Gospel & Culture blog
Cultural adaption is affected by internal competencies like preparedness, personality, openness, predisposition, positivity and strength. And the degree and rate of adaptation is also affected by external factors like the conformity pressure of the host culture, the hosts’ receptivity, the hosts’ in-group solidarity, and the ethnic proximity of the host and guest (Jackson, 2014, p. 211). For example, it seems fairly obvious that US Americans would have an easier time adapting to life in a culturally-similar society like the UK than in a culturally-distant society like Afghanistan or Nigeria. Also sojourners find acculturation easier in a society that is flexible, and which has a lower level of uncertainty avoidance (e.g., the USA) rather than tight with high levels of uncertainty avoidance (e.g., Indonesia, Japan).
Some sojourners retain dual memberships, but never expect to make a permanent shift to the host culture. For instance, cross-cultural workers must engage their host culture, but may not expect to assimilate, since they will eventually return home. Early theorists usually described the bicultural sojourner’s adjustment a “u” shaped line over time (Lysgaard, 1955). At first, the cross-cultural worker experiences the euphoria of a new setting. The sights and smells are refreshingly unfamiliar; the laws and customs are bewilderingly different- even exotic. When all of this change becomes irritating, there is a downward turn in emotional composure, which represents a dip on the line graph over time. Eventually, the world traveler adjusts, copes, or even enjoys his new environment, and the line on the graph ascends again- maybe even supersedes the initial “high”.
Gullahorn and Gullahorn (1963) modified this “u” model to look more like a “w.” The expatriate still experiences a “honeymoon phase”, disillusionment, and adaptation. But eventually, he will receive a home assignment. He initially has anxiety about this, and his anxiety turns to a genuine depression as he experiences nostalgia for “the way things were in my host country” as well as disappointment about the new life he is establishing in his home country. According to the “w” theory, a healthy individual will eventually work through this “reverse culture shock” and the line graph will ascend to normalcy.
Cross-cultural trainers have repeated this “u” or “w” theory over and over again – and many students accept the theory at face value. But does it represent reality? What percentage of cross-cultural businessmen and missionaries actually experience adjustment as euphoria, disillusionment, adaptation, anxiety about returning home, further disillusionment and finally growth and acceptance? Kealey’s (1989) study of 277 expatriates showed that while 50% of the sample experienced stress during adjustment, only about 10% of cross-cultural workers actually experience the typical “u” curve. Therefore, the “u” curve is not really typical at all, calling into question the generalizability of the model (Jackson, 2014, p. 209).
Some theorists have recognized the weakness of the “u” or “w” curve, and have proposed alternate representations for the process of adjustment. For example, Young Yun Kim’s model is an upward spiral, moving from stress to adaptation, followed by more stress and adaptation. Over time, as the spiral moves upward, the cross-cultural worker grows in character and ability (Kim, 2002, pp. 236-239).
Still other theorists recognize that we adjust on different levels at different rates. The emotional adjustment may very well follow something like a u-curve, whereas one’s interpersonal skills or technical skills in a host culture may sharply increase without a dip. Ward (1999) has noted that sojourners experience acculturation on at least two levels: psychological and socio-cultural. However, our adjustment to the physical surroundings, to the workplace, and to interpersonal relationships will likely follow different trajectories. Would we expect a traveler’s adaptation to his physical surroundings to follow a u-curve, where he is initially competent at getting on trains and ordering in restaurants, then his skills sharply decrease, only to take an upward turn after time? Of course not- one’s competence at getting around should start lower and increase (though it may eventually plateau as he gains nearly full-competence). Similarly, one’s competence in work duties may easily increase without an initial downward dip. Interpersonal relationships may take longer to develop, but will still increase, not decrease, over time.
Gullahorn, J., & Gullahorn, J. (1963). An extension of the u-curve hypothesis. Journal of Social Issues, 19, 33-47.
Jackson, J. (2014). Introducing Language and Intercultural communication. New York: Routledge.
Kealey, D. (1989). A study of cross-cultural effectiveness: Theoretical issues, practical applications. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 13(3), 387-428.
Kim, Y. Y. (2002). Cross-cultural adaptation: an integrative theory. In J. Martin, T. Nakayama & L. Flores (Eds.), Readings in cultural contexts (2nd ed.). Mountain View, Ca: Mayfield.
Lysgaard, S. (1955). Adjustment in a foreign society: Norwegian Fulbright Grantees visiting the United States. International Social Science Bulletin, 7, 45-51.
Ward, C. (1999). Acculturation and Adaptation Revisited. Journal of Crosscultural psychology, 30(4), 422-442.
© 2015 Kenneth Nehrbass. All Rights Reserved.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor