A view of Tokyo at night.
A view of Tokyo at night.

Culture shock is a disconnect between your expectations and the reality you experience when you visit another culture. This can also occur between subcultures within a city or a country. The phenomena causes some people feelings of confusion and anxiety until they understand or get used to the differences. Other people find the experience of culture shock exciting and fun, and many people fluctuate between feelings.

Cultural Values

What's important to one society may not be as important to another, and that difference often leads to culture shock. For instance, most Americans place a high value on equality, striving to treat everyone with equal respect. British culture on the other hand, has a class system that has not fully disappeared in the 21st century; the image of an American putting his arm around the shoulder of a British princess might cause many Brits to cringe. Likewise, the transition from elementary school to middle school sometimes shocks students who are not used to teachers expecting them to function independently.

(Mis) Communication Styles

Cultural differences in verbal and nonverbal communication among subcultures in America can lead to culture shock for people not used to a certain way of communicating. For example, some African-Americans, Italian and Jewish Americans raise their voices when the conversation gets exciting or interesting, while people who were raised outside of those cultures might hear those raised voices as argumentative.

Dealing with Differences in Everyday Life

Moving from a warm climate to a cold one can be jarring to people from places like Thailand or Hawaii who move to Minnesota; It's not just the cold that might cause a shock -- the new arrivals need to learn a whole new way of dressing with garments like hats and mittens to stay warm. For Americans living abroad, it can take some getting used to buying food daily in small bakeries or meat shops instead of doing grocery shopping all in one place in a large supermarket.

Learning Manners and Etiquette

Learning the proper etiquette of the country you're traveling to can help reduce culture shock and the embarrassment that might go along with doing things the "wrong" way. For example, if you're traveling to Europe you'd keep your hands on the table during dinner instead of keeping them on your lap. If you're traveling to certain Asian or Latin American countries, you would begin an office meeting with a relationship-building conversation instead of getting straight down to business.