What Is Culture Shock And How To Deal With It

Culture shock is exactly what it sounds like, the shock of being in a different culture, with the customs, language, and food you are not used to.

Culture shock can hit you the moment you get off the plane and realize, “Wow, everyone here is from……here!”

Or that awkward moment when you realize to greet or say good-bye to a room full of people, you have to kiss each person, as that is how it is done.

There are many examples of culture shock, as it can happen anytime and in any situation.  On the other hand, this is what makes traveling or living abroad so enticing, as you are out of your comfort zone, and this can force you to grow in many ways.

When at home, we are in our routine and our comfort zone. We speak the language and understand slang. We are social with friends and family.  We have favorite restaurants, coffee shops, and grocery stores. We exercise.

When traveling, you are out of this safe zone, where you feel familiar and somewhat are on automatic or auto-pilot.  Sometimes you have to study how to ask for water.   Having a medical issue can be terrifying in a different country.  You may not find the foods you like or are shocked at the foods that are considered a delicacy where you are.   Sometimes it can be hard to be away from your loved ones or miss events happening at home.

What Are the Phases of Culture Shock?

Anthropologist Kalervo Oberg first introduced four stages of culture shock back in 1954.  His original article, “Culture Shock:  Adjustment to New Cultural Environments,” gave the insight to explain the emotions that one goes through when traveling or living abroad.

  1.  The Honeymoon Phase - This is the beginning of the process.  You have waited and planned for so long; finally, the time has come!  Everything is filled with excitement and curiosity, and the differences between your culture and your new culture are given a sense of being exciting or exotic.
  2. The Frustration Phase:  This is the second stage and the most tiring of them all.  The exhilaration has worn off, and you feel overwhelmed and exhausted.   Adjusting to speaking a new language or getting used to the food seems complicated.
  3. The Adjustment Phase:  In this third stage, little wins seem like you have made enormous achievements.  You start to feel more comfortable even with the differences, and your confidence grows.  Here is when you begin to appreciate your new culture.
  4. The Acceptance Phase:  This is the last stage of culture shock, and you have adapted to your new culture.  You have a sense of belonging and have formed new relationships.  Now, you have a different perspective on the world and enjoy the diversity of other cultures.

How To Overcome Culture Shock

Open Mind

The most important asset is an open mind. You are going to realize we are all human. We have emotions, thoughts, and beliefs.  

It is important that you travel with curiosity instead of judgment.  If you research where you are traveling to before you go, you will understand what things could be like.

Having an open mind to try different food, attempt to speak a new language for you, and meet people who may be very different from you, is what it is all about!

Studying the Language

Being able to communicate with other humans is something we take for granted.  Studying how to speak a foreign language, especially as an adult, can be challenging.  

Even knowing a few phrases and greetings about where you are traveling can make a big difference.  You can do this beforehand, and the effort is greatly appreciated.  This will make you feel like you can communicate something and motivate you to study more! Here are some tips.

Become Familiar With Where You Are Staying

Going to a coffee shop every day for a week, you soon feel like a local. Shopping at the local grocery store every week gives you a sense of familiarity.  Taking walks and getting to know the area you are in also help you feel like you belong.

Confidence in your daily tasks or where you are going, a routine, can allow you to feel good in your space and less subjective to culture shock in these moments.

Keep In Contact With Loved Ones At Home

Culture shock can stem from feeling alone in a foreign land.  

Nowadays, thanks to the internet, and especially after a pandemic, we have all learned how to keep in touch virtually with family and friends.  We know to throw an online party and how to Zoom at a minute’s notice.  

It is easy to Facetime and Whatsapp with anyone, anywhere, unlike years ago a letter snail mail arrived three weeks later, and you were possibly in a different place when the letter or postcard arrived!

FOMO can also be an issue, which leads to homesickness, which is also due to culture shock.  It can make everything about a different culture seem more difficult.  But if you have regular calls with family and friends, you will have that comfort of home.

Find A Group Or Community

When you travel abroad for a while or live abroad, it is excellent if you can find a group to join for something you are interested in.  This could be for a hobby you have or a way to learn about the culture.

Do you want to learn to cook?  How about a language class so you can understand the language and meet people?  Since you have the time and the opportunity to join a group you may not usually have at home, you can find something exciting and meet many people along the way.

Facebook Groups are also a way of bringing people together, specific to each city.  There usually is a page of things going on there, expat groups, groups for only women, groups for particular hobbies, etc.

Being a part of something can help you deal with culture shock, and it can be the support you need when faced with moments when you feel being in another culture is overwhelming.

Reverse Culture Shock

Another stage that could be added is the Reverse Culture Shock when you return to your country after a long time away. Only some people experience this, and its degree can also vary.

Reverse culture shock can be challenging as you try to adapt to being back home.  Sometimes when you were abroad, you changed, or things at home have changed, and this can make you feel disoriented when trying to adjust to your old environment or be with family and friends.

Also, you could feel homesick for the culture you left, the relationships you formed there, and the life you created.

Reverse culture shock can be worked through by incorporating what you learned and have done, your perspectives and experiences, into your life at home.  Keep in touch with your friends from abroad and the culture.  This experience will always be a part of you.

Be Easy On Yourself

Culture shock is bound to happen when you go abroad. Being aware and prepared can help you adjust. Understanding what it is, what phases are, and how you can deal with it will be healthier. It is worth it, as it helps you evolve.

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