Culture Shock and Intercultural Development

by Dr. Jessie Voigts /
Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture
Jun 27, 2008 / 0 comments

Intercultural experiences are exciting, sometimes scary, transformative, and often life-changing. Kauffman et al (1992) explain it thusly: “exposure to another culture and to other ways of thinking and behaving leads to new ways of looking at one’s own culture,” (pp. 68-9). Paige (1993, p.2) notes that an intercultural experience usually has three main components: a basis of cultural difference, different knowledge areas, and intensity of emotions. Having an intercultural experience often leads to an emotional response to this sort of cultural disorientation.

This response to a new culture is often termed cross-cultural, or intercultural, adjustment. The adjustment process has often been defined by a “W curve” of culture shock (consisting of waves of mental and physical adjustment broken into stages of initial anxiety, fascination, initial culture shock, surface adjustment, mental isolation, integration/acceptance, return anxiety, and reintegration) (Rhinesmith, 1975). People living in a new culture often react to incidents in ways that were successful in their home country. Behaviors that had previously been successful are now insufficient or even contrary to the new cultural norms. Therefore, the sojourner is continually required to adjust to new situations and experiences that require new and different knowledge, emotions, and actions (Brislin, 1986).

Mestenhauser, (1991) notes that “intercultural experiences are difficult to absorb. They come rapidly, are not well-organized, [and] do not always fit well into pre-existing frames of reference and thought,” (p.1). The process of adapting to life in another culture has historically been termed culture shock (Oberg, 1958). Adler (1972) notes that there are two views of culture shock: as a prelude to adjustment, and as a cross-cultural learning experience. Current terminology has replaced ‘culture shock’ with ‘culture learning’ and ‘intercultural adjustment,’ both of which must take place for intercultural interactions to be successful.

Kauffman, et al (1992) note that there are both behavioral and affective changes arising from the intercultural experience. Often, sojourners show “increased interest in international affairs, increased world-mindedness, and increased cross-cultural empathy,” (p. 79). As well, when [sojourners] “grow intellectually and gain a new understanding of the world, they discover that they are changed people. They begin to relate differently to others and to think about themselves and their futures in new ways,” (p. 92).

Another way for facilitating understanding the challenges that people face in adjusting to other cultures is to think of it in terms of cross-cultural adaptability and adjustment. There are several models for assessing cross-cultural adaptability and adjustment.

The Bennett developmental model of intercultural sensitivity (DMIS) describes the alternative ways that individuals experience cultural difference and locates them on a developmental continuum. Difference could be thought of as difference between people, or difference between worldviews. When faced with cultural difference, one’s frames of reference and related meanings constantly require learning from one’s surroundings and companions, and adjusting accordingly. A cultural growth model, such as Bennett’s, then, identifies and describes the strategies and stages of dealing with difference. This phenomenological approach is “the construction of reality as increasingly capable of accommodating cultural difference that constitutes development,” (Bennett, 1993, p. 24).

The Bennett model (DMIS) is composed of six stages, ranging from ethnocentric to ethnorelative). Ethnocentrism is the cognitive belief that your culture, people, and worldview are the center of the world. Ethnorelativism is the cognitive belief that differences exist and are valid. This model is incredible in its simplicity as well as its depth. There has been an inventory, the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) created around it, to assess an individual's intercultural development.

Paige (1993) has created a model for assessing the psychological intensity of intercultural experiences, based on Intensity Factors. These intensity factors are: cultural difference, ethnocentrism, language, cultural immersion, cultural isolation, prior intercultural experience, expectations, visibility and invisibility, status, and power and control. These intensity factors can be used in combination with the Bennett model of Intercultural Sensitivity, to help sojourners understand their intercultural experiences.

Kelley and Meyers (1992) present an assessment measure, entitled the Cross-Cultural Adaptability Inventory (CCAI). This tool is designed to assess cross-cultural adaptability, and was designed to respond to five different needs of a culturally-diverse audience. These five needs are, briefly, to understand factors which facilitate cross-cultural effectiveness (in terms of emotional resilience, flexibility, perceptual acuity, and personal autonomy), self-awareness, cross-cultural interaction skills improvement, decisions regarding cross-cultural activities, and preparation for entering another culture. However, although this inventory can provide cross-cultural self-awareness, it does not specifically provide either skills improvement or decision making.

Paige presents a model called the Dimensions of Culture Learning. Here, culture learning is the “dynamic, developmental, and ongoing process of communicating and interacting effectively with individuals from other cultures,” (1995). Aspects of this model include learning about the self as a cultural being, learning about the elements of culture, learning about intercultural phenomena, learning about a particular culture, and learning about learning.

Whatever models you incorporate in your own intercultural learning and development, or prepare for your students going abroad, there are bound to be a plethora of questions about intercultural development and understanding.


This article is just the tip of the iceberg - as long as there are different cultures, there will be great need for intercultural sensitivity and development.


Adler, P.S. (1972). Culture shock and the cross-cultural learning experience. In D.S. Hoopes (Ed.), Readings in intercultural communication, Volume 2, 6-21. Pittsburgh, PA: Regional Council on International Education.

Bennett, M.J. (1993). Toward ethnorelativism: A developmental model of intercultural sensitivity. In R.M. Paige (Ed.), Education for the intercultural experience, 21-72. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.

Brislin, R.W., et. al. (1986). Intercultural interactions: A practical guide. London: Sage.

Kauffman, N.L., Martin, J.N., & Weaver, H.D. (1992). Students abroad: Strangers at home: Education for a global society. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.

Kelley, C., & Meyers, J.E. (1992). The cross-cultural adaptability inventory. Unpublished handout.

Mestenhauser, J.A. (1991). Integrating cross-cultural learning. Unpublished report. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota.

Oberg, K. (1958). Culture shock and the problem of adjustment to new cultural environments. Washington, D.C.: Department of State, Foreign Service Institute.

Paige, R.M. (1993). On the nature of intercultural experiences and intercultural education. In R.M. Paige (Ed.), Education for the intercultural experience, 1-20. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press.

Paige, R.M. (1995). Dimensions of culture learning. Unpublished class handout. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota.

Rhinesmith, S.H. (1975). Bring home the world: A management guide for community leaders of international programs. AMACOM.