The Stress of Adapting to a New Culture

The Stress of Adapting to a New Culture

Refugees and immigrants are often unprepared for the dramatically different values, language, food, customs, and climate that await them in their new land. Coping with a new culture can be extremely stress-producing. The process of changing one’s values and customs as a result of contact with another culture is referred to as acculturation. Thus, the term acculturative stress describes the stress that results from the pressure of adapting to a new culture.

Many factors can influence the degree of acculturative stress that a person experiences. For example, when the new society is one that accepts ethnic and cultural diversity, acculturative stress is reduced. The ease of transition is also enhanced when the person has some familiarity with the new language and customs, advanced education, and social support from friend, family members, and cultural associations.

Cross-cultural psychologist John Berry has found that a person’s attitudes are important in determining how much acculturative stress is experienced. When people encounter a new cultural environment, they are faced with two fundamental questions:

    1. Should I seek positive relations with the dominant society? 
    2. Is my original cultural identity of value to me, and should I try to maintain it?

The answers to these questions result in one of four possible patterns of acculturation: integration, assimilation, separation, or marginalization. Each pattern represents a different way of coping with stress of adapting to a new culture. Let’s briefly describe the pattern:

Integrated individuals continue to value their original cultural customs but also seek to become part of dominant society. Ideally, the integrated individual feels comfortable in both her culture of origin and the culture of the dominant society, moving easily from one to the other. The successfully integrated individual’s level of acculturative stress will be low.   

Assimilated individuals give up their old cultural identity and try to become part of the new society. They may adopt the new clothing, religion, and social values of the new environment and abandon their old customs and language.  

Assimilation usually involves a moderate level of stress, partly because it involves a psychological loss, one’s previous cultural identity. People who follow this pattern also face the possibility of being rejected either by members of the majority culture or by members of their original culture. The process of learning new behavior and suppressing old behavior can also be moderately stressful.

Individuals who follow the pattern of separation maintain their cultural identity and avoid contact with the new culture. They may refuse to learn the new language, live in a neighborhood that is primarily populated by others of the same ethnic background, and socialize only with members of their own ethnic group.

In some instances, such withdrawal from the larger society is self-imposed. However separation can also be the result of discrimination by dominant society, as when people of a particular ethnic group are discouraged from fully participating in the dominant society. Not surprisingly, the level of acculturative stress associated with separation is likely to be very high.

Finally, the marginalized person lacks cultural and psychological contact with both his traditional cultural group and the culture of his new society. By taking the path of marginalization, he has lost the important features of his traditional culture, but has not replaced them with a new cultural identity.

Marginalized individuals are likely to experience the greatest degree of acculturative stress, feeling as if they don’t really belong anywhere. Essentially, they are in an unresolved conflict between the traditional culture and the new social environment. They are also likely to experience feelings of alienation and a loss of identity.