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Colette Plum said on September 14th, 2010 at 12:42 pm    

Beautifully put, Jason. I do often think of the disorientation that is a part of culture shock as inducing a kind of regression to earlier developmental periods for the person going through this. Your utilization of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pyramid helps clarify the adult experience of this further for me. It really can feel at times like survival is at stake (even when it’s not). Satisfying one’s most primary bodily needs can be very challenging in a new cultural and linguistic environment (How can I sleep on this bed? How can I eat this food? Can I really get myself to use this bathroom? And, oh no, I packed all the wrong clothes!). It’s no wonder I have so many cranky students my first week in China. I think the awareness you’re bringing this experience has the potentially to really help the traveler move through the experience to what I have often thought of as another developmental level where higher levels of thinking (and feeling) can take place.

Jason Patent said on September 14th, 2010 at 1:52 pm    

Thanks, Colette. I wish I could claim credit for the insight to use Maslow’s hierarchy in this context, but others before me deserve the credit. In trainings a lot of light bulbs go on when this model comes up, and people start to see that they’re not crazy, that what they’re going through is completely natural, and that things will get better. Powerful.

Dorothy Patent said on September 14th, 2010 at 3:51 pm    

Thanks for the insights, Jason–I’ve never thought of culture shock in this way before. It helps me understand how some of the participants in my recent trip to China picked at their food and jumped at the chance to eat Chinese attempts at American foods that they can’t possibly reproduce such as a BLT. Because I have eaten and loved Chinese food for decades and am an adequate user of chopsticks, I tended to forget that not everyone who travels to China has had my earlier opportunities.

Jason Patent said on September 15th, 2010 at 10:22 pm    

Thanks, Dorothy. I mean, Mom. 😉

It’s easy to forget what we’ve learned once we’ve learned it. Easy to take for granted our lofty position on the pyramid.

Zrv said on September 21st, 2010 at 7:55 pm    

This may be of interest: a recent article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine ( says that Maslow’s hierarchy has been redesigned — updated — by a team of psychologists. Among the changes is replacing “self-actualization” with “parenting” (!!).

Since the story isn’t really about the academic development, it’s probably not a reliable (or complete) description of the thinking that informed the changes, but it’s still an interesting read.

Jason Patent said on September 21st, 2010 at 10:50 pm    

Interesting! I don’t like the change. It has the whiff of a gimmick, and I think strips the hierarchy of almost all its value. Plus I agree with the author of the NYT piece that it’s hard not to see value judgment in the placing of “parenting” at the top.

David Kehler said on September 25th, 2010 at 10:25 pm    

Hello Jason,
I, too, find this application of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to be an insightful way to conceptualize culture shock. It’s a big shift away from (or compliment to) the usual “uncertainty” models that focus on communication, norms and values.
Interestingly, “reverse culture shock” — the difficulties that long term sojourners have in adjusting to life in their country of origin — also often involves physiological and safety needs. For example, returnees miss the food they learned to enjoy in the host country and the food of home seems unhealthy, even causing somatic illness. Or the traffic suddenly seems unsafe, the environment polluted, and the climate unbearable. For a description of these issues see “Returning home from the U.K.: A study of reentry experiences and coping styles of Taiwanese student sojourners,” by Huang (available online).

Jason Patent said on September 27th, 2010 at 11:55 pm    


Thank you for your comments. I agree with you that Maslow’s hierarchy works as well for “reverse culture shock.” I think that in addition to Levels 1 and 2, there is also serious dislocation at Levels 3 and 4: social and self-esteem. This has to do with expectations: we are used to relating easily to our familiar social groups, and we are used to being acknowledged for our accomplishments by members of those groups. When returning from abroad, though, these expectations are often unrealistic: we have changed so much, while our peers and loved ones may not have, and the enormity of the accomplishment of having survived, and perhaps thrived, abroad, is often completely lost on those closest to us.

Thinking about it this way, it’s no surprise that “reverse culture shock” is often experienced as an even bigger dislocation that initial culture shock: our entire pyramid is being rocked, not just the foundation.

Thank you for helping me see this.

Joel Zarrow said on October 5th, 2010 at 4:43 pm    

Simple and profound. Thank you.

Rose said on June 25th, 2011 at 2:16 am    

Facinating, I never thought of culture shock this way but it is something I am dealing with on a daily basis. This really hit home and provided input and understanding of my situation.

The Domestic Goddess said on September 25th, 2011 at 8:37 pm    

I spent about half my college career studying this hierarchy in every single psychology course imaginable. I don’t know why it never hit me before I read this post, but it now explains my current frustrations and struggles with raising Ian. Lately I’ve been weary, exhausted, burnt out. I bet he feels that way, too. It also explains why I’ve been in survival mode, treading water and barely keeping my head above water.

Thanks for putting it so simply. Like a brick falling out of the sky and hitting me in the head…


Jason Patent said on September 26th, 2011 at 10:35 am    

Hi Marj,

I’m glad this helped crystallize some things for you. I too had many occasions to “study” Maslow’s hierarchy, yet had never been invited to contemplate what it could tell me about my own life, until it was presented to me in the framework of culture shock. Then that same brick hit me too. And is hitting me regularly these days as we progress through this latest transition.

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