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Helping someone who is experiencing culture shock

This Thursday, February 21 is International Mother Language Day 2019, an event during which people celebrate cultural and linguistic diversity. As the name suggests, the day’s emphasis is on celebrating one’s mother tongue.

While it’s admittedly one of the less-commonly observed international days, its significance is highly relevant across northern, western and central Melbourne. This is an area with a population in excess of 1,640,000 people of which more than 40 per cent were born overseas.

What is culture shock?

We live in a generally harmonious society. However, many people who are new to Australia may find living and adapting to be quite stressful.

Most adults know just how stressful changing jobs or moving to a new suburb or different town can be. Now, imagine that not just all of the above is completely new to you, but so too is the language, food, climate, currency, public transport system, dress, bureaucracy, even what side of the road people drive on.

Huge changes can be very stressful — and there are few changes as big as moving to a new country.

As a result, people who are new to a culture may experience a phenomenon referred to as culture shock.

Causes and signs of culture shock

Culture shock is defined as “a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation”.

While people may experience culture shock for a variety of reasons and in different ways, here are some of most common.

  • Frustration or anxiety due to a feeling of not ‘fitting in’. Often (but not always) this is due to a language barrier.
  • Boredom or feelings of depression, again due to a feeling of not fitting in or not being occupied with work or study.
  • Frustration or resentment, often due to a lack of understanding of social norms, body language, customs, etc.
  • Difficult adjusting to weather, either due to extremes of cold or heat.
  • Frustration or anger from difficulties navigating the bureaucracy, paying bills, banking, negotiating the health system, etc.
  • Adverse reactions or dislike of local food.
  • Feelings of resentment or anger due to a real or perceived discrimination or a lack of acceptance.
  • A general feeling of loneliness, homesickness, or social isolation, usually related to the above.

Many people experience culture shock when they start life in what is essentially a whole new world. It’s a well-understood phenomenon that’s been heavily studied.

Thankfully, most people overcome their difficulties and happily feel like they fit into society, while retaining their identity. For example, more than half the population in the Brimbank and City of Melbourne areas speak a language other than English at home. Many of them are first-generation migrants who felt stressed or anxious at one time before settling in.

How to help someone deal with culture shock

You can make a genuine difference to the wellbeing of a family member, friend or acquaintance if you know they are struggling. The extent to which someone feels socially isolated or excluded has a huge bearing on their mental and emotional health. Simply knowing that someone’s there for them can make a huge difference.

Here are some great ways to help someone deal with culture shock

1) Help them with the language

Language, as you can imagine, is one of the steepest barriers to participating in a group. The better someone’s grasp of language, the better their prospects of fitting in and feeling like they’re accepted.

There are many different ways to get help with language. Apart from much (often free) information on the web, many local community services can help with language skills. These range from translation services to community language learning groups and classes.

The most effective way to master a language usually is to use it daily in a ‘natural’ setting. For example, some people may choose to speak English while they’re out or at home over dinner. You can help by actively engaging with them during this time, such as joining them for dinner

When actively helping someone with their language skills, be sure to cover aspects of Australian slang. Terms like servo, shout, Macca’s, arvo, bottle-o, iffy and hundreds of others are uniquely Australian. They may seem strange to someone who learnt English overseas.

2) Help them with local ‘customs’

As with verbal communication, not understanding body language and the subtleties of everyday communication can also be a barrier. Every culture has its own unique and accepted ways of interacting and doing things — so not understanding them can increase feelings of isolation and alienation.

These customs can take many forms. For example, the literal meaning of the terms “average” is used to describe something that is about medium, or half-way. However, many Australians use these terms un unusual ways.

Examples include referring to something as “pretty average” to describe it as being actually quite poor, or disagreeing with a statement with “yeah nah” — or even more confusingly, agreeing with a statement by saying “nah yeah”.

Think about what seems normal to someone who has spent a long period in Australia. Then consider whether those things may be unfamiliar to someone who is new to this society. Here are a few examples:

  • Education is generally relaxed. In tertiary settings students and educators typically refer to each other by first name. Students are also taught to question and be critical.
  • Alcohol is widely considered a normal part of Aussie cultural and social life. Smoking is still common but has been declining.
  • Formal marriage is in decline but de facto relationships with children are increasing and are very much seen as normal.
  • Attitudes to sex and promiscuity are relatively relaxed. For example, it is socially acceptable for many young people to have online dating profiles. Same-sex relationships are also entirely normal and same-sex marriage has been legislated into law.
  • Mental health, though often still the subject of stigma, is widely accepted as a vital aspect of one’s wellbeing.
  • Family life is often structured to allow for children to seek independence and move away from home. Multi-generational extended families are less common.

3) Help them get out

The best way to embrace and understand a culture is to experience it first-hand. You can help someone overcome their culture shock by becoming their buddy and taking them out.

  • Experiencing local culture is as easy as heading out. Go shopping together, head out to the city or main strip, or grab a bite.
  • Australia is notorious for its love of sport, and while it’s not for everyone, a shared interest in a team or code can be a great unifier that breaks down barriers. AFL and cricket are the dominant codes, and many other sports, from soccer to netball to rugby to tennis, are accessible via clubs across Melbourne.
  • Thanks to the internet, a multitude of other pursuits are accessible through various clubs, societies and groups. Whether you’re into art, walking, table-top gaming, grey hounds or fishing, there’s almost certainly a club catering to that niche interest.
  • Exercise is a great common pursuit and Melbourne has world-class outdoor and green areas. Apart from the health benefits, regular exercise comes with social opportunities and has wonderful mental health benefits.
  • Melbourne supposedly has the best local live music scene in the world and a vibrant food and coffee scene — although a bar is called a hotel (but confusingly, so are actual hotels).
  • And if someone isn’t averse to a Saturday morning barbecue? Consider getting them, at least once, to try a sausage sizzle on bread out the front of a hardware store (or during an election).

4) Remind them that it will get better

If you suspect or know that someone is still not dealing well with their new situation then remind them that it’s normal to feel overwhelmed and be homesick. Reach out, tell them it’s ok to talk about how they feel and let them know you’re there for them.

Remind them to stay in contact with friends and family, via email, chat or letters, especially if they have loved ones overseas. Make it clear that it’s ok to feel down and encourage them to think about their mental health.

Most importantly, remind them that many people have been through what they have and that it will get better. Tell them it’s ok to be themselves and be happy about who they are, and that they can fit in without ‘losing’ their identity.


Concerned? Talk to a professional counsellor on 1300 096 269. It’s free to people in north, western and central Melbourne and is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Want to know where else you can get help? Find out how to access additional community support.


The CAREinMIND blog is delivered by On the Line. The views in each post do not necessarily reflect those of North Western Melbourne Primary Health Network.