Ready to travel? Brace yourself for culture shock in these countries

Brace yourself for culture shock

Travelling to a new destination ignites a sense of excitement and anticipation. We yearn for fresh experiences – a chance to immerse ourselves in something entirely different from our everyday lives. However, this enthusiasm can be accompanied by a healthy dose of apprehension. Stepping into an unfamiliar cultural landscape with limited knowledge of customs and norms can be disorienting. This is where the phenomenon of “culture shock” comes into play.

Culture shock is the feeling of disorientation that someone might experience when they are in an unfamiliar cultural environment. It usually occurs when people encounter different traditions, behaviours, or ways of life that are very different from what they are used to. This can lead to feelings of confusion, anxiety, and uncertainty as individuals navigate and adapt to a new culture.

What are the stages of culture shock?

Step 1: The Honeymoon Stage

During this stage, everything is new and interesting. You feel excited and stimulated, and you generally focus on the similarities between your home country and your host country, but you also appreciate the differences. During the Honeymoon phase, you’re like a tourist beaming with excitement. You’re taking pictures of everything, visiting tourist sites and eager to share discoveries with people back home.

Step 2: The Distress Stage

One may suddenly start getting frustrated or annoyed by your new country’s customs and values. You may feel hostility toward how things are done here and think that they should be done differently. You start to idealize life “back home” and may feel that the new culture is inferior to what you’re used to. At this stage, you start to seek out places, things and even food that are similar to what you’re used to and you hold on to them. A great example is Nigerians looking out for African restaurants in Western countries.

Step 3: The Orientation Stage

You begin to understand why things are done in a certain way. The culture and traditions will be respected, whether they are good or bad. You begin to feel more comfortable in your new environment and are better prepared to cope with any problems that might arise. Remember that culture shock is not a perfectly linear experience; you may return to the Distress Stage multiple times.

Step 4: The Adaptation Stage

During this stage, your attitude changes, and you start to function better. You have embraced the new culture and are able to see it in a new, yet realistic, light. You feel comfortable, confident, and capable of making decisions because you no longer feel alone and isolated.

What does culture shock feel like in popular destinations?

In our usual surroundings, many of our actions, like gestures, tone of voice, and how we interact, are based on cultural cues we all understand without discussing them. The adjustment period can be fairly intense, particularly if the two locations are completely different, such as going from a small rural area to a large metropolis or moving to another country.


Japan is one nation that tends to shock travellers and immigrants the most. There are many customs to get used to that foreigners have never heard before, which causes foreigners to experience obvious culture shock.

Japanese customs emphasize absolute politeness in public. When travelling by public transport in Japan, making any noise is considered bad manners. People see answering your phone on the train as rude, so all devices should be set to silent to avoid disturbing other commuters.

Despite the lack of garbage cans in public areas, littering is heavily frowned upon. People are expected to carry their trash home, maintaining cleanliness in public spaces.


Canada has an international reputation for being very receptive to foreigners, which explains its openness to people.

Dumebi Osadebe, a Nigerian studying in Canada, shares her culture shock experiences and how her journey of personal and societal discovery has been fascinating since moving to Canada.

“In Nigeria, a highly regarded part of our culture and day-to-day norms is greeting older people known to you with the respective formal title of “miss” or “mister” following a formal greeting. Imagine my shock when an English teacher told me I didn’t have to greet her and, to further my shock, call her by her first name whenever I did!”

Another shock for her was encountering several conversational “norms”— especially her sexuality—during small talk and many other engagements deemed oversharing in Nigerian culture.

United States of America

America is one of the most culturally diverse countries, with residents representing nearly every region in the world, which would make it easy to adapt over time.

Josiah Greenbrier and his wife (a German) experienced a cultural shock from traveling to America. Here are a few:

“Tipping puzzled her. In America, standard practice is to tip 15% of the total, or, 20% if you had good service. In Germany, service is included in the price, so you generally just round up to the nearest Euro and maybe tack on another Euro or two. Sales tax also threw her (in Germany, tax is always included).”

“What blew her circuits was how often Americans eat out. Germans tend to mostly eat out on special occasions or when travelling or at work, but Americans seemed to be constantly eating out from her point of view. Then again, it’s also much cheaper and more convenient than in Germany, so she understood it.”

Also, Cody, on Twitter, shares in a tweet that in America, calling the ambulance isn’t free. Actually, it costs at least $2000 for a 6-mile drive to the hospital. So before you think of calling an ambulance in an emergency, check to ensure you can afford it.

Myanmar (Burmese)

“Homeland of the long neck” via Myanmar Travels

Nina Evason shares her experience of cultural shock from travelling to Burmese and tips to help other travellers.

  • Do not assume a Burmese person’s visible behavior indicates their true feelings. They generally maintain a very sunny demeanor—smiling and laughing—which can lead foreigners to believe they are unaffected by the conversation.
  • As in most Asian countries, gifts are not opened immediately upon receiving them. This can be seen as greedy on the receiver’s behalf, and it is best not to give people gifts of very high value.
  • It is impolite to sit on a chair with one’s legs crossed, especially for women.
  • If invited to eat with the Karen people in Myanmar, it is customary to initially refuse their offer before graciously accepting it. Eating something without offering it to anyone present first is rude.

United Kingdom

Most people who visit/migrate to the UK from conservative states often highlight how much of a cultural shock they had before adapting to the system.

In Starwood Pet Travel’s review since moving to the UK from Australia, the traveller states that one of the unexpected cultural shocks was the language barrier, irrespective of whether their home and host country are Western states.

“There are many words Americans commonly use that are not used in the UK. And vice versa. So you might be shocked to find you’re talking to another English speaker who doesn’t know what they’re talking about. For instance, “loo” means bathroom, and “bonnet” and “boot” refer, respectively, to the hood and trunk of your car when you’re in Britain.”

When shopping in the UK, you’ll put your vehicle in a “car park” instead of a parking lot or garage. And if you order “chips” in Britain, you’ll get what Americans call French fries, not crispy potato or corn chips. Why do Americans call them “French” fries, anyway?”

Other travellers express that PDA, sexuality, homosexuality, and paganism are some of the most common topics people have had to realign themselves with. From merely speaking openly about it to indulging in it, people have had to resist the natural reflex of shunning these issues as they did back home.

Plainly, “nobody cares what you’re doing in private or public as long as it doesn’t directly affect them.


Camille shares her shock in a post about finding out that Icelandic police do not carry guns.

Iceland belongs to NATO, a military alliance across the North Atlantic. This alliance was highly disputed within Iceland, as Icelanders consider themselves a peaceful nation. Iceland has no army, and our police officers do not carry guns. Gun violence is virtually non-existent in Iceland, and the country’s homicide rate is lower than any other country in Europe. What is most interesting is that gun ownership is very high, as most farmers have guns, and hunting wild birds is a popular hobby. But to get a gun license, you must be over 20 years old, have a clean criminal record and have passed a mental health exam.

Icelandic police without guns or gun holsters via Instagram

What causes culture shock?

Typically, no single event causes culture shock, nor does it occur suddenly or without reason. Instead, it gradually builds from a series of incidents, and culture shock can be difficult to identify while struggling with it. We notice these cultural nuances more in a new country because they differ from what we’re used to.

Even significant differences in food traditions can lead to culture shock. Food is closely tied to culture, and we have emotional connections, both positive and negative, to the foods we consume. When you’re far from home and realize that familiar ingredients or comfort foods you usually enjoy are unavailable, it can evoke strong feelings. It’s important to remember that cultural adjustment usually dissipates over time as a person becomes more familiar with a place, its people, customs, food, and language.

How to combat culture shock

Prepare ahead of time

Preparation is key when learning how to manage culture shock to navigate these possible situations.  Preparing ahead of time could include learning a few phrases in your host country’s language, researching about their laws and customs, and familiarising yourself with the local food and how they look through research.

Avoid idealizing life back home

Many people mistakenly assume that norms from their home country also apply in their host country. This assumption often leads to annoyance, disappointment, and bitterness. To avoid this, try to enter the new situation as a blank slate, minimizing the expectations that inevitably arise. Strive to understand how and why the local people act the way they do. Their behaviour and customs, while different from yours, are neither better nor worse than what you are used to.

Make friends and develop relationships

While maintaining friendships with people back home is necessary, developing a cordial relationship with the people around you, whether they be neighbours, vendors, students, or colleagues, is more important. Knowing local people will help you overcome cultural differences and understand the country. It will also show you how to be more sensitive to cultural norms and expectations.

Routine check-ins with yourself

One important strategy to cope with culture shock is regularly checking in with yourself. You can consider journaling at night before sleeping or in the morning to document your thoughts and emotions, allowing you to assess how you’re truly handling this new experience.


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