What is culture shock?
Commonly experienced by travelers, expats and exchange students, “culture shock" describes the impact of moving from a familiar culture to an unfamiliar one.
It’s the surprise of a new environment, with new people and a new way of life.
It also includes the initial separation anxieties that occur when you’re taken out of close contact with the important people in your life. That could be partners, friends, family, colleagues or teachers – all the people who you would seek advice from in terms of uncertainty.
These are some common elements that contribute to feelings of culture shock:
Whether it’s moving from a perpetually wet and grey climate to an arid, overbearingly hot region or vice versa, the weather can make it that little bit more difficult to settle in if it’s something you’re not used to.
It might be cooked differently, might seem bland, or even heavy compared to what you are used to. If you are unused to cooking, you may find yourself relying on “fast” food instead of your usual diet. Try to find a supplier of familiar food, and stick to a healthy diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables.
Being surrounded by a foreign language can be overwhelming to begin with, causing no undue amount of mental fatigue as you listen to and speak with others. And then there’s the inevitable shock of discovering the limits of basic language lessons as you encounter regional accents and fast-talkers.
Although some cultural differences may be obvious, e.g. food, dress and behavior, you may come to notice that other cultures have very different outlooks on the world from your own. This means that you might find that people don’t share some of your core values and beliefs.
If you travel from a warm climate to a cold one, it might seem like a lot of effort and be uncomfortable to wear heavy winter clothing. Some cultures may also have prohibitions on certain types of attire.
Every culture has its unspoken rules that govern how people interact with and treat one another. Initially these can seem like a minefield of manners as you inevitably fall foul of them, and the effect may be a little disorienting.
All of the above can all contribute to culture shock. And if you’re tired and jet-lagged when you arrive, small things can feel blown out of proportion and become a seemingly insurmountable barrier to enjoying your time abroad.
Shock to the system
It’s important to remember that culture shock is entirely normal, usually unavoidable and doesn’t reflect badly on you.
We might think of culture shock as a purely social phenomenon, but it can have real, physiological symptoms: -
- Low mood
- Headaches or stomachaches
- Rapid mood swings
- Inability to focus
Fortunately a great deal of ink has been spent on discussing the effects of culture shock. What the vast majority of these studies agree on is that there are 6 distinct phases of culture shock:
A typical reaction is to only associate with other expats from your home country – existing in a cocoon, avoiding all but chance encounters with the locals.
It’s important to keep all of these stages in perspective and take them for what they are – a chance to learn about yourself, your strengths and weakness, and the world at large.
It will impart valuable skills that are germane to almost any future endeavors, whether personal or professional, and is arguably the main benefit of spending meaningful time abroad.
Despite those initial feelings of bewilderment, culture shock is a vital part of developing as a human being.
As the Romantic philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau puts it: ‘To become informed, it is not sufficient to roam through various countries. It is necessary to know how to travel.’
Travelling the world is all well and good, but if you stick to satellite groups of your fellow expats or the sanitized version of a culture peddled by tour guides and travel agents, then it’s really something of a meaningless experience.
If you don’t interact with other cultures, you’re at risk of assuming your own cultural values make up reality – and are therefore ‘correct’.
You’ll only recognize the incorrect assumptions you might be making if you immerse yourself in a culture that runs on different values to those you’re familiar with. In short, culture shock is as important for learning about yourself and your own culture as it is for fostering understanding between different peoples.
Getting over a rough landing
The early stages of culture shock can be tough to get through, but fortunately they’re temporary and manageable. Here are some tips on how to stop it affecting your life abroad.
While it’s tempting to stay within your comfort zone, exposing yourself to new cultures and ways of seeing the world is vital for personal growth.
Neiman, S. (2014). Why Grow Up? London: Penguin.
Santayana, G. (1995). ‘The Philosophy of Travel’, in The Birth of Reason and Other Essays. New York: Columbia University Press.