Ting-Toomey’s revised w-shaped adjustment model (1999) comes from the U-curve hypothesis (Lysgaard, 1955; Oberg, 1960) from culture shock theory, which states that there are distinct phases of adjusting or adapting to the host culture.
In the figure above A represents the honeymoon stage (referred to as the early transition period in this blog). B represents the hostility stage when “sojourners experience identity confusion and disorientation” (Ting-Toomey, 1999, p. 248). C represents the humorous stage when “sojourners learn to laugh at their cultural faux pas and start to realize that there are pros and cons in each culture” (p. 249). D represents the in-sync stage when they “experience identity security and inclusion” (p. 249). E represents the ambivalence stage when they “experience grief, nostalgia, and pride, with a mixed sense of relief and sorrow that they are going home” (pp. 249-250). F represents reentry culture shock and G represents the resocialization stage.
Using the U-curve or W-curve has its benefits. It is “intuitively appealing” and “a convenient, common sense heuristic for understanding cross-cultural adaptation” (Ward, Bochner, & Furnham, 2001, p.82). For this reason, a researcher can introduce the U-curve hypothesis to sojourners as a frame of reference to understand their identity change process (Ting-Toomey, 1999). The sojourners may be able to compare their own experiences to the U-curve or its revised W-curve, providing anecdotes supporting or refuting the trends of the curves or the characteristics of each phase. Additionally, the U-curve hypothesis is important to research in cross-cultural training because it shows that sojourners should expect to have different experiences at different times while they are living and working abroad (Littrell, et al, 2006).
The U-curve hypothesis has very concerning drawbacks. Most importantly, there is little empirical evidence that sojourners’ adjustment follows the U-curve (Berry, 2006). Further criticisms points out that it “appears to be largely atheoretical, deriving from a combination of post hoc explanation and armchair speculation” (Ward, Bochner, & Furnham, 2001). A literature review of U-curve studies have pointed out that in all cases there is a fluctuation of stress and/or general satisfaction over time, but they are not fixed to certain points in time and often do not form a U or W shape. The most common trend is that there is a downward trend, indicating greater stress and/or decreasing satisfaction in the host culture during the first few weeks (ibid).
To alleviate these problems, it has been suggested that future researchers who wish to use, develop, or analyze the U-curve and its variants should consider longitudinal research, selecting participants in similar contexts, and investigating specific outcome measures, such as sociocultural adaptation (Ward, Bochner, & Furnham, 2001). Berry (2006) suggests a more qualitative investigation into the “specific nature of the experiences and problems encountered as [sojourners] change over time” (p.51).
Berry, J.W. (2006). Stress perspectives on acculturation. In Sam, D.L. & Berry, J.W. Cambridge Handbook of Acculturation Psychology. West Nyack, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Littrell, L.N., Salas, E., Hess, K.P., Paley, M., & Riedel, S. (2006). Expatriate preparation: A critical analysis of 25 years of cross-cultural training research. Human Resource Development Review, 5(3), 355-388. doi: 10.1177/1534484306290106Littrell
Lysgaard, S. (1955). Adjustment in a foreign society: Norwegian Fulbright grantees visiting the United States. International Social Science Bulletin, 7, 45-51.
Oberg, K. (1960). Culture shock: Adjustment to new cultural environments. Practical Anthropology, 7, 177-182.
Ting-Toomey, S. (1999). Communicating Across Cultures. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Ward, C., Bochner, S. & Furnham, A. (2001). The Psychology of Culture Shock, 2nd edition. New York, NY: Routledge.