What is this thing we call culture shock? How does it feel, and what should we do when it kicks in? Annique investigates the common travel phenomenon and breaks down the importance of transmitting the initial shock into new and refreshing perspectives of the world.
Culture shock – we throw the term around all the time, but what exactly do we mean when we say that we experience culture shock. Are we surprised or taken aback, perhaps even amazed or appalled, by experiencing previously unfamiliar customs or traditions from new cultures? Is it a bad thing to be culture shocked?
If you ask me, culture shock can be one of the most important travel experiences you can ever have, granted that you have the capacity to appreciate and understand how it can make you a more grounded and humble human being.
Outta the Zone
During the 60s and until recently, culture shock was considered to be a consistently negative experience, almost like a sickness, as Paul B. Pedersen describes in his book that explores the different stages of culture shock. It was associated with feelings of loss and deprivation, rejection, anxiety, disgust, and many more. But is culture shock really that bad?
If you look up the definition of culture shock in a contemporary dictionary like Merriam-Webster, you will find that it is defined as the “feeling of confusion, doubt, or nervousness caused by being in a place (such as a foreign country) that is very different from what you are used to.” Not quite as bad as a disease, right?
Well, the phenomenon has been analysed and broken down into different stages, but I think for the point I’m trying to make, we can agree to understand culture shock as that feeling you get when you’re not in your cultural comfort zone – feeling a little misplaced, overwhelmed, homesick, a little anxious…
Being outside of ‘the comfort zone’ is of course relative, as each person has his or her own comfort zone, and one thing may make one person uncomfortable while another person isn’t bothered in the least. For example, some people experience culture shock when they travel and can’t communicate with their surroundings because of language barriers – while other people might find it exciting, and instead of feeling uncomfortable, get a kick out of using the universal art of hand gestures and facial expressions (and let’s not forget the abundant offering of exaggerated onomatopoeias).
Now, don’t be fooled – you don’t actually need to physically be in another country, or even city to experience culture shock. If you are invited to your neighbour’s house for dinner, culture shock may await you just as easily. If you are used to eating steamed vegetables, seated at a table, with classical music in the background, and at your neighbour’s dinner you suddenly have to eat deep-fried veggies in front of the TV with six children making a racket in the background – you will be culture shocked.
The Thing About Culture
Culture shock can affect various layers of what you consider ‘your own culture’ – the way of life that you identify with. A part of what constitutes your culture is what values and customs your society and community nurture you with, for example your religion, or the way you greet people, or what you consider to be good quality. But your culture also has a lot to do with the nurture you get from your family and friends, and even just from yourself, your own personal values and beliefs. For example, if your friends like shoplifting and lying, but that kind of behaviour is not something you like to engage in, it is because that is not your personal culture.
So when you experience culture shock, it can be because it is different from what your society’s culture is, or from that of your family and friends, or just from your own. I think you get where I’m going with this.
When In Shock, Do This
Being overwhelmed with feelings of disorientation, homesickness, and emotional confusion about the influx of new culture can be hard to deal with, especially if you haven’t experienced it previously. There is, after all, a reason we call it ‘leaving the comfort zone’ – it ain’t comfortable.
Here are some things that can help you if you are feeling helpless and uncomfortable in your new cultural surroundings:
- Keep in touch with home
Sometimes all you need in order to get over the initial culture shock is a quick phone call or SMS to or from your family and friends back home. You know, just to make sure they haven’t disappeared on you. You can also send them snapshots to share your experience with them. Missing home is not a bad thing. It’s good to realise how much your life back home means to you. But don’t let it keep you from exploring the new.
- Find a friend
Try to make friends and find people with whom you feel a connection – preferably with someone from your host country. Not only will you feel like you have someone to talk to, but it will make it easier for you to transition out of the state of culture shock into one of exploration and learning. No matter how different your cultures may be, there will always be a few things that you have in common – you are after all human beings.
- Remember, it’s not forever
You are travelling, which means that you either intend to move on to a new place soon, or return back home. You won’t be stuck with the foreign culture forever. So instead of fretting about everything that is ‘wrong,’ different, and uncomfortable, try to see what you can learn from it and to what extent you might discover common grounds with your own culture.
- Implement your culture
Getting to know a new culture doesn’t mean you need to totally reject your own! You can still be you. It can also be fun to teach people about the culture and way of life back home. Shared knowledge is worth much more than a hoarded one.
- Keep a journal/diary
This one works for me like a charm. Think it, then ink it. When you are going through culture shock, write down your thoughts and feelings in a personal journal. It’s so freeing to express what is overwhelming you. Writing things down can be the perfect way to organise your thoughts and get a big part of the culture shock off your chest. Your journal is always there to listen to you, without judgement.
The Value of Traveling & Culture Shock
Travel brings out the new. We leave what we know behind, and encounter unfamiliar and diverse customs, behaviors, mentalities, and general ways of life. When you leave your home country or city, you are by default entering into the home country or city of someone else. What that means is you are the one who needs to adapt to the new environment.
Whether you are traveling to a new place as a tourist, on business, on a study exchange, or as a troubled soul trying to find yourself, you need to be prepared for at least a tiny amount of culture shock. Or rather – look forward to it.
When it happens, and you feel like you are most definitely outside of your cultural comfort zone, try to consider in which way you may transform the shock from a feeling of discomfort to one of insight and personal growth. If you choose to interpret culture shock as a way of pointing out how strange and odd a new culture is, you are missing the point. If you travel with the attitude that your culture is superior, then how will you allow your travels to enrich and ground you as a person. Is it not more insightful to understand that rather than being superior or inferior, another way of life is simply different?
The most amazing realisation that can follow from culture shock is that your way of life, your culture, is but one of many other thousands in the world. When you travel to a foreign place, you are the one who is different. As Paul B. Pedersen puts it, the experience of a new culture causes us to reevaluate both the new, as well as our own home culture.
Culture shock might overwhelm you at first, but if you can choose to see how in the greater scheme of things, the experience highlights the rich variety of cultures our human race has fostered, your travels will enrich you with a lot of humility and wisdom. Choose to learn, choose to teach, and embrace the fact that your perspective of the world is only one of many, many others.
If you are an international or exchange student and find that the culture shock is too much to handle, don’t let things get out of hand. Not all personalities deal with culture shock in the same way, and not everyone adapts at the speed of light. Don’t let culture shock develop into a panic or anxiety attack, or an emotional breakdown. Go speak to someone about what you are feeling and make sure you find a support system so you don’t feel alone and helpless – otherwise you might miss out one of the most amazing, transformative, and enriching times of your life!