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Sabbatical Culture Shock

If you have ever travelled to far off destinations, especially to countries whose culture is quite different from your own, you have probably experienced some form of culture shock. Sometimes travellers have it on arrival at their destination and others feel a stronger shock on their return home. For those trying to re-enter after a pause or sabbatical, they may struggle with feelings that seem like culture chook.

Gary R. Weaver wrote that culture shock has “three basic causal explanations”: loss of familiar cues, the breakdown of interpersonal communications, and an identity crisis. As the author of this post, I started writing this note prior to the COVID-19 lockdown and our collective unplanned pause. I came back to it this week and while reviewing in light of our current situation, it made me think that we collectively experienced culture shock when everything shut down and life became so different. During quarantine, there was the loss of familiarity, changes to how we communicate  and for some, the loss of jobs that were connected them to their identity and purpose. No wonder we all felt lost during those first few weeks.

The parallels between navigating culture shock and returning to life after sabbatical are fascinating. There are four stages (or five depending on your sources) of culture shock. For my comparison purposes, I am going to look at Kalervo Oberg thinking. Their four stages are:

    • Honeymoon
    • Negotiation
    • Adjustment
    • Adaptation


We saw these phases play out during the lockdowns in 2020. The Honeymoon for some was making sourdough starters. Our Negotiation was demonstrated by figuring out how to do “normal life” in the new reality like having wine with your girlfriends over zoom.  The adjustment phase came with creating what a new routine looked like as you worked from home. And finally, adaptation is the realization that this is how things are which leads to acceptance and perhaps a new way of being in the world.

So whether we are returning from travelling, or a sabbatical or emerging from a pandemic, hopefully seeing that there are ways to help understand all the emotions and phases will be helpful.


“There is a difference between arrival and entrance. Arrival is physical and happens all at once. The train pulls in, the plane touches down, you get out of the taxi with all your luggage. You can arrive at a place and never really enter it; you get there, look around, take a few pictures, make a few notes, send postcards home. When you travel like this, you think you know where you are, but, in fact, you have never left home. Entering takes longer. You cross over, slowly, in bits and pieces. […] It is like awakening slowly, over a period of weeks. And then one morning, you open your eyes and you are finally here, really and truly here. You are just beginning to know where you are.”
Jamie Zeppa


Besides the COVID-19 situation, when did you last feel unmoored in a place or within a community? How did you navigate that for yourself? 




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