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How Can Global Leaders Master Culture Shock?

by | Jun 28, 2020 | Inclusive Leadership

Why do I feel so stupid?
I don’t understand what is going on!
Why do people react this way?
Why can’t I find my favourite dish?
I miss home…

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, mood swings, reduced level of 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, where every moment, every interaction, every decision made in a new culture will have an impact on the business. To master culture shock, you need to be aware of your levels of stress, anticipate possible challenges in your cultural transition 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? by Culture Spark Global

What Is Culture Shock? Why Does It Happen?

Culture shock is the experience of an unfamiliar environment. A person may find themselves in culture shock when there is a transition or a move 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 personal level of resilience and coping strategies. 

Leaders and Culture Shock by Culture Spark Global

📸 by Ben White

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 one is in culture shock, the speech, action and decisions of a global leader will have an impact on 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 Oberg, 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 act 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 may be low and may lack 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 and your body is signalling you to find ways to remedy it. 
Mastering Culture Shock Simplified by Culture Spark Global

📸 by Dustin Belt

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 3 effective ways a global leader can adopt to quickly overcome culture shock.

Knowledge is love and light and vision.

Helen Keller

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. Content creators, from independents to established media companies, have created and curated a vast body of information that is free and readily available. 

However, the amount of information online can be overwhelming. It would not be a good use of time if you studied about the history, economics or politics of new culture, if you’re only going to be in the country for 1 day. Unless, of course, that is purely based on your personal interest.

Take a few minutes to identify the key information you need, in order to be successful in your cultural interaction. Whether its a short business trip or relocating to a new country, different situations call for different types of information. For example, when relocating, it is good to find information about the neighbourhood you are moving into, how the local laws and tax systems work, and whether the local produce is suitable for your health needs. For business trips, its 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, mementoes, clothing, shoes or even a favourite pillow. There was once a colleague of mine, who 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 allow 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 are unable to communicate complex messages in a different language, knowing a trusted friend or colleague can be greatly helpful. Or when you first arrive in a new country, having a friend of a friend, a distant relative or your local colleague to meet, greet and pick you up at the airport can help to reduce the stress of navigating public transport, negotiating taxi fairs, 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 processes of checking in with yourself can be as simple as taking a few minutes to ask yourself “How am I feeling now?”

You cannot have a meaningful life without having self-reflection.

Oprah Winfrey

Culture Shock Summary by Culture Spark Global


While culture shock is unavoidable in cultural transitions, there are ways in which we can 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 we be successful in achieving our goals, but we can also reap great benefits of being in a new culture as well as further develop ourselves from the experience. 

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  • Ryba, T., Stambulova, N. and Ronkainen, N., 2016. The Work of Cultural Transition: An Emerging Model. Frontiers in Psychology, 7.

  • Oberg, K. (1960). Cultural Shock: Adjustment to New Cultural Environments. Practical Anthropology, os7(4), 177–182. 

Ling Ling Tai's Animated Photo

Ling Ling, Tai

Ling Ling is a seasoned Learning and Development Professional with a passion for supporting leaders and teams in leveraging diversity, increasing intercultural awareness, and cultivating inclusive workplaces. Having lived and worked in 6 countries, she believes that openness, compassion and connectedness creates workplaces that are thriving and engaging. 

Who sees all beings in his own self, and his own self in all beings, loses all fear.
Isa Upanishad, a Hindu Scripture