,

Friend and fiend, alive and live.

Ivy, privy, famous; clamour

And enamour rhyme with hammer.

River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,

Doll and roll and some and home.

Stranger does not rhyme with anger,

Neither does devour with clangour.

Souls but foul, haunt but aunt,

Font, front, wont, want, grand, and grant,

Shoes, goes, does. Now first say finger,

And then singer, ginger, linger,

Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, gouge and gauge,

Marriage, foliage, mirage, and age.

Query does not rhyme with very,

Nor does fury sound like bury.

Dost, lost, post and doth, cloth, loth.

Job, nob, bosom, transom, oath.

Though the differences seem little,

We say actual but victual.

Refer does not rhyme with deafer.

Foeffer does, and zephyr, heifer.

Mint, pint, senate and sedate;

Dull, bull, and George ate late.

Scenic, Arabic, Pacific,

Science, conscience, scientific.

Liberty, library, heave and heaven,

Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven.

We say hallowed, but allowed,

People, leopard, towed, but vowed.

Mark the differences, moreover,

Between mover, cover, clover;

Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,

Chalice, but police and lice;

Camel, constable, unstable,

Principle, disciple, label.

Petal, panel, and canal,

Wait, surprise, plait, promise, pal.

Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair,

Senator, spectator, mayor.

Tour, but our and succour, four.

Gas, alas, and Arkansas.

Sea, idea, Korea, area,

Psalm, Maria, but malaria.

Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean.

Doctrine, turpentine, marine.

Compare alien with Italian,

Dandelion and battalion.

Sally with ally, yea, ye,

Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, and key.

Say aver, but ever, fever,

Neither, leisure, skein, deceiver.

Heron, granary, canary.

Crevice and device and aerie.

Face, but preface, not efface.

Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.

Large, but target, gin, give, verging,

Ought, out, joust and scour, scourging.

Ear, but earn and wear and tear

Do not rhyme with here but ere.

Seven is right, but so is even,

Hyphen, roughen, nephew Stephen,

Monkey, donkey, Turk and jerk,

Ask, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.

Pronunciation (think of Psyche!)

Is a paling stout and spikey?

Won’t it make you lose your wits,

Writing groats and saying grits?

It’s a dark abyss or tunnel:

Strewn with stones, stowed, solace, gunwale,

Islington and Isle of Wight,

Housewife, verdict and indict.

Finally, which rhymes with enough,

Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?

Hiccough has the sound of cup.

My advice is to give up!!!


English Pronunciation by G. Nolst Trenité

Adapted from