McDonald’s Introduction to the 4 Phases of Culture Shock

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“Yes, yes you CAN give me fries instead of rice. You begin with an empty box, right? So instead of grabbing the rice, you grab the fries and stick it inside of the box. It’s the same price. I know the menu says it comes with rice, but it costs the same amount and I’m the one paying, so why can’t you change it to fries?”


Annnnd freeze frame. How did I get here? Why am I giving a passionate speech (in my second language) about my right to have french fries? When did this molehill become such a mountain in my mind? 

The short answer is “culture stress.” A quick google search will inform you there are phases to this phenomenon and I’ve seen one source summarize it down to the following four phases: fun, flight, fight, and fit. 

However, I’m going to give you the long answer as I take you on a journey. It’s important for you to know that EVERYONE experiences culture stress to some degree. Knowing this fact and being aware of the phases of culture stress will help you recognize it more quickly, which then allows you to be better prepared, which also means you do not have to self-diagnose yourself as being a complete basket case. It will look different for each of us, but I’d like to be the first source on the internet to show you what each of these stages look like via experiences I’ve had at the same McDonald’s in our city for the past seven years. Oh yes, you heard me correctly. 

The Fun Phase

The very first night we landed in our city, our friends took us by McDonald’s for dinner. It wasn’t so much an attempt to ease us into the culture as it was the fact that McDonald’s was the only place with a drive-thru. 

“How fun! Look at all the rice they have on the menu,” I pointed out to my husband. “Oh, and look at those McFlurry flavors. Blackcurrant Oreo? We should try that!”

So wide-eyed. So bushy-tailed. I was adorable. 

The Flight Phase

Eventually, there came a time in my life overseas when I was overwhelmed with all that was different in my host culture. My language still wasn’t great and I felt disoriented and confused most of the time. This ultimately caused me to oppose everyone and everything that wasn’t like my own culture. 

The Golden Arches became my little piece of “home away from home.” I went there more than I’d like to admit during this time. Suffice it to say, I collected plenty of free Coca-Cola drinking glasses because of the promo they offered for getting the “upsize” meals. 

At one point my son asked, “why do we always go to McDonald’s?”

“Hey! Some kids would kill to have your life,” I shot back. 

How many trips is too many trips when a CHILD becomes tired of McDonald’s? Don’t answer that.

The Fight Phase

My husband entered this stage at a different time than me. For him, it involved multiple attempts to convince the employees not to put ice in his coke float. He tried to explain how it isn’t necessary and how he’d been raised on coke floats his whole life. This made him the expert. Unfortunately, they never backed down. They insisted on plopping the ice in his coke before topping it with soft-serve ice-cream — and it drove him mad. He’s okay now. Just don’t say “coke float” around him or it will trigger his eye twitch. 

For me, this phase involved rice and french fries…

“Yes, I’d like three Happy Meals,” I made my order to the speaker box. “One cheeseburger, two McNuggets. I want all of them to have fries, not rice.”

“For the McNuggets, it comes with rice,” the speaker box responded. 

“Yes, but I want to change it to fries.”

“We can’t do that.”

Irritated, I pulled to the window to pay. The lady (formerly known as speaker box) greeted me with a smile and held out her hand to receive my payment.

“I’m confused,” I began my attempt to get the fries my kids wanted before handing over my money. “It’s the same price, why can’t I just get fries?”

“For McNuggets, you have to get rice,” she kindly responded back.

I stared at her. “That doesn’t make sense.”

She took that to mean I didn’t understand her words which led her to give me a dumbed-down explanation of what she had already said.

“No,” I cut her off. “I understand your words but it doesn’t make sense that you can’t give me fries instead of rice.”

“We can’t do that,” she reiterated. 

And this is where you all joined me in the opening scene. 

“Yes, yes you CAN give me fries instead of rice. You begin with an empty box, right? So instead of grabbing the rice, you grab the fries and stick it inside of the box.” I was using all my best charade hand motions and gestures at this point. 

“It’s the same price,” I continued on. “I know the menu says it comes with rice, but it costs the same amount and I’m the one paying, so why can’t you change it to fries?”

If you can’t tell by now, this phase is when you get really critical and judgmental of the locals and the way they do things. You use words like “dumb”, “stupid”, or “ridiculous” to describe things which are done differently in your host culture. 

I pulled away from the drive-thru that day with all the rice I didn’t even want, along with so much anger. It didn’t take me long to realize how trivial it all was. Culture stress had got the best of me. 

The Fit Phase

Clearly I’m not talking about being physically fit since this entire post is centered around me going to McDonald’s way too much. 

This is the phase when you begin to embrace your new culture and seek to understand the “why” behind everything you find different. You find creative ways to be a part of the culture and it begins to weave itself into the threads of your own culture. 

I haven’t fully entered this phase yet but I’m beginning to see the ways I’m heading that direction. I’d like to think this is the phase when I finally bid farewell to McDonald’s and we go our separate ways. But who am I kidding? A good burger is hard to come by here. 

Maybe it’ll be the day I finally order that Blackcurrant Oreo McFlurry.

Wishing you could super-size this post?

My Story: Culture Shock, Mayonnaise, and the Last Straw

What Lies Beneath: Recognizing Cultural “Icebergs”

Crossing Cultures: Adding More Pieces to Your God-Puzzle

Red Pill? Blue Pill? 4 Irreversible Side Effects of Going Overseas

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