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date: 23 January 2018

Cross-Cultural Adaptation

Summary and Keywords

Countless immigrants, refugees, and temporary sojourners, as well as domestic migrants, leave the familiar surroundings of their home culture and resettle in a new cultural environment for varying lengths of time. Although unique in individual circumstances, all new arrivals find themselves in need of establishing and maintaining a relatively stable working relationship with the host environment. The process of adapting to an unfamiliar culture unfolds through the stress-adaptation-growth dynamic, a process that is deeply rooted in the natural human tendency to achieve an internal equilibrium in the face of adversarial environmental conditions. The adaptation process typically begins with the psychological and physiological experiences of dislocation and duress commonly known as symptoms of culture shock. Over time, through continuous activities of new cultural learning, most people are able to attain increasing levels of functional and psychological efficacy vis-a-vis the host environment. Underpinning the cross-cultural adaptation process are the two interrelated experiences of deculturation of some of the original cultural habits, on the one hand, and acculturation of new ones, on the other. The cumulative outcome of the acculturation and deculturation experiences is an internal transformation in the direction of assimilation into the mainstream culture. Long-term residents and immigrants are also likely to undergo an identity transformation, a subtle and largely unconscious shift from a largely monocultural to an increasingly intercultural self-other orientation, in which conventional, ascription-based cultural categories diminish in relevance while individuality and common humanity play an increasingly significant role in one’s daily existence. Central to this adaptation process are one’s ability to communicate in accordance to the norms and practices of the host culture and continuous and active engagement in the interpersonal and mass communication activities of the host society.

Keywords: acculturation, adaptation, assimilation, communication, cultural identity, culture shock, functional fitness, psychological health, intercultural identity, stress-adaptation-growth dynamic

Ever since the first camel caravan ventured afield, people have been crossing cultural boundaries. What is different today is the historically unprecedented speed and magnitude of such occurrences. Think of the millions of immigrants and refugees who change homes each year, seeking a new life away from their familiar home grounds in hopes of safety, freedom, economic betterment, or simply a more desirable environment in which to live and work. Countless temporary sojourners relocate in a foreign land to serve as diplomats, military personnel, and other governmental, inter-governmental, and non-governmental agency employees on overseas assignments, along with missionaries and employees of multinational corporations. Researchers, professors, and students visit and study at foreign academic institutions, while individual accountants, construction workers, athletes, artists, musicians, and writers find employment in foreign lands on their own. Adding to this list are the numerous domestic migrants who leave the familiar surroundings of their home subculture and resettle in a significantly different cultural environment within the same country, such as Native Americans who leave a tribal home to pursue economic and professional aspirations in a large city.

As these resettlers strive to carry out their daily activities in the host environment, they find that many of the habitual behaviors useful in the old setting may prove ineffectual in the new setting. Even relatively short-term temporary sojourners are at least minimally concerned with building a level of proficiency in the host culture that is necessary for their daily functioning. The degree to which individuals undergo such cross-cultural challenges varies widely, depending on the situations involving international migration and motives for relocating to another culture. Different reasons for crossing cultures accompany different degrees of commitment one feels toward the new environment. Abrupt and involuntary moves, for instance, are typically experienced by refugees who, owing to the sudden nature of their departure, have little chance to prepare themselves for life in the host country. At least during the initial phase, they may suffer from a severe psychological dislocation and sense of loss (Chan & Lam, 1987; David, 1969).

Although unique in individual circumstances and varied in scope, intensity, and duration, all strangers in a new and unfamiliar environment embark on the common project of cross-cultural adaptation. In the face of challenges from the host environment, they are compelled to learn to detect similarities and differences between the new surroundings and the home culture. Over time, through continuous interactions with the host environment, they become increasingly proficient in handling situations they encounter. Although the tribulations of crossing cultures can be staggering, each adaptive challenge opens an opportunity to learn and grow beyond the perimeters of the original culture. Despite, or rather because of, the hardship and ambivalence, most resettlers are able to acquire proficiency in navigating their daily activities in the host environment. Given sufficient time, even those with the intention of confining themselves to only superficial relationships with the host environment will find themselves having been changed by the experience “in spite of themselves” (Taft, 1977, p. 150).

Cross-cultural adaptation has been investigated extensively across social science disciplines since the 1930s in the United States, a nation that has dealt with a large and continuous influx of immigrants (e.g., Spicer, 1968; Stonequist, 1937). More recently, significant research attention has been given to adaptation-related phenomena in European countries, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Israel, among others (e.g., Berry, 1980; Jasinskaja-Lahti, Liebkind, Horenczyk, & Schmitz, 2003).

Although the field has benefited from an extensive amount of information and insights, it suffers from disconnectedness, making it difficult for individual investigators to gain a clear and cohesive picture of the body of knowledge accumulated over the decades. Couched in various terms such as culture shock, acculturation, adjustment, assimilation, integration, and adaptation, the field is fractionated by differing perspectives and foci. Researchers typically isolate segments of the adaptation phenomenon specific to disciplinary and individual interests, which have resulted in the dichotomous distinction drawn between macro- and micro-level processes and between short- and long-term adaptations.

The need for a conceptual integration of this field of study is addressed in Becoming Intercultural: Integrative Theory of Communication and Cross-Cultural Adaptation (Kim, 2001; and see Kim, 1988, 2005, 2008, 2012, 2015). Grounded in an open-systems perspective, Kim’s theory offers a “big picture,” a broadly-based and systemic insight into what happens over time when someone crosses cultural boundaries and what factors facilitate or impede his or her adaptation to the host culture. It does so by identifying common themes addressed in the existing social scientific approaches, concepts, and models, as well as the reciprocal influences between and among them. The core term, cross-cultural adaptation, is introduced for the first time in this theory as a way to consolidate the various other terms used to highlight specific facets of the experiences sojourners and immigrants alike go through in an unfamiliar culture. Acculturation, for example, refers to the process by which individuals acquire at least some aspects of the host culture. Coping and adjustment are terms often used to indicate the psychological responses to cross-cultural challenges, whereas integration points to an individual’s social participation in the receiving community. In addition, the term assimilation indicates a more comprehensive psychological, social, and cultural change whereby individuals become mainstreamed into the host society. Kim incorporates these and related terms into cross-cultural adaptation, a superordinate concept describing “the entirety of the dynamic process by which individuals, upon relocating to new, unfamiliar, or changed cultural environments, establish (or reestablish) and maintain relatively stable, reciprocal, and functional relationships with those environments” (Kim, 2001, p. 31). At the core of this broad conception of cross-cultural adaptation is the goal of achieving an overall “fit” between an individual cultural stranger’s internal conditions and the conditions of the host environment for maximization of his or her life chances.

Given its comprehensive and integrative nature, Kim’s theory is employed in this article to survey the broad and complex cross-cultural adaptation phenomenon as it has been investigated across social science disciplines. In so doing, it should be pointed out that the objective, value-neutral, normative, and representational epistemological stance of the social scientific studies, in general, and Kim’s theory in particular, has been contested by a number of scholars (e.g., Curtin, 2010; de la Garza & Ono, 2015; Kraidy, 2005; Kramer, 2008). Reflecting the ideological shift in the United States and European societies toward pluralism and multiculturalism, these scholars question, among others, the legitimacy of the concept, “assimilation,” as the ultimate direction of change in individuals undergoing an extensive and long-term process of cross-cultural adaptation that has been documented in numerous empirical studies of immigrants and long-term residents (e.g., Waters, 2014).

The Process of Cross-Cultural Adaptation

Cross-cultural adaptation is a special case of the fundamental life-sustaining and life-enhancing activity, one that is deeply rooted in the built-in human plasticity and self-organizing capacity (Jantsch, 1980; Kauffman, 1995). Like all human adaptation experiences, cross-cultural adaptation takes place through the communicative interface of an individual and a new and unfamiliar cultural environment in which the individual needs to carry out his or her daily functions. As explained in the General Systems Theory ((Bertalanffy, 1968; Ruben, 1972), each person is an “open system” that exchanges information with the environment through communication and co-evolves with the environment. Adaptive change takes place as long as individuals are engaged in a given environment through the exchange of messages.

Underscored in this communication perspective on cross-cultural adaptation is that communication is the necessary vehicle without which adaptation cannot take place, and that cross-cultural adaptation occurs as long as the individual remains in communication with the environment and strives to establish and maintain a relatively stable, reciprocal, and functional relationship with a changing or changed cultural environment. As such, cross-cultural adaptation is defined as “the entirety of the dynamic process by which individuals who, through direct and indirect contact and communication with a new, changing, or changed environment, strive to establish (or reestablish) and maintain a relatively stable, reciprocal, and functional relationship with the environment” (Kim, 2001, p. 31).

Cross-cultural adaptation unfolds over time in a process that entails two interrelated sub-processes, acculturation and deculturation. Acculturation entails the acquisition of the new cultural patterns and practices in wide-ranging areas including the learning of a new language, thereby bringing about a development of cognitive complexity, or the structural refinement in an individual’s internal information-processing capacity with respect to the newly acquainted host culture. As acculturation takes place through new learning, deculturation or unlearning of some of the old cultural elements occurs, at least in the sense that new responses are adopted in situations that previously would have evoked old ones. The act of acquiring something new is the suspending and, over a prolonged period, even losing some of the old habits at least temporarily.

Gradually and imperceptibly, at least some of their old cultural habits are likely to be replaced by new ones. As the interplay of acculturation and deculturation sets into motion, adaptive changes begin to take place, initially in the “surface” areas of original cultural habits, in such outwardly behaviors as choices of dress, food, and music. Given a sufficient amount of time for new cultural learning and adaptation, some of the deeper level changes are also likely to take place in the realm of aesthetic and emotional sensibilities of experiencing life’s pleasure, joy, and beauty, and even moral and ethical values about what is right and wrong in one’s public and private conduct, as well as the very notion of self in relation to culture.

Each adaptive change inevitably accompanies stress in the individual psyche—a kind of identity conflict rooted in resistance to change and the instinctive desire to retain old habits in keeping with the original identity, on the one hand, and the necessity to change behavior in seeking harmony with the new milieu, on the other. This internal conflict is essentially between the need for acculturation and the resistance to deculturation, that is, the “push” of the new culture and the “pull” of the old. The psychological disequilibrium created by such conflicting forces generate moments of “crisis,” which are manifested and revealed in emotional “lows” of uncertainty, confusion, and anxiety. Stress, as such, is an expression of the instinctive human desire to restore homeostasis, that is, to hold constant a range of variables in internal structure to achieve an integrated whole. Some people may attempt to avoid or minimize the anticipated or actual “pain” of disequilibrium by selective attention, denial, avoidance, and withdrawal, as well as by compulsively altruistic behavior, cynicism, and hostility toward the new or changed external reality. Others may seek to regress to an earlier state of existence in the familiar home culture, a state in which there is no feeling of isolation, no feeling of separation.

Even in times of anguish and tribulations, however, stress presents us with an opportunity to search deeply inside ourselves for new possibilities to recreate ourselves. For most people, the experiences of stress compels them to acquire new habits as they embrace environmental challenges and strive to stabilize themselves by partaking in the act of adaptation. Stress, in this regard, is intrinsic to the complex human system and essential in the adaptation process—a process that allows for self- (re)organization and self-renewal, rendering a subtle and often imperceptible psychological growth, that is, an increased complexity in an individual’s internal communication system. Periods of stress pass as an individual works out new ways of handling problems, owing to the creative forces of self-reflexivity of human mentation. This “coming-together” of an individual’s internal conditions is defined by Jantsch (1980) as the self-organizing human capacity—the capacity to endure the broken intrapsychic and person-environment symmetry.

The experiences of stress, adaptation, and growth are explained in the Integrative Theory of Cross-Cultural Adaptation (Kim, 2001; and see Kim, 1988, 2005) in terms of the stress-adaptation-growth dynamic, a psychological movement in the forward and upward direction of increased chances of success in a changing or changed environment. As depicted in Figure 1, the stress-adaptation-growth dynamic does not unfold in a smooth, steady, and linear progression, but in a continual and cyclic “draw-back-to-leap” pattern. Each stressful experience is responded to with a “draw back” (or a state of regression), which, in turn, activates adaptive energy to help individuals reorganize themselves and “leap forward.” The stress-adaptation-growth transformative process continues as long as there are new challenges of contact and communication with the host environment, with the overall forward and upward movement in the direction of greater adaptation and growth. Large and sudden changes are more likely to occur during the initial phase of exposure to a new or changing cultural milieu. Such drastic changes are themselves indicative of the severity of difficulties and disruptions. Over a prolonged period of undergoing internal change, the diminishing fluctuations of stress and adaptation become less intense or severe, leading to an overall calming of the internal condition.

Cross-Cultural AdaptationClick to view larger

Figure 1. The process of cross-cultural adaptation: the stress-adaptation-growth dynamic. From Becoming Intercultural: An Integrative Theory of Cross-Cultural Adaptation (p. 59), by Y. Y. Kim, 2001, Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Copyright 2001, reprinted with permission.

Factors Influencing the Cross-Cultural Adaptation Process

The stress-adaptation-growth dynamic driving the cross-cultural adaptation process is influenced by a set of factors that facilitate or impede the cross-cultural adaptation process leading to differential adaptation rates, or speeds, at which cross-cultural adaptation occurs in individual cases. Bringing together a broad range of factors investigated in the social science literature into a single framework, the Integrative Theory of Cross-Cultural Adaptation (Kim, 1988, 2001, 2005, 2008, 2012, 2015) identifies the following dimensions of factors as working together and interactively to facilitate or impede an individual’s adaptation to a host cultural environment.

Communication Factors

At the heart of the structure of cross-cultural adaptation is host communication competence, the individual’s capacity to communicate in accordance with the host cultural norms and practices, and to participate in host social communication processes in host interpersonal and mass communication activities.

Host communication competence refers to the overall internal capacity of a stranger to decode and encode information in accordance with the host cultural communication practices. It is comprised of three interrelated subcategories: cognitive, affective, and operational. Cognitive competence includes the knowledge of the host language and culture, history, social institutions, and rules of interpersonal conduct. Knowledge of the host language, in particular, serves as the primary conduit for adaptation, enabling strangers to access to access the accumulated records of the host culture, including an understanding of how to communicate with native speakers in ways that are appropriate in local contexts. Affective competence refers to the emotional and motivational capacity to deal with the various challenges of living in the host environment. A positive, willing, and flexible self-other orientation engenders greater openness and lessens unwarranted negativism toward new cultural experiences. Also included in affective competence is the development of a capacity to appreciate and participate in the local people’s emotional and aesthetic sensibilities, thereby making it possible for strangers to establish a meaningful psychological connection with the natives. The cognitive and affective capabilities work side by side with the operational competence, the capacity to express outwardly by choosing a “right” combination of verbal and nonverbal acts in specific social transactions of the host environment.

Host communication competence is directly and reciprocally linked to participation in the social processes of the host society through interpersonal and mass communication channels. Host interpersonal communication activities involving cultural natives offer opportunities for “corrective exchanges” with respect to the use of the host communication system, including its verbal and nonverbal codes. Through active and continuous participation in host interpersonal communication activities, non-natives can begin the process of constructing a set of potentially satisfying and supportive relationships with natives. Host communication competence further facilitates, and is facilitated by, participation in host mass communication activities. Through a wide range of mediated communication systems such as radio, television, newspaper, magazine, movie, art, literature, music, and drama, non-natives interact with the host cultural environment without direct interpersonal involvements. Such mass communications activities help broaden the scope of new cultural learning beyond one’s immediate social context.

In many societies and communities today, non-natives’ social communication activities involve their co-ethnics or co-nationals and home cultural experiences, as well. Some form of ethnic interpersonal communication activities through ethnic mutual-aid or self-help organizations, including religious organizations, may be available to render assistance to those who need material, informational, emotional, and other forms of social support. In addition, opportunities to participate in ethnic mass communication activities through ethnic newspapers, radio stations, and television programs may be accessible via the Internet or in pre-recorded audio- and videotapes and computer disks. Participation in ethnic interpersonal and mass communication activities can be helpful to the initial phase of the cross-cultural adaptation process when newly arrived strangers lack host communication competence and access to host interpersonal resources. Beyond the initial phase, however, excessive and prolonged reliance on co-ethnics is likely to be either an insignificant influence on, or an impediment to, the long-term adaptation process with respect to the host society at large.

Environmental Factors

The adaptive function of the individual’s host communication competence and social engagement through interpersonal and mass communication activities cannot be fully explained in isolation from the conditions of the host environment. Since different societies and communities present different environments for cross-cultural adaptation, a given stranger can be more successful in adapting to a certain environment than to others. Of various environmental characteristics, three key factors are identified in the Integrative Theory of Cross-Cultural Adaptation (Kim, 1988, 2001, 2005) as the most significant influences on an individual’s adaptation process: host receptivity, host conformity pressure, and ethnic group strength.

Host receptivity refers to the degree to which the receiving environment welcomes and accepts strangers into its interpersonal networks and offers them various forms of informational, technical, material, and emotional support. Host receptivity incorporates other similar terms, such as “interaction potential” (Kim, 1976) or “acquaintance potential” (Cook, 1962), that have been employed to refer to the stranger’s access to host social communication networks. Societies and communities offer different degrees of receptivity for different groups of strangers. Ethnically homogeneous and geographically isolated societies (such as Japan) generally offer fewer opportunities for strangers to develop close interpersonal relationships with local people. Within a society, members of certain groups are more warmly received than others. For instance, Canadian visitors arriving in a small town in the United States are likely to find a largely receptive environment, whereas the same small town may show less receptivity toward visitors from a lesser known and more visibly different culture.

Along with receptivity, individuals face differing levels of host conformity pressure, the extent to which the host environment challenges them, implicitly or explicitly, to act in accordance to the normative patterns of the host culture. Rooted in the expectations or assumptions that the natives routinely have about how newcomers should think and act, host conformity pressure shapes the extent to which the host environment challenges them to adopt its communication norms and practices. While much of such pressure is subtle, in the form of social expectations that the natives have toward cultural strangers, it can be communicated more explicitly through expressions of confusion, disapproval, or even prejudice and discrimination. Different host environments show different levels of tolerance for strangers and their ethnic characteristics. In general, people in ethnically heterogeneous and multicultural societies such as the United States tend to hold more tolerant attitudes toward ethnic differences, thereby exerting less pressure on strangers to change their habitual ways. Likewise, within a country, more heterogeneous and cosmopolitan urban areas tend to exhibit less host conformity pressure.

The degree to which a given host environment exerts receptivity and conformity pressure works side-by-side with the overall ethnic group strength, that is, the collective status and power of the group of which the resettler is a member. One way to gauge the strength of an ethnic group is to assess its “ethnolinguistic vitality,” a combination of the status of a language in a community, the absolute and relative number of its users, and the institutional support (e.g., governmental services, business services, schools, mass media) for the language (Giles, Bourhis, & Taylor, 1977; Giles & Johnson, 1981).

Further insights into ethnic group strength have been provided by Clarke and Obler (1976), who have identified three general stages of ethnic group development. The first stage is economic adjustment, which occurs upon arrival of the group until its members become an integral part of the permanent economy. The second stage is community building, or the development of the community leadership and institutional resources used to assert the ethnic group’s identity and interests. This second stage corresponds to the concept of “institutional completeness” (Breton, 1964, 1991; Goldenberg & Haines, 1992). The third stage is the period of active self-assertion, which develops into the group’s conventional use of the existing political system aimed at strengthening ethnicity and a collective identity among its members. It is this third stage of development in which identity politics are pursued by some ethnic groups (Aronowitz, 1991), playing up their group identity as a rallying point to assert itself to be separate from the identity of the larger society.

In light of these considerations, a stronger ethnic group is likely to offer its members a more vibrant ethnicity-based subculture within which newly arrived immigrants or sojourners find support for many of their personal and social needs. As such, an inverse relationship is expected between an ethnic group’s strength and its individual members’ cross-cultural adaptation in the mainstream society at large. The adaptation-impeding influence of a strong ethnic group is likely to be particularly strong when the ethnic group pursues a political aspiration of building an identity separate from, or even in conflict with, the identity of the larger society.

Individual Predispositions

In addition to the host environment, the cross-cultural adaptation process is affected by the internal dispositions new arrivals bring with them. Every cultural stranger begins his or her adaptation process with unique temperament and sensibilities. Some may be filled with determination to succeed in the host society, while others may find themselves bitterly resenting the struggle that is required. Some may be open to, and enthusiastically embrace, new cultural experiences, while others may feel they are too old to make changes in their lifetime habits. Some may find themselves blending well, while others may stand out oddly against the mainstream ethnicity of the native population. These predispositions serve as a kind of blueprint for what follows, serving as an individual’s adaptive potential.

Among the key predispositions influencing cross-cultural adaptation is differing levels of preparedness, or readiness to learn and adapt to the life in that environment, including the extent of cultural learning (including language learning) individuals have had prior to relocation. The new arrivals who are better prepared for the host society are likely to begin their adaptation process with more realistic expectations (Black & Gregersen, 1990; Searle & Ward, 1990). An individual’s preparedness is closely linked to the circumstances under which their cross-cultural moves take place. A particularly relevant circumstantial factor is whether their move is voluntary and carefully planned or involuntary and unplanned. Voluntary immigrants are likely to enter the host environment better prepared for relocation than those who are reluctant and forced to do so by circumstances (David, 1969).

In addition, immigrants or sojourners arrive in a new environment with differing degrees of ethnic proximity to the mainstream ethnicity of the host society. The term, ethnic proximity, is employed here to refer to the degree of closeness (or distance) defined in terms of relative cultural, linguistic, and physical similarity (or difference) and compatibility (or incompatibility). Salient extrinsic ethnic characteristics work against the individual’s adaptation as they introduce a psychological barrier between the individual and the local social environment. Outstanding physical attributes (e.g., height, skin color, facial features, and physique), along with foreign accents in speech patterns, in particular, contribute to their overall foreignness. Such extrinsic ethnic differences adversely affect the degree to which locals are inclined to welcome and accommodate cultural strangers, as has been shown in a study of Mexican immigrants in the United States (Vazquez, Garcia-Vazquez, Bauman, & Sierra, 1997). Also, someone whose cultural values and norms are highly compatible with those of the natives is likely to find the host environment less stressful. Such compatibility also enables the individual to acquire host communication competence more smoothly and to take part in the host social communication processes with greater ease.

Along with preparedness and ethnic proximity, an individual’s adaptive personality plays a role. Personality traits serve as the basis upon which the individual pursues and responds to new experiences with varying degrees of success. Of particular interest here are those personality resources that would help facilitate adaptation by enabling the individual to withstand challenges and maximize new learning. One of the adaptive personality attributes is openness, the psychological tendency to be receptive to new information and to minimize resistance to changed circumstances (Caligiuri, Jacobs, & Farr, 2000; McCrae & Costa, 1985). It is this openness that clearly gives young children an adaptive advantage. Openness enables them to perceive and interpret various events and situations in the new environment without ethnocentric judgments. The term openness incorporates other more specific terms such as flexibility, open-mindedness, and tolerance for ambiguity.

Along with openness, personality strength facilitates the adaptation process. Defined as the internal capacity to absorb shocks from the environment and to bounce back without being seriously damaged by them, personality strength is a concept that integrates various related concepts pertaining to “stress-buffering traits” (van der Zee & van Oudenhoven, 2014) such as resilience, risk-taking, hardiness, persistence, elasticity, and self-directed locus of control.

Both openness and strength of personality are closely associated with the third adaptive personality attribute, positivity. Positivity refers to an affirmative and optimistic outlook, or the internal capacity to defy negative prediction (Dean & Popp, 1990). People with a positive personality can better endure many stressful encounters with a belief that things will turn out as they should. It is a kind of idealism—a belief in possibilities and a faith in the goodness of life and people in general—as opposed to being overcome by unwarranted defeatist cynicism. Positivity thus encourages acceptance of others despite differences, and is reflected in self-esteem, self-trust, or self-efficacy (Harrison, Chadwick, & Scales, 1996).

Together, openness, strength, and positivity present a psychological profile of individuals who possess inner resources with which to facilitate their own adaptation. Those who are open, strong, and positive are less likely to give up easily and more likely to take risks willingly under challenging situations in the host environment. They are better equipped to work toward developing host communication competence, as they continually seek new ways to handle their life activities. In doing so, they are better able to make necessary adjustments in themselves and facilitate their own intercultural transformation. A serious lack of these personality attributes, on the other hand, would handicap the adaptive capacity of an individual resettler.

Intercultural Transformation

Through the interactive workings of the above-described factors of personal and social communication, of the environment, and of the individual’s backgrounds, the process of cross-cultural adaptation unfolds. Emerging in the adaptation process are three interrelated facets of adaptive change and intercultural transformation of the individual: (a) increased functional fitness in carrying out daily transactions; (b) improved psychological health in dealing with the environment; and (c) emergence of an intercultural identity orientation (Kim, 1988, 2001, 2005, 2008, 2012, 2015). These three facets are interrelated developmental continua, in which individual strangers can be placed at different locations reflecting the different levels of adaptive change at a given point in time.

Most newcomers who find themselves in an unfamiliar environment instinctively strive to “know their way around.” Through repeated activities resulting in new learning and internal re-organizing, they achieve an increasing functional fitness in the host environment. Well-adapted individuals would be those who have accomplished a desired level of effective functional relationship with the host environment—particularly with those individuals with whom they carry out their daily activities.

Each individual also needs the ongoing validation of his or her social experience, thereby maintaining a satisfactory level of psychological health, a term that integrates related concepts such as culture shock and psychological adaptation. In the absence of adequate host communication competence, engagement in host social communication activities, and functional fitness, individuals are subject to frustration, leading to the symptoms of maladaptation such as marginalization and alienation. Conversely, those individuals who have acquired high-level host communication competence, who actively participate in host social processes, and who are proficient in their daily transactions in the host society, are likely to enjoy a greater sense of fulfillment and efficacy.

Adaptive changes further include the emergence of an intercultural identity, a gradual and largely unintended psychological evolution beyond the boundaries of childhood enculturation, an orientation toward self and others that is no longer rigidly defined by either the identity linked to the home culture or the identity of the host culture. Intercultural identity transformation manifests itself in the progressive attainment of a self-other orientation that is increasingly individuated and universalized. As an individual’s cultural identity evolves toward intercultural identity, that person’s definitions of self and others become simultaneously less restricted by rigid cultural and social categories and more broadened and enriched by an increased ability to, at once, particularize and humanize his or her perception of each communicative event.

One of the two key elements of intercultural identity development is individuation of one’s self-other orientation. This development involves a solidified sense of self—an epoché, authenticity, and a feeling of certainty about one’s place in the world, and a differentiated and particularized definition of others as singular individuals rather than as members of conventional social categories such as culture and ethnicity. Individuation fosters a mental outlook that exhibits greater cognitive differentiation and particularization (Oddou & Mendenhall, 1984). Accompanying the individuation of self-other orientation is a parallel development of universalization of one’s mental outlook—a synergistic cognition “of a new consciousness, born out of an awareness of the relative nature of values and of the universal aspect of human nature” (Yoshikawa, 1978, p. 220). These two interrelated processes of intercultural identity development define the nature of the psychological movement toward an identity orientation that is no longer bound by conventional cultural categories. Through individuation and universalization, then, individuals undergoing the process of intercultural transformation are able to cultivate a mindset that integrates, rather than separates, cultural differences with an understanding of the cultural differences between and among human groups and of the profound similarities in the human condition.

Intercultural identity is differentiated from other terms that represent various forms of additions of specific cultural components such as bicultural, multicultural, or hybrid identity. While incorporating the common thrust of these terms, intercultural identity goes beyond them, highlighting one of the well-known central maxims for all living systems: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The cultural base of an individual identity is not going to disappear until the end of one’s life, even if one wanted to remove it. What does happen in the process of intercultural transformation is a juxtaposition of deculturation and acculturation—one loses some and gains some, and, in doing so, becomes something else, as represented by a formula, A+B= A’+B’+ X, with A’ and B’ representing modifications in some of the original (A) and new (B) cultural patterns, and X representing the extra dimension of individuation and universalization in an individual’s identity and personhood.

Linking the Dimensions and Factors

All of the above-identified dimensions of factors constitute the overall structure of cross-cultural adaptation (Kim, 1988, 2001, 2005), facilitating or impeding the process in which individuals adapt to a given host environment over time. As shown in Figure 2, the interlocking bilateral influences between and among these factors help predict the successes as well as the failures in cross-cultural adaptation. In the reality of cross-cultural adaptation, all of these forces work together interactively to facilitate or impede each stranger’s adaptation process. Like a locomotive engine, the workings of each unit operating in this process affect, and are affected by, the workings of all other units.

The cognitive, affective, and operational facets of the individual’s host communication competence (Dimension 1) serve as the very engine that moves them along on the adaptation process. Inseparably linked with host communication competence is the dimension of host social communication (Dimension 2), through which strangers participate in host interpersonal and mass communication activities. Ethnic social communication (Dimension 3) is added to emphasize the role of distinct, subcultural experiences of the strangers with coethnics. Interacting with the personal and social communication dimensions are the three key conditions of the new environment (Dimension 4): host receptivity, host conformity pressure, and ethnic group strength. The individual’s own predispositions (Dimension 5) in terms of preparedness for change, ethnic proximity/distance, and adaptive personality set the initial parameters for the subsequent unfolding of the personal and social communication activities. Collectively and interactively, these five dimensions influence and, in turn, are influenced by the adaptive changes in individual strangers in the direction of intercultural transformation (Dimension 6) toward greater functional fitness and psychological health in relation to the host environment and toward the development of an intercultural identity.

Cross-Cultural AdaptationClick to view larger

Figure 2. The structure of cross-cultural adaptation. From Becoming Intercultural: An Integrative Theory of Cross-Cultural Adaptation (p. 87), by Y. Y. Kim, 2001, Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Copyright 2001, reprinted with permission.

Looking Forward

Globalization has made cross-cultural adaptation and intercultural transformation the “business of our time” (Kim, 2001, p. 234). Whether at home or on foreign soil, numerous people the world over undergo at least some degree of acculturation, deculturation, and the experience of the stress-adaptation-growth dynamic. Despite, and because of, the many unpredictable vicissitudes of the new and changing milieu, people around the world are challenged to undertake the task of acquiring and integrating new experiences into a creative new life. Most people in most circumstances are able to find creative ways to reconcile at least some of the old cultural habits of the internal world that are at variance with the external cultural environment. In so doing, they are able to follow the trajectory of the internal transformation that leads to greater functional fitness and psychological health vis-à-vis the changed and changing environment, as well as an emerging intercultural identity and personhood beyond conventional cultural categories.

The very engine driving the cross-cultural adaptation process is an active and continuous communicative engagement with a new and unfamiliar environment. Should we choose to become successfully adapted, we will benefit from being prepared and willing to face the stressful experiences that are part-and-parcel of the adaptation process. We will need to concentrate on acquiring new cultural communication practices and putting aside some of the old ones, recognizing that host communication competence is the fundamental mechanism driving our own adaptation process. We must be engaged in the interpersonal and mass communication processes of the host community and society. Through active participation, and through cultivating the adaptive personality of openness, strength, and positivity, we will be better able to overcome temporary setbacks and attain a level of functional efficacy we need to pursue our personal and social goals.

Although the process of becoming intercultural cannot ever be complete, each step on this path brings a new formation of life. This accomplishment is not one that only extraordinary people can attain. Rather, it is an incident of the normal human mutability manifesting itself in the work of ordinary people stretching themselves out of the old and familiar. The dynamic nature of cross-cultural adaptation points to an alternative way of living in the world. It shows us that we can strive to embrace and incorporate seemingly divergent cultural elements into something new and unique—one that conjoins and integrates, rather than separates and divides. It projects the real possibility of cultivating a special kind of mindset in which cross-borrowing of identities is not an act of surrendering one’s personal and cultural integrity, but an act of respect for cultural differences that leaves neither the lender nor the borrower deprived.

Modern history presents ample cases of immigrants, sojourners, and domestic migrants whose transformative adaptation experiences bear witness to the remarkable human spirit and capacity for self-renewal beyond the constraints of a single culture. Their stories offer concrete insights into the process in which cultural strangers work through the setbacks, learn from them, and evolve into a greater self-integration beyond the perimeters of any single culture.

The Literature

Cross-cultural adaptation is one of the most extensively investigated fields of study with many varied perspectives and conceptions. This phenomenon has been investigated across social science disciplines continuously since the early 20th century in the United States, a nation that has dealt with a large and continuous influx of immigrants, while more recently, other Western European countries and beyond have been experiencing a significant increase in migration population.

The field of study became formalized in the 1930s when the Social Science Research Council adopted the term, acculturation, to represent the new inquiry. The Council provided the parameters for this new field, which dealt with “those phenomena which result when groups of individuals have different cultures and come into first-hand contact with subsequent changes in the original pattern of either or both groups” (Redfield, Linton, & Herskovits, 1936, p. 149, emphasis added). Consistent with this conception of acculturation, anthropologists (e.g., Herskovits, 1958) have approached the acculturation phenomenon largely at the level of cultural groups, focusing on the dynamics of change in traditional cultures and the presence of kin, friends, and social organizations within immigrant communities. Sociologists (e.g., Anderson & Saenz, 1994), likewise, have focused on group-level issues pertaining to the structural assimilation of immigrants groups within and across generations, employing indicators such as intermarriages and socioeconomic stratifications. Subsequent to the early beginnings of anthropological and sociological group-level studies are a large number of psychological and communication studies that have investigated cross-cultural adaptation at the individual level. Focusing on the experiences of individual immigrants and sojourners in transition from a home culture to a foreign culture, these studies have sought to identify common patterns with which the cross-cultural adaptation process unfolds, key factors that influence the process, and the changes in individuals that are likely to result from it.

This individual-level approach to cross-cultural adaptation is reflected in the description of cross-cultural adaptation presented in this chapter. A synoptic overview of the extant literature is offered below in terms of the long-term and short-term perspectives on the individual experiences of cross-cultural adaptation, followed by the merging of the two perspectives into a single communication framework in the Integrative Theory of Cross-Cultural Adaptation (Kim, 1988, 2001, 2005).

Long-Term Adaptation

By far the most dominant and consistent insight into the long-term adaptation process gained from an extensive body of studies conducted among various immigrant groups in the United States is the progressive and cumulative nature of adaptive change taking place over time within individuals and in their relationship to the host environment. In one of the early theorizing efforts, for example, Taft (1966) delineated seven stages of assimilation of individual immigrants, moving progressively from the “cultural learning” stage to the “congruence” stage. A similar directionality of change toward assimilation has been amply demonstrated in many other subsequent studies (e.g., Kim, 1976; Nagata, 1969; Preston, 2015; van Oudenhoven & Eisses, 1998).

Deviating from the above-described traditional progressive-cumulative perspective on a long-term trend toward assimilation, Berry (1980, 1990) proposed a more pluralistic way of understanding long-term adaptation from a psychological perspective. This theory is built on two central issues that are likely to confront immigrants or other long-term residents: cultural maintenance and contact and participation in the host society and its culture. The question concerning cultural maintenance is: “Are cultural identity and customs of value to be retained?” With respect to contact and participation in the host society, the question is: “Are positive relations with the larger society of value and to be sought?” By juxtaposing the response types (yes, no) to these two questions, each individual resettler is identified with one of the four acculturation strategies: integration (yes, yes), assimilation (no, yes), separation (yes, no), and marginality (no, no).

In addition to generating many empirical studies, Berry’s model has inspired theoretical efforts to modify and extend it in new models. Building on and extending Berry’s model, Ward (1996, 2001) proposed a model in which macro-level factors related to the sociopolitical, socioeconomic, and demographic characteristics of the acculturating individual’s society of origin and the society of settlement, as well as micro-level characteristics of the acculturating individual and situational elements of the acculturative experience. Another notable extension of Berry’s theory is the interactive acculturation model by Bourhis, Moiese, Perreault, and Senecal (1997), in which one of the original four acculturation strategies, marginality, is replaced with anomie and individualism.

What distinguishes pluralistic models such as these from the traditional models is the implicit assumption that cross-cultural adaptation is essentially a matter of choice by individual immigrants and that this choice hinges on their identity orientations with respect to their original cultural group and the receiving society. In contrast, in the traditional progressive-cumulative conceptions of adaptation in the direction of assimilation are grounded in the assumption that adaptive change in individuals is not a matter of choice based on group identity, so much as a matter of a natural human drive to survive and a capacity for functional efficacy in an unfamiliar cultural environment.

Short-Term Adaptation

By and large, studies of short-term adaptation have investigated the experience of culture shock and the processes of psychological adjustment during a relatively limited period of temporary sojourn. Oberg (1960) coined the term culture shock to describe “the anxiety that results from losing all our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse” (p. 177). Subsequently, a number of alternative conceptions of culture shock have been offered. Adler (1975) and Bennett (1977), expanded the meaning of culture shock, and regarded it as part of the general transition shock, a natural consequence of individuals’ inability to interact with the new environment effectively. Zaharna (1989) added to the discussion the notion of self-shock, emphasizing “the double-binding challenge of identity” (p. 501).

Although culture shock is typically associated with negative psychological impacts, many investigators have highlighted that most sojourners eventually achieve satisfactory adjustment. The idea of a U-shaped curve of psychological adjustment was first introduced by Lysgaard (1955). Based on his study of Norwegian Fulbright scholars in the United States, Lysgaard observed that psychological adjustment followed a U-curve adjustment; that is, the individuals who experienced the most difficulty during their sojourn in the U.S. were those who had stayed for between six and 18 months, compared to those who had either stayed for less than six months, or more than 18 months. Oberg (1960) subsequently identified the four stages of a U-curve leading to an eventual satisfactory adjustment: a “honeymoon” phase, followed by a period of crisis, a period of adjustment, integration, and enjoyment of the new environment. The U-curve hypothesis has been further extended to the W-Curve (Gullahorn & Gullahorn, 1963) by adding the reentry (or return home) phase, during which the sojourner goes through a similar process once again.

While the U- and W-curve hypotheses have proven to be heuristic to the extent that they remain popular and are intuitively appealing, these theories have demonstrated inconsistent results when applied to different research contexts. Comprehensive reviews of culture shock research (e.g., Anderson, 1994; Ward, Bochner, & Furnham, 2001) have concluded that support for the U- and W-curve hypotheses is limited and that evidence for the theories’ claims tends to be inconclusive. Arguments have been also made that the cultural shock experience must be viewed in a broader context of learning and personal development. Adler (1987), for example, explained that culture shock should not be viewed as a “disease for which adaptation is the cure, but is at the very heart of the cross-cultural learning experience, self-understanding, and change” (p. 29). Consistent with this view, Ruben and Kealey (1979) reported that, among Canadian technical advisors and their spouses on two-year assignments in Kenya, the magnitude of culture shock was positively related to the individuals’ social and professional effectiveness within the new environment.

Integration of Long-Term and Short-Term Adaptation

The Integrative Theory of Cross-Cultural Adaptation (Kim, 1988, 2001, 2005) was originally developed to bring together various disciplinary perspectives and approaches to cross-cultural adaptation into a comprehensive and general system of description and explanation. By conceptualizing adaptation as a continuous and cumulative evolutionary process of internal transformation, the theory consolidates the two formerly disparate and independent lines of inquiry, long-term adaptation of immigrants and short-term adaptation of temporary sojourners. It does so by employing concepts that are sufficiently generic and abstract to accommodate other more narrowly defined concepts. For example, the core term, cross-cultural adaptation, represents not a specific analytic unit (or variable), but the totality of the phenomenon pertaining to what an individual undergoes vis-a-vis a new and unfamiliar environment, thereby incorporating other more specific terms such as assimilation, acculturation, integration, and adjustment.

This integrative theory presents the two models depicting the process and the structure of cross-cultural adaptation presented earlier in this chapter in Figures 1 and 2. Both models are general in that they present a wide range of applicability including the adaptation experiences of short-term and long-term strangers, from any cultural or subcultural origin, to any new destination, for any voluntary or involuntary reason. The process model (Figure 1) depicts the stress-adaptation-growth dynamic, which offers a systematic account of the process of intercultural transformation over time. Building on this cumulative and evolutionary conception of cross-cultural adaptation in the process model, the multidimensional-multifaceted structural model (Figure 2) provides a comprehensive way of understanding the differential levels of cross-cultural adaptation achieved over time. It does so by bringing together the key macro-level factors that have long investigated the issues of ethnic community, interethnic relations, social integration, and ethnicity into the micro-level analyses that have been typically taken in social psychology and communication for exclusively intrapersonal issues, such as culture shock reactions, psychological adjustment, attitude toward the host society, and culture learning.

Further Reading

Readers seeking a deeper understanding of cross-cultural adaptation can find a full examination of the phenomenon as well as a broadly based review of the extant literature in Becoming Intercultural: An Integrative Theory of Cross-Cultural Adaptation (Kim, 2001). Article-length versions of the same information include “Adapting to a New Culture: An Integrative Communication Theory” (Kim, 2005), “Beyond Categories: Communication, Adaptation, and Transformation” (Kim, 2012), and “Cross-Cultural Adaptation of Hispanic Youth: A Study of Communication Patterns, Functional Fitness, and Psychological Health” (McKay-Semmler & Kim, 2014).

For details of Berry’s psychological acculturation model identifying four orientations (assimilation, integration, separation, and marginalization), readers are encouraged to read the original presentation of the model in a journal article, “Acculturation as Varieties of Adaptation” (Berry, 1980) and “The Psychology of Acculturation: Understanding Individuals Moving Between Cultures” (Berry, 1990). Interested readers may also read about modifications and extensions of this model by Bourhis, Moiese, Perreault, and Senecal (1997) in an article “Toward an Interactive Acculturation Model: A Social Psychological Approach,” and by Ward (2001) in a book chapter, “The A, B, Cs of Acculturation.”

A broad overview of the literature on short-term adaptation is offered by Ward, Bochner, and Furnham in The Psychology of Culture Shock (2001). This book examines an extensive body of theoretical and empirical works pertaining to the culture shock phenomenon and the U-curve and W-curve processes of psychological adjustment among temporary sojourners. A more recent review of short-term adaptation studies of sojourners can be found in a journal article, “Acculturation and Overseas Assignments: A Review and Research Agenda” (Gonzalez-Loureiro, Kiessling, & Dabic, 2015).

Readers may also want to learn about critical postmodern theoretical arguments against the social scientific approaches and in favor of alternative conceptions of cross-cultural adaptation. Two such works are presented in book chapters: “Retheorizing Adaptation: Differential Adaptation and Critical Intercultural Communication,” by de la Garza and Ono (2015); and “Coculturation: Toward a Critical Theoretical Framework of Cultural Adjustment,” by Curtin (2010).


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