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
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
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
Global Solutions Group in Costa Rica, an organization committed
to enhancing intercultural understanding has submitted an excellent
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
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
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
What well-adapted Costa Rican residents know.
- Be flexible and curious in the face of new
information and ways of living.
- Don’t complain. When encountering behavior
that is frustrating, give the benefit of the doubt
- Assume good intentions and wait to be proven
- Be proactive about getting information, getting
involved and getting help
- 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.
San José, Costa Rica
© Eric Liljenstolpe - Used with