Questioning the Validity of “The 4 Stages of Cultural Adjustment”

This post is contributed by Darlene Jovellanos, a former missionary colleague of mine in the Philippines.  After leaving the Philippines, Darlene led SEND’s Member Orientation Program in Michigan for many years.  Currently she works in a part-time capacity with SEND U, and in a full-time capacity as wife, mother and home-schooler.

Cultural adjustment is a topic of great interest among missionaries, especially those who are preparing for ministry in another culture, or are already in the throes of the stress that comes with living and working in a culture previously unfamiliar to them. It is a topic that most missions, including SEND, address in pre-field training to help prepare our new missionaries for transition into effective ministry in a different culture.
 
A common model that has been used for decades to explain the emotions experienced during a move to a new culture is the U Curve model. This model describes 4 basic stages in the level of satisfaction a missionary experiences in adjusting to a new culture: honeymoon stage, conflict stage, adjustment stage and adaptation stage. Below is one variation of this model. Many of us received this training as we prepared for missions, and in turn taught it to those who were coming after us.

Over the years, however, this U Curve model has come under considerable criticism. On closer examination, it is claimed that few people crossing into another culture actually follow this 4-step pattern of adjustment. Some researchers have concluded that most people do not experience the honeymoon stage and many never make it to the mastery stage. Others question the multitude of factors that are not taken into consideration in this model (which only includes the factor of time). Some other factors include: individual personality, “closeness” of home and host culture, different degrees of adaptation, knowledge of and use of coping strategies and relationships with nationals. Others contend that the U Curve model fails to address the behavioral and cognitive aspects of adjustment, focusing primarily on the emotional aspect.
 
Many missionary trainers have found the 4 Stages of Cultural Adjustment to be a concise and handy tool in discussing the realities of culture stress and adaptation. But with all the questions surrounding the validity of this model, is its continued use possibly doing more harm than good? Is it past time to stop using a model that seems to have very little empirical support? It would seem that the answer probably is “yes.”

The next challenge, then, is to find a model that more accurately describes the adjustment processes people experience as they move from one culture to another. If such models exist, they are not widely known or talked about. Maybe that is partly because it is hard to develop a model that accurately represents how varied adjustments to a new culture can be. Maybe there is no one model that is adequate. Maybe the best option is to present a variety of models to reflect the challenges of adjusting to a new culture.

From my internet browsing, I’d like to share one possible model for your consideration. It does not specifically address cross-cultural adjustment, but rather addresses coping with life-changes in general. You can read about this Change Cycle at:  http://www.changecycle.com/changecycle.htm

What do you think? Your feedback on this model would be very helpful.  Post your comments in the comment box or send Ken or Darlene an email.  On the other hand, maybe you have other models that you would like to propose. Let’s join together in trying to develop a new and improved approach to our discussions on cross-cultural adjustment as cross-cultural missionaries.

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2 thoughts on “Questioning the Validity of “The 4 Stages of Cultural Adjustment”

  1. I think the circle model is probably closer to the stages I have experienced as adjusting to life in a new culture, especially since it removed the time frames. My only objection to both models is that they both show a flow from one point to another and don't allow for reverse motion. Cultural Adjustment does not flow in one direction. It is often one step forward two steps backwards. Along the adjustment spectrum you encounter events that force back into a previous stage of adjustment. I think it is important and helpful to stress this when teaching cultural adaptation to prevent the one going through the processes from believing they are failing or never going to adjust.

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  2. I agree with Cindy on this. I have been saying for years that there are “loops” in the original culture shock model. I also think we shouldn't throw out some aspects of the original “honeymoon” phase. I think many experience that extra energy and enthusiasm initially that come from a sense of adventure and the adrenaline-boost of being sent out. Thus it follows that “disappointment” or “disillusionment” come later when some of those inflated or idealistic expectations meet reality.
    I don't think any model will be fool-proof, and I also think the added factors you mentioned, Darlene, influence the process hugely. I believe one of the biggest factors currently is communication and continued connectedness to the passport culture. This is just the reality of our world, but how can we reach “integration” when we're mentally/emotionally divided by constant communication between “worlds”? I'm just asking the question.

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