Small World Map

Crossing Cultures

What is culture?


In summary, culture affects every aspect of daily life - how we think and feel, how we learn and teach, or what we consider to be beautiful or ugly. However, most people are unaware of their own culture until they experience another! In fact, we don't usually think about our culture until somebody violates a culturally-based expectation or we find ourselves in a situation where we have the feeling that WE violated somebody else's cultural expectations, but are uncertain how.

So much of what causes conflict or confusion is the part of the culture that we can't see or touch. Consider the following illustration and notice the differences between the aspects of culture above and below the "waterline." The "tip of the iceberg" is the behavior and "external culture" that can be easily observed. The waterline marks the transition into beliefs. And the bottom portion of the iceberg represents the values and thought patterns that make up the "internal culture" which is subconscious and more difficult to observe.

Cultural misunderstandings and conflicts arise mostly out of culturally-shaped perceptions and interpretations of each other's cultural norms, values, and beliefs (those elements below the waterline). Entering another culture is like two icebergs colliding - the real clash occurs beneath the water where values and thought patterns conflict.


iceberg of culture

Graphic adapted from Understanding and Coping with Cross Cultural Adjustment Stress

in R.M. Paige (Ed.), Education for the Intercultural Experience, page 160.

CULTURE can be defined as the ways in which people relate themselves to their physical and social environment, and how they express these relationships.

CULTURE SHOCK can be defined as "a set of emotional reactions to the loss of perceptual reinforcement from one's own culture, to new culture stimuli which have little or no meaning, and to the misunderstanding of new and diverse experiences" (Peter Adler). It can also be defined as the expected confrontation with the unfamiliar (R. Michael Paige). However, experts feel that the name "culture shock" is misleading because it makes us think of a single moment of shock rather than the more accurate idea that culture shock evolves over a longer period of time and involves mixed emotions. Although a culture can be shocking at times, the reaction to differences is usually more subtle because it is the accumulation of many experiences in a new culture that forms our opinions. For this reason, many experts in this field prefer the term "culture fatigue."

The phrase "culture shock" was coined by Cora DuBois in 1951. Kalvero Obert, the first to systematically define and study culture shock, described it as being cut off from your own cultural cues.

"These signs and cues include the thousand and one ways in which we orient ourselves to the situations of daily life - when to shake hands and what to say when we meet people; when and how to give tips; how to make purchases; when to accept a date and when to refuse invitations; when to take statements seriously and when not." (Kalvero, Oberg, "Cultural Shock: Adjustment to New Cultural Environments," Practical Anthropology 7 (1960); 177)

Return to the Study Abroad Student Guide index