Connect Across Cultures Blog

How Can Global Leaders Master Culture Shock?

A global leader needs to be alert to every moment, every interaction, and every decision made in a new culture. Otherwise, it will impact the business.

Ling Ling, Tai
Ling Ling, Tai

Lisbon, Portugal

How Can Global Leaders Master Culture Shock?

Why do I feel so stupid? I don’t understand what is going on! What are they saying? Why can’t I find MY food? I miss home. 😭

The transition from one culture to another can be stressful. Whether it is for a short trip or to relocate to another country, inevitably, the shock of being in a foreign environment will get to you. If culture shock is unacknowledged and unaddressed, it can lead to fatigue, anxiety, depression, loneliness and mood swings. Culture shock can lead to reduced performance at work or in your studies and ultimately, deterioration of your emotional and psychological well-being.

Learning to manage culture shock is ever more important for a global leader. A global leader needs to be alert to every moment, every interaction, every decision made in a new culture will impact the business. To master culture shock, you need to be aware of your stress levels, anticipate possible challenges and identify coping strategies that best suit your needs. With the background understanding of culture shock and its impact, we can better identify the right coping strategies to fit our needs.

What Is Culture Shock? Why Does It Happen?

Culture shock is the experience of an unfamiliar environment. A person may be in culture shock when there is a transition to a new environment such as a country, company or neighbourhood. In a foreign environment, the individual may encounter challenging situations such as language barrier, homesickness, boredom, information overload, responding and interacting in social situations.

Whenever we encounter things that are different or environments that are unfamiliar, our brains detect and identify this as a threat. Consequently, our body’s alertness is heightened and is prepared for either a fight, flight or freeze response.

A prolonged sense of alertness places undue stress and strain on our health. If unresolved, it can lead to a deterioration of our emotional and psychological well-being. There is no cure or method to entirely prevent culture shock because each individual has their level of resilience and coping strategies.

How Does Culture Shock Impact The Global Leader?

Contrary to popular belief, culture shock occurs not only when you migrate but also on business trips. As a global leader, your role may include constant travel and communication with a wide range of countries, a diverse workforce and even clientele. The constant interaction with diverse stakeholders in various situations and environments may eventually put a toll on your health and subsequently impact your performance.

It is important to note that culture shock doesn’t happen in a bubble. When in culture shock, a global leader's speech, action, and decisions will impact their stakeholders. A global leader has a higher chance of creating tension in their teams or breaking a crucial deal with a client if their culture shock is unaddressed. Hence, finding ways to manage culture shock is crucial for a global leader’s success.

According to Cultural Anthropologist Kalervo Oberg1, people experience four distinct phases of emotions when transitioning into a new culture, called the Cultural Transition Model. The four phases consist of honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment, and adaptation. Culture shock refers to the second phase of the cultural transition model, the negotiation.

The Negotiation phase is when an individual encounters friction and is “negotiating” ways to reconcile these differences within oneself. There is a yearning for the familiar and rejection of things unfamiliar. What used to be a novelty becomes an irritation or frustration. One starts to make comparisons between the new and old culture, often feeling resentful for the adjustments required of the individual. Some other common signs of culture shock include:

  • Feeling depressed. It is normal to miss familiar environments. When disconnected from familiarity for too long, feelings of loneliness, homesickness and sadness can creep up.
  • Feeling anxious. Culture shock can bring a sense of fear and nervousness. Not knowing what to say or how to behave in a new environment may make one fearful of trying new things. It can also create doubt in one’s abilities and confidence.
  • Irritable. Little things that you took for granted in your native culture now requires extra effort in the new culture. When there is a constant bombardment of new information and the need to adjust, feelings of resentfulness and frustration may arise.
  • Fatigue. Fatigue is more than just feeling sleepy. Even when you maintain a healthy diet, regular exercise and sufficient sleep, your energies might be low. You may lack the motivation to take on tasks that you would regularly partake in.
  • Body pains. The body reacts to stressful situations in the form of aches, pains and illnesses. Bodily pains and illnesses such as muscle aches, headaches, stomach aches, back pains are all signs that you are in a stressful environment. Your body is signalling you to find ways to remedy it.

Mastering Culture Shock Simplified

When we anticipate the experience of culture shock, we can better prepare for the experience, shorten its duration and come out of it stronger and more confident. While there are many strategies, here are three effective ways a global leader can adopt to quickly overcome culture shock.

Learn about the new culture.

Knowledge is powerful. There is an abundance of information ready to be searched and consumed. With a quick search online, you should be able to find plenty of books, podcasts, videos, and many more. From independents to established media companies, content creators have created and curated a vast body of free and readily available information.

However, the amount of information online can be overwhelming.  Suppose you’re only going to be in the country for one day. In that case, you will waste your time if you studied the history, economics or politics of new culture. Unless, of course, that is your interest.

Take a few minutes to identify the key information you need to be successful in your cultural interaction. Whether it is a short business trip or relocating to a new country, different situations call for different types of information. For example, when relocating, find information about your new neighbourhood, the local laws, tax system, and whether the local produce is suitable for your health needs. It is good to find out about the customs, greetings, dos and don’ts, etc.

Take stock of the available resources.

Resources refer to any object or persons who will be able to support you in your cultural transition. Objects can refer to money, medication, souvenirs, clothing, shoes or even a favourite pillow. Once, a colleague would go on business trips with a bottle of Lingam’s Chilli Sauce. “You cannot find any other chilli sauce like Lingam’s,” he said. It was his way of staying connected with the familiar and allowing him to adjust and enjoy the foreign environment.

When it comes to people, knowing and connecting with the right people to support you in solving problems can go a long way. For example, when you feel lonely and full of self-doubt, you can call on a close friend. When you cannot communicate complex messages in a different language, knowing a trusted friend or colleague can be greatly help mediate the conversation. Or when you first arrive in a new country, get in touch with a friend, a distant relative, or your local colleague to meet, greet and pick you up at the airport. Having a familiar face to greet you can help reduce the stress of navigating public transport, negotiating taxi fares, and the bombardment of your senses of a new country. When you identify the available resources at hand, you can quickly make a call or have the object easily accessible to support you in times of need.

Check-in with yourself

It is important to take the time for self-reflection, even more so in a foreign place. Famous scholars, athletes, and even celebrities acknowledge the importance of self-reflection and its influence on your happiness and success. Self-reflection helps you understand your thoughts, feelings and responses to unfamiliar situations and people. With a deeper understanding of yourself and the impact of your speech and action on others, we can wisely make adjustments to change the outcome to our advantage.

The process of checking in with yourself can be as simple as taking a few minutes to ask, “How am I feeling now?”

Final Note

While culture shock is unavoidable, there are ways to decrease the duration of culture shock so that we can begin to reap the benefits of being in a new culture.

Mastering culture shock is not an easy task. Being aware of culture shock is crucial for the success of a global leader. Take the time to further understand culture shock, anticipate possible challenges and identify the best coping strategy. Not only will you be successful in achieving your goals, but you also reap great benefits of being in a new culture and further develop from these experiences.


  1. Oberg, K. (1960). Cultural Shock: Adjustment to New Cultural Environments. Practical Anthropology, os-7(4), 177–182.