Culture Shock & Cross Cultural Adjustment

If you made it to this page, it is because you either live here now or are perhaps considering a move to Costa Rica and you are smart enough to know that you may well experience culture shock when living away from your home country.

There is also a good reason it is the FIRST choice in the menu on Living in Costa Rica.  It is because it is the single most important thing you should read before you move here.  The sad thing is that the majority of you will visit this page and then leave before it is fully read.  That is sad because doing that will have a profound and negative effect on your chances of successfully transitioning to Costa Rica.


Maybe you are being transferred here.  But for whatever reason you are reading this, culture shock is a force in and of itself and is likely one of the biggest reasons an estimated 40% of those who move here return "home" within a year.  Sadly, many who leave have a zillion reasons, but often it just came down to simply not being able to adjust to everyday life in Costa Rica.

Everyday Life is what you do every single day, wherever you now live.  Importantly, you do it all without thinking.  You get up, fix breakfast, stop at the bank, drop off dry cleaning, work, stop at a drug store, go to the dentist, pick up WD-40 for a bad lock, pay some bills, take out the garbage, get your mail (snail mail), stop at the 7-11 or grocery for a few things... and you never give ANY of this a second thought.

I can promise you, every one of these things will change if you live here! 

Costa Rica is a country built on the PROCESS.  The US, Canada, and many other countries are built on the concept of PERFORMANCE.

What do I mean?  I mean in Costa Rica, the view is that it WILL get done, sometime.  It will seldom, if ever, be on your schedule.  In many other countries, we have grown to expect that things get done quickly and efficiently.  In Costa Rica, it is rare that anything is done quickly OR efficiently These differences are drastic.  If you are A-Type person, Costa Rica can make you crazy unless you make some drastic adjustments in how you view life.

This adjustment is only one of many you will need to make if you wish to live here and enjoy it.  These cultural things have a way of sneaking up on you if you are not prepared, and you can find yourself nervous, depressed, and unable to cope.

Culture shock IS avoidable or at at least can easily be minimized!  You simply need to have an understanding of what are these cultural differences and how they affect you personally.

One of our contributors is Eric Liljenstolpe, president and founder of the Global Solutions Group in Costa Rica, an organization committed to enhancing intercultural understanding has submitted an excellent article.


What you Need to Know about Moving to Costa Rica
(but Nobody Tells You)

by Eric Liljenstolpe

Why would a reasonable and normally responsible man, a high level manager of a multinational corporation working in Asia, abandon his work mid-day, take a boat to a neighboring island, strip off all his clothes and hold some local citizens hostage at gunpoint? It may be an extreme example, but the principal reason for this real-life situation (believe it or not) is that he was under stress related to Culture Shock.

Culture Shock is a temporary psychological disorder that occurs in individuals adjusting to life in an unfamiliar culture. It happens when a person finds that the ways that they have always done things no longer work in a new culture. Transportation, the money used, sense of humor, language, sense of propriety, right and wrong and common greetings are among the many things that change when a person comes to Costa Rica.

This loss of cultural cues often results in frustration and feelings of incompetence. Normally it is not nearly as severe as the case of the armed executive, but some common symptoms are loss of sleep, anxiety, loss of appetite, emotional sensitivity and depression. It can manifest itself in ways as simple as moodiness or feeling like one is on the verge of tears.

The bad news is that everyone who goes overseas to live for an extended period of time will experience some of Culture Shock’s negative symptoms. The good news is that you can do something about it! There are proven strategies for overcoming Culture Shock and living happily in a foreign context, in this case Costa Rica.

Here are 4 steps for successful adjustment to Costa Rica:

  • Be prepared and proactive
  • Learn your own culture
  • Learn the new culture
  • Learn about yourself

Many foreigners who decide to make Costa Rica home come with a naive perspective about the trials that await them. They believe that because they have had a wonderful time here as a tourist or on language learning forays, that the transition to full-time life in Costa Rica will be smooth.

My experience with hundreds of new residents in Costa Rica shows me that this is not case. Even if an individual has successfully adjusted to other foreign contexts, such experience does not guarantee that life will be easy in Costa Rica. Culture Shock is not like the chicken pox—you aren't immune simply because you’ve experienced it before. The best way to avoid severe symptoms of Culture Shock and have a pleasant adjustment to life in Costa Rica is to be prepared and proactive.

It may seem strange, but one of the first steps is to learn one’s own culture. No one ever tells us that we are learning our culture, it all happens at an unconscious level. We are told that we are learning the right way to do things. Someone from the US may not realize things such as the way they engage in “small talk” is actually somewhat irritating to people from many countries around the world. Helpful literature on culture is abundant. I recommend two books best suited for expatriates from the USA:

American Cultural Patterns: A Cross-Cultural Perspective  by Stewart and Bennett


American Ways: A Guide for Foreigners in the United States  by Gary Althen

Another very effective way to become aware of one’s own culture is to ask residents in your country who are from other cultures their opinions about your culture. Be prepared, because their answers will sometimes surprise you and aren’t always positive. Consider this quote from a visitor to the US from Colombia:

“The tendency in the US to think that life is only work, hits you in the face. Work seems to be the one type of motivation.” (Survival Kit for Overseas Living, Kohls, p.43)

Resident foreigners may have negative views of your country and culture that you feel obliged to defend. This can be especially galling to many from the USA because of our cultural predisposition of wanting people to like us. It is very important when soliciting opinions to resist the temptation to become defensive. Defensiveness closes down dialogue and shuts off opportunities for valuable learning.

The next step is to learn about other cultures, specifically the culture in which you will be living. Often there are books about culture and history that are excellent references for this. The most informative and accessible book on Costa Rican culture in English is called  The Ticos: Culture and Social Change in Costa Rica by Biesanz and Biesanz.

Finding a cultural interpreter is another great idea. This is a person who is bilingual and bicultural and can offer comparisons and evaluations of culture because they have experiences in both. Be careful not to rely too heavily on any single cultural interpreter. Culture is so complex that each person relates to it in a unique way.

Finally, a person needs to learn about him or herself. There are particular personality traits such as flexibility, openness and curiosity, which allow some people to adapt to new cultures more effectively than others. Self-discovery is of principal importance because most people who move overseas have a tendency to externalize the cause for all their problems and discomforts, meaning that they want to find fault with their new environment and neighbors rather than themselves. Blaming others and developing a victim mentality is counterproductive to a successful international transition.

So, if you are going to take an international move seriously, take your preparation for Culture Shock seriously. People invest in learning about real estate, healthcare, transportation and the locations of great restaurants, but they often fail to invest in learning about the culture. This is a grave error, because the majority of people who decide to go back home, don’t do it because they couldn’t find a refrigerator or a car, they leave because they couldn’t adjust to the culture. Besides, nobody wants to hear any stories about crazy naked foreigners holding up Costa Ricans at gunpoint.

What well-adapted Costa Rican residents know.

  1. Be flexible and curious in the face of new information and ways of living.
  2. Don’t complain. When encountering behavior that is frustrating, give the benefit of the doubt
  3. Assume good intentions and wait to be proven wrong.
  4. Be proactive about getting information, getting involved and getting help
  5. When feeling a little depressed or frustrated about life in your new home, remember that it is a temporary condition and you will get through it.

Eric Liljenstolpe
San José, Costa Rica
© Eric Liljenstolpe - Used with permission


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