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What happens when you move from one culture to another? In this lesson, we will discuss the different stages of adapting to a new culture, also known as the theory of cultural adaptation.

Defining Cultural Adaptation

In 2011, I left my quaint apartment in South Beach, Florida, and boarded a plane headed for South Korea.

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I knew nothing about this part of the world, but I would end up spending the next three years of my life there. People always like to ask me what it was like to live in a culture so different from my own. My answer is that you must learn everything again, like a child with an adult mind. You must learn how to eat, how to dress, how to speak a new language, how to interact in social settings, and understand various other cultural norms. You not only have to learn about this new culture, but you must also be able to live and function within it.

This process of adjusting to a new culture is called cultural adaptation.The theory of cultural adaptation refers to the process and time it takes a person to assimilate to a new culture. It is not always an easy transition.

How would you feel if you could no longer read signs because they were in a different language? What would you do if the clothes you owned were considered unacceptable to wear in public because people of your gender dress differently there? What if you were always expected to eat with chopsticks because Western utensils were unavailable? Given the right amount of time, would you be able to adjust to these differences?Living in a new culture can be jarring and very difficult to process, especially if it is drastically different from your own. A person that is being introduced into a new culture can feel a variety of different sensations. For example, one may feel frustrated because she or he cannot communicate or become angry because certain cultural norms do not make sense. In some cultures, spitting in public is considered bad manners. How would you feel if you ended up in a culture where spitting in public was okay and done by everyone? It may make you feel uncomfortable when the people of that culture think nothing of it. Cultural adaptation theory offers an explanation for these emotions.

Stages of Cultural Adaptation

Over the years, there have been numerous adaptations of the different stages of the theory of cultural adaptation. One of the most well-known models was the U-curve proposed by Sverre Lysgaard. This model included four different stages: the honeymoon stage, the culture shock stage, the recovery stage, and the adjustment stage.

  • Stage 1: The Honeymoon Stage

The first stage of cultural adaptation is called the honeymoon stage. This stage typically extends from arrival through the first couple of months within the new country.

It is described as being filled with excitement and curiosity. People go out of their way to get acclimated to the culture, often taking language lessons and trying to adhere to cultural norms. They also find that the normal, everyday tasks from home are now more challenging. Ordering in a restaurant, having the Internet turned on in their apartment, or simply taking a taxi to the other side of town becomes more of an adventure.

  • Stage 2: The Culture Shock Stage

The second stage tends to start three to four months after arrival. It is characterized by the feeling of culture shock, also described as the sensation of confusion associated with experiencing a new culture.

This stage can be difficult as people begin to notice extreme differences between their native culture and the new one. How would you feel if you did not like the food of the new culture and could not have the food you normally like to eat?For instance, in Korea, one of the traditional dishes is called Sannakji. This is raw octopus tentacles that are served still moving. This is something that might cause someone an extreme amount of culture shock if they have never seen it before.

Or, what if you were trying to learn about this new culture, but people get frustrated when you do not understand right away? These experiences can be discouraging and can also inspire feelings of homesickness, leading to the rejection of the new culture.

  • Stage 3: The Recovery Stage

This third stage happens over time, and the pace is different for everyone. During the recovery stage people start to become more understanding of the new culture. Perhaps before, they were bothered by the strict hierarchy system at work that prevented them from talking directly to their boss. In the recovery stage, they not only understand that this is just an aspect of the culture but also start to find ways to work within that system. As they become more integrated into the new culture, they may even begin to start to question their identity within it. This may entail asking self-reflective questions such as, ‘Who am I now?,’ ‘Who was I before?,’ and ‘Where is my home?’

  • Stage 4: The Adjustment Stage

During the final stage of cultural adaptation, the person has successfully overcome culture shock.

The adjustment stage is also when a person within the new culture realizes that there are good and bad aspects to it, just like their native culture. In addition, they not only have a good understanding of the different cultural norms but can also live and function within them. This could simply be acknowledging that eating on the Metro is not acceptable, or that looking elders in the eye while speaking is disrespectful and rude.Or, for instance, this is a crowded street in India. Someone in the adjustment stage would find this normal and be perfectly comfortable walking to the store.

For people who are in the adjustment stage, they will not only know these cultural norms but will also be able to follow them even if they are not a part of their native culture.

Lesson Summary

Cultural adaptation is the process and time it takes a person to integrate into a new culture and feel comfortable within it. A person in this position may encounter a wide array of emotions that the theory describes in four different stages. This includes the honeymoon, culture shock, recovery, and adjustment stages. One of the key components of this process is overcoming culture shock, which is the feeling of confusion associated with experiencing a new culture.

Learning Outcomes

As you finish this video on cultural adaptation, try to do the following:

  • Define cultural adaptation
  • List the stages of cultural adaptation
  • Analyze the different stages

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