Culture Shock!

Basically, culture shock is feeling like a fish out of water—like the new kid on the block. Or the first time you had to wear braces or glasses. Or when the bully got at you in school. Except with culture shock, no one’s really trying to intimidate you—it’s just a new language or something that is making your self-esteem take a huge bashing.

culture shock
Anxiety and confusion overwhelming a person suddenly living in a culture, with a way of thinking or set of attitudes, that is completely foreign to them.

Basel © michaelcamilleri //
Basel © michaelcamilleri //

People have been talking about culture shock since the late fifties and early sixties. The late Dr. Kalervo Oberg has been credited for making much use of the term, and thanks to the advances made by a highly technological world, we find greater numbers exposed to culture shock.

What Is It?

Basically, culture shock is feeling like a fish out of water—like the new kid on the block. Or the first time you had to wear braces or glasses and everyone stared at you like you were some kind of freak. Or when the bully got at you in school. Except with culture shock, no one’s really trying to intimidate you—it’s just a new language or something that is making your self-esteem take a huge bashing.

Remember how great it felt in eighth grade—you were cool and the younger ones looked up to you! Then after you graduated you entered high school—new rules, new students, and you’re at the bottom of the totem pole. Think about when you entered college!

Culture shock is very similar to that, with the exception that you don’t understand what’s being said. So take a deep breath and remember that how things turn out is up to you. Embrace the challenge—you got through high school, didn’t you? This could be one of the best experiences of your life.

Culture shock has pretty much settled into four stages:

Honeymoon phase:
You’re in a new place—everything is unique and exciting. This phase is all about checking out new places, customs, traditions, foods, bars, and people!

Negotiation phase:
Sooner or later, depending on your background and experiences, anxiety and melancholy start to set in. You miss your friends, family, your grocery store, your TV programs, the ability to speak your language and have people understand you clearly, knowing what the people at the next table to you are saying, and even just humor! You miss the spontaneity of joking and having someone understand the joke. Now you have to figure out what things mean, where to find your favorite foods, how friendships work. You just want to go home.

Adjustment phase:
Again, this phase is up to you. Sometimes it takes six months, for some a year. You develop your routine, sleeping habits get better, your starting to figure how things work, what makes the people tick, where to get what, and if you’re learning a new language, you’re being able to communicate with others. Keeping in contact with others is a key element here. Try to find places where you can use your new language as well as interact with those who speak your mother tongue.

Mastery phase:
This is the been-there-done-that stage. You’ve figured out how to get around, got your new network of friends, enjoying communicating in a new language—you rock! The important thing to remember here is that you’re embracing the culture and contributing to it. It’s not about you or having things your way. It’s sharing the best of your culture and appreciating the wealth of your host country.

And keep in mind, when you return to your homeland, there’s reverse culture shock…but you’ll work through that one too!

Symptoms of Culture Shock

Now that we understand what it is, let’s look at some typical symptoms:

    bouts of crying
    eating disorders
    obsessive compulsive actions
    feelings of inadequacy
    hypochondria—endless symptoms of illness
    unending lethargy and sleep
    fear and anxiety
    the grass is greener on the other side mentality
    easily overwhelmed
    blaming your spouse (or others) for the move
    questioning your decision making ability

Of course, everyone will have different symptoms, but usually you’ll try to cling to the past and what is familiar. The quicker you move forward, the faster you will adjust and enjoy yourself. If you have any prior psychological problems, just be sure to check with your doctor before you make the move so you’re well prepared to deal with the changes.

Serious symptoms include:

    thoughts of suicide

Don’t feel ashamed or scared to ask someone for help if you are feeling this way.

Fighting Culture Shock

This could be the best time of your life—for your family and for you! Approach it like a battle to win and come up with your own strategies to win it. If you know how long your assignment is and where you’re going, start your preparations ahead of time, develop a Life Value statement and goals to accomplish. Figure out what you want to see happen and how you’re going to do that.

If you have young children, find out all you can about the schools and what will be best for your children’s needs. There are an abundance of things to do for families, learn to make the most of what’s being offered to you.

If your spouse’s job requires a lot of extensive travel, calculate ways to maximize your time together (not just a list of how hard things are for you on your own!). If the travel is taking a toll on your marriage or health, figure out what you can do to alleviate the situation. Sometimes it might mean not extending the initial contract and returning home.

Count your blessings and don’t be too hard on your family or yourself. It takes a bit of time to adjust to a new country.

If you’ve given up a job to follow your spouse on their assignment, don’t focus on what you miss about your own work and find fault with your current situation. Instead, use this time to spend with your children, or if you don’t have that privilege, develop some new job or life skills for yourself. You’ll never regret it.

Stop complaining…period! It’s the fastest breeder of discontentment.

Volunteer wherever you can.

Find a fun support group—maybe it’s a church or an organization from your home country.

One thing that can’t be stressed nearly enough—learn the local language! Yes, they may speak English, but it’s not only courteous to be able to communicate in their language when you’re living in their country, it is an experience you cannot get back home and one you must embrace. Seeing you trying will go a long way in making your new country friends easier on you.

Feelings of sadness are normal, but if they persist and are getting in the way of your daily life, you need to seek the care and counsel of someone qualified to help you.

Remember—enjoy everything you can about where you are, because good or bad, nothing lasts forever!

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