Four phases of culture shock that ever traveler needs to know!

Young travel friends, I’m so excited to write another post and hope we can get to know each other more. I’ve loved the conversations in my post about 10 Tips for Exchange Students and hope I can help you understand the four main phases of culture shock while traveling abroad. I hope this will help you prepare. I would love to hear your experiences with culture shock in the comments! ^

Phase #1: Everything is new and exciting.

Exciting Culture Shock

If my family had witnessed my first morning in the small village of Hedersleben, they would have thought I woke up high. I was frolicking up and down cobblestone roads and saying hello to every single German on the street.

Highlights of this time:

  • Saying “Ich liebe dich” (I love you) to the chief of the fire department and having all of the firemen laugh. I’ll be honest, I love a crowd.
  • Talking to a German man on the side of a cobblestone curb about WWII.
  • Saying my first sentence in German “Können wir spielen?” (Can we play?) at the playground next to the monastery.
  • Teaching the local teenager and friend Johnny how to say “That’s what she said” jokes in German.
  • Picking yellow plums with my friend in the morning.
  • Eating hard rolls with an assortment of meats and spreads. Nutella every morning!

Phase #2: Everyone and everything is irritating.

Culture Shock Phase Irritation

When my brother was in Uruguay after the “excitement” time had worn off, he wrote the family an email and said, “Mom… I think I’m racist.” He was so bothered by everything the people in Uruguay were doing. Everything! This was the same for me in Germany as a foreign exchange student. Just remember, this is a phase. You’re not a terrible person. Everyone else is not terrible either. It gets better.

Here are some things I was bothered about during this time:

  • People talking about the weather. The majority of the time, Germany is cloudy. But that doesn’t stop the Germans from talking about how terrible the weather is.
  • The layers. If I wasn’t wearing five million layers, everyone was going to come up to me like “Aren’t you cold? Anne, you’re going to get sick!” No, I’m not going to get sick, people! Calm it down.
  • The showers. The toilets. The whole bathroom thing.
  • The Birkenstocks and black socks. When did that EVER become a fashion statement?
  • Carbonated water. Can anything be more annoying than pretentious bubbly water?

Some of the things were only little that bothered me. But little things added up. And then bigger things bothered me. The friendship culture. The way to express gratitude. and more and more.

Culture Shock Phase

I felt so different than everyone around me that I became lonely and sick. I missed a week of school. At the time, I didn’t realize I was having panic attacks. I dreaded having to get up in the morning and be the different American exchange student all over again.

I promise it gets better and you still have good moments in this phase. You will have sad days. You will feel lonely. And guess what, travelers? It’s normal.

Phase #3: You become familiar with your surroundings.

Familiar Culture Shock

Your language skills are growing. You’re not getting a headache every time your start a conversation. You have at least one person that you can talk with at school. If you’re a foreign exchange student, it’s the holiday time where you may be with friends at Christmas markets. I remember drinking tea and watching terrible, addicting TV shows with my host sisters. It felt like I woke up one morning and could understand things better. I was finding a way to by myself. And I knew the bus routes, the train routes, and my favorites cafés. I felt more familiar with my surroundings.

Phase #4: You accept and adapt.

Culture Shock Adapt

This is often the time for exchange students and study abroad students when you realize you are at the end of your experience in the host country. You’re fluent. You can accept you’re differences. You accept people may not “get” you in the way you want them to, but you still have made friends.

Days feel easier. School is easier. You still have communication breakdowns once and a while, but for the most part you’re not thinking about what you need to say before you say it.

I had a lot of events and hang outs lined up for me during this time. I felt confident asking my host family if I could hang out with friends, or travel to Berlin. I could joke around. I could express my personality.

What are your concerns about culture shock? Do you have experiences with culture shock? We’d all love to hear in the comments!

If you missed the 10 tips for a foreign exchange student, click here!

11 Comments


  1. As an American who’s lived in Denmark for going on six years, I can totally relate to most of this. However, I have come to like the carbonated water, though I’ll never get used to the bathrooms! I just wrote a blog post about the five things I miss most about America, I wonder if yours are the same? Though in Denmark, we look to Germany for cheaper shopping and better selection of products.
    Sage recently posted…Five Things I Miss About AmericaMy Profile

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  2. Oddly enough, I had the most culture shock when I moved from one part of the U.S. to another (East Coast to the South). My international travel has been generally great. The only surprising thing was the prices. Some places are sooooo cheap, but then you have places like the Cayman Islands that seem even more expensive than the U.S. I think it would be different if I were moving to those places instead of just briefly visiting, though.

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  3. I always toy with the idea of moving away and trying a new state. It all seems like so much fun and I guess the green seems greener. Then, I am sure when I got there I would experience all of the above, and maybe even more.

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  4. I totally agree and can relate to these phases of culture shock having moved four times. In my experience it has taken at least six months to fully adapt to a new place. I do love the first phase where everything is fun and new and almost like being on a vacation!
    Michelle recently posted…My Visit and Snorkeling Excursion in Cozumel MexicoMy Profile

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  5. Anita Fonte

    A friend of mine had the same experience when she traveled to Paris. The culture is different especially when you come from a small state like Rhode Island. Everything is bigger and homesickness does come and go. But with that said you do start to adjust and by the end you love it.

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  6. I love traveling the world! I know there have been a couple places I know I would have some culture shock if we were to move there instead of just traveling to visit. Even different parts of the US can be totally different from other parts.
    Tammilee Tips recently posted…Peanut Butter Chocolate cupcakes with a Raspberry FrostingMy Profile

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  7. Bonnie @wemake7

    I had a cultural shock moving from the North East to Alabama one time which sounds weird. It was very different though.

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  8. I have experience phase 1 when I went abroad but there came a time that I just want to stay at my room for the rest of the day and stay in bed. Maybe that was phase 2 in this post and I’m so glad I got over it and enjoyed my moment in that place.
    Wood Arts Universe recently posted…Conference Room Organizers Provide Professional LookMy Profile

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  9. I have always wanted to live abroad, but I don’t know if I could handle the culture shock! Thank you so much for sharing what you have gone through personally. It really helps to get other perspectives!
    Echo recently posted…Small Victories Sunday #61My Profile

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  10. cass

    What exchange program did you go though?

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    • Cass, I went through the Congress Bundestag Youth Exchange Program. That’s just for students from the US to Germany (and vice versa). Good luck!

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