Culture shock and travelers

J Travel Med. 1998 Jun;5(2):84-8. doi: 10.1111/j.1708-8305.1998.tb00469.x.


As travel has become easier and more affordable, the number of people traveling has risen sharply. People travel for many and varied reasons, from the business person on an overseas assignment to backpackers seeking new and exotic destinations. Others may take up residence in different regions, states or countries for family, business or political reasons. Other people are fleeing religious or political persecution. Wherever they go and for whatever reason they go, people take their culture with them. Culture, like language, is acquired innately in early childhood and is then reinforced through formal and complex informal social education into adulthood. Culture provides a framework for interpersonal and social interactions. Therefore, the contact with a new culture is often not the exciting or pleasurable experience anticipated. When immersed in a different culture, people no longer know how to act when faced with disparate value systems. Contact with the unfamiliar culture can lead to anxiety, stress, mental illness and, in extreme cases, physical illness and suicide. "Culture shock" is a term coined by the anthropologist Oberg. It is the shock of the new. It implies that the experience of the new culture is an unpleasant surprise or shock, partly because it is unexpected and partly because it can lead to a negative evaluation of one's own culture. It is also known as cross-cultural adjustment, being that period of anxiety and confusion experienced when entering a new culture. It affects people intellectually, emotionally, behaviorally and physically and is characterized by symptoms of psychological distress. Culture shock affects both adults and children. In travelers or workers who have prolonged sojourns in foreign countries, culture shock may occur not only as they enter the new culture, but also may occur on their return to their original culture. Children may also experience readjustment problems after returning from leading sheltered lives in expatriate compounds. This readjustment back to their own culture after a period of time abroad has been termed "reverse culture shock, a condition which has been studied in both corporate managers and Peace Corps volunteers. With culture shock and many other processes of psychological adjustment, people tend to suffer alone, thinking that they are the only ones not coping well with their new circumstance. The objective of this paper was to bring the phenomenon of culture shock to the awareness of travel health advisors, who can in turn advise travelers, especially longer term travelers, about having realistic expectations of their travel and life in new cultures.

MeSH terms

  • Acculturation
  • Adult
  • Cultural Diversity*
  • Health Personnel / psychology
  • Humans
  • Stress, Psychological / etiology
  • Transients and Migrants / psychology*
  • Travel / psychology*