Help, it’s a culture shock!

What are the triggers and what is the best way to deal with them?

Traveling to another country and diving into another culture is an exciting topic and is often connected to positive feelings like euphoria and excitement. One thing which is ignored in many cases are potential mood swings while orientating locally, not knowing how to behave in certain situations. To put it in other words: You are thrown in at the deep end and flooded with impressions of another culture. As a result, you are emotionally overwhelmed, and may even suffer from homesickness, insecurity, depression and frustration – this is how it feels like, a culture shock.

Culture is like an iceberg

But why does this cultural overwhelming even take place? How can this happen if you believed to know a country with all its colourful facets before?

To understand this kind of phenomenon, it is helpful to imagine culture as an iceberg. The peak of that iceberg is visible to us and catches all cultural impressions that we observe actively – these are things like language, clothing, culinary, art and religion. The invisible part of the iceberg – which is way bigger than the visible one by the way – captures cultural elements like values and norms, traditions and dealing with emotions and expressing those. These elements are the more permanent ones of culture. Unfortunately, we are not able to experience and understand them from the very first moment; we need some time to grasp and familiarize with them.

When traveling to an unknown country, we carry our very own values and behaviour patterns with us, the ones of our native culture. Therefore, a culture shock is characterized by domestic culture and foreign culture colliding with each other. Three levels can be differentiated: On the one hand, the emotional level is affected – fear, confusion, disorientation as well as the wish to be somewhere else in the world in that moment make their presence felt. On the other hand, the cognitive level is also affected due to you believing that you are not able to interpret the unknown behaviour patterns properly for the sake of lacking intercultural competence. In a final step, the culture shock appears on a behavioural level which defines norms regarding communication, adequacy and capability.

The traveler does not only face challenges like learning a new language but also understanding common local values and morals and developing appropriate behaviour patterns: an adaption process is set to work.

Phases of cultural adaption

As part of adapting culture, you are integrated into an unknown culture step by step. It can be understood as a kind of emotional circle which is divided into four different phases. In the beginning there is euphoria in which the leaving person still is full of excitement and thirst for adventure after arrival and strives for taking in and handling new impressions. Senses run at full speed and negative impressions are blocked out so that most cultural differences are considered to be interesting, exotic or charming. The second phase – the so-called disillusionment – is scarred by incoming reality and the leaving person has to deal with growing feelings such as alienation and disorientation. Most common everyday processes seem to become complicated; frustration and irritation are a result of it. The following phase marks a positive or negative contact being maintained to the unknown culture. It depends on the interpretation of single experiences and taking appropriate steps in the averaging phase. A series of negative experiences causes a person to back off and build up prejudices against the host country. Feelings like homesickness, lacking confidence, solitude and insecurity are compounded. The fourth and last phase is marked by adaption and integration because they say nobody living abroad for a longer period gets around assimilating to a certain degree. Even someone avoiding contact for a long time is going to reestablish contact with their surroundings and will open up to the foreign culture.

Dealing with a culture shock properly

There is a bunch of certain broad rules which make integration way easier or which are able to bring it into a positive direction. Who once is aware of getting to know another culture in all its colours and ready to open up and accept its otherness, is going to deal with a culture shock easier.

The following recommendations help counteracting or overcoming a culture shock as fast as possible:

  • Collect broad information about the country and its culture!
  • Focus on positive things and experiences: why do I like being here?
  • Stop comparing host country and home country: it’s just different, not better or even worse!
  • Distance yourself from your own value system – boost your cultural competence.
  • Be active! – mentally, physically and socially.
  • Get in touch: find friends among locals.
  • Keep a certain sense for adventures: accept invitation from locals, visit new places or parks.
  • Try to learn or improve the foreign language – because communicating self-reliant makes you feel comfortable and confident.
  • Keep in touch with family and friends on a regular basis.

Last but not least, you should always remember that the familiarization process with a new culture happens step by step and not out of a sudden. That’s why you should exercise patience – both with yourself and others.

Sources

Exctract from script “Cross-Cultural Competencies” (Holger Siemons, University of Northampton, FH Aachen)

PDF “Orientation Manual 2016”

https://www.bve.ulaval.ca/en/international-students/living-in-quebec-city/culture-shock-and-adaptation/

http://www.wissen.de/problem-kulturschock/page/0/1

http://eurolog-project.eu/pdf/vortrag_gemeinhardt_deutsch.pdf

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