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Culture shock

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Sometimes, after a few days or weeks in a new place, a traveller starts to feel stressed about the unfamiliar language and customs, irritated at the people and culture, homesick, and altogether in a bad mood. This is culture shock.

It's especially likely to happen if you're travelling for a longer period of time or to a place that's very different from where you're used to. An American travelling to English-speaking parts of Canada is not very likely get culture shock, but an American travelling to India likely will. But don't assume you're immune just because you're going to a country that you don't think is very different—sometimes people experience culture shock even when moving within their own country, which is especially jarring because it's so unexpected.

Long-term travellers may even experience a form of culture shock on returning home after adapting to another culture; various things that always seemed normal before will now seem strange. One study of alcoholism among American university faculty found that anthropology was the discipline with the most drunks, and attributed it to this sort of reverse culture shock.

Understand[edit]

When first arriving in a new culture, you'll probably have a "honeymoon" period, when the new culture seems fascinating and exciting. It may last for just a few days or for several weeks.

When the honeymoon phase ends, many travellers gradually start to feel some anxiety and stress about the cultural differences. The traveller continues to encounter misunderstandings and frustrating experiences because of their unfamiliarity with the customs, and the stress may be exacerbated by a language barrier and different standards for hygiene and infrastructure. Even if the traveller speaks the local language, aspects of communication like body language and politeness can cause misunderstandings and make it harder to make friends, which can lead to loneliness. As the stress of adapting to the new environment saps your energy, you may feel tired, impatient, or mildly ill.

Over time, you'll get used to the new culture, and culture shock should subside. This happens gradually, as you learn how things work and the culture starts to feel normal, and as you develop better strategies for dealing with unfamiliar or tricky situations. Naturally, this adaptation comes with gaining a deeper understanding of the place you're visiting—which for many people is a reason for travelling in the first place! In the meantime, you can also expect to question your beliefs and preconceptions and learn a lot about the culture you came from; in some ways, you can't truly understand your own culture until you've experienced a different one.

Symptoms[edit]

The following can be symptoms of culture shock:

  • Being overwhelmed by small problems
  • Boredom
  • Excessive sleep, eating, or drinking
  • Feeling overly shy, insecure, lonely, sad, or vulnerable
  • Headaches and other pains
  • Homesickness
  • Hostility or excessive criticism of the host culture and idealizing your home culture
  • Irritability, especially towards people from the host country
  • Obsession with health and cleanliness
  • Withdrawal and feelings of isolation or helplessness

Prepare[edit]

Before traveling to a new culture, learn about it. Read about the history, customs, conditions, languages, and whatever else you're interested in. Look for sources that go beyond surface-level descriptions of what's exotic and frustrating, and aim for a deeper understanding of the motivations and reasoning that underlie the more salient aspects of the culture. A thorough understanding of the culture may not be realistic when planning for a short trip, but it's definitely a good idea before an extended trip to study or live abroad. Of course, reading about a different culture can never fully prepare you for experiencing it, but even basic knowledge will make the transition easier.

Steer clear of sources that overexoticize the culture or focus too much on frustrations and difficulties. You don't want to arrive with negative preconceptions about the place you're visiting. And take anything you read with a grain of salt—every country on Earth contains diversity and is constantly changing, so what you read may or may not be up-to-date or accurate for your situation. Avoid overgeneralizing and keep an open mind.

Communication barriers are a big contributor to culture shock, so learn some of the language before you go. For a short trip that might just mean basic sentences from a phrasebook; for a longer sojourn you could consider taking a language class. If you haven't studied the language before, you probably won't reach fluency before you leave, but even basic competence helps. Focus on vocabulary and phrases that are relevant to you and your expected activities.

Attitude makes a difference. If you're motivated, positive, and excited about the destination, you're likely to adapt more easily. Another aspect is how "voluntary" your stay in a different country is. Political exiles - especially those wishing for a change to the causes of their exile any time now - often have a particularly hard time of it, but there are also expats on contracts of limited duration that they only took for the money or career advancement involved which place them into a country they hate or have negative preconceived notions about. The classic example would be the oil employee living in the Arab world who's only in it for the money and hates Islam and Arab culture.

Other factors that affect your risk of culture shock are age (younger is better), education (the higher the better), background (people from cities adapt better than people from the country), general health, and previous travel experience. But these are just general trends, and individual circumstances and personality (open-mindedness, flexibility, etc.) matter a lot too.

Cope[edit]

Be ready to recognize culture shock if it happens, and remind yourself that it is an emotional reaction you may not be able to control, and that it's normal and will probably be temporary.

Try to learn about how the culture works. Remember that it does make sense from the locals' perspective, and if you can understand the underlying logic, it'll make more sense to you too. Try to find someone, such as a local or experienced expat you can trust, who you can go to with questions about things you don't understand.

Be patient with yourself. When travelling, it's easy to feel like you need to fill every hour with new experiences and activities so that you're taking full advantage of the opportunity—but if you're feeling culture shock, overwhelming yourself will just make you more stressed out. Give yourself rest and privacy when you need it. And if it'll help you recharge to splurge once in a while on a nicer hotel or a meal at a restaurant that feels like home, don't sweat it. (See "rupees and whoopies" for more on this.)

On the flip side, don't retreat and withdraw from the host culture. Contact with people from back home can give you emotional support, but if you rely on them too much it can prolong your feelings of isolation. Even if you're feeling shy and out of place, force yourself to go out and become part of the community. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but it will get easier.

If you're going to be abroad for months or longer, make a support network, including other travellers who will understand what you're going through. But don't use them as a crutch to isolate yourself from the host country—doing so will make it take longer to adjust.

Ethnic enclaves and expat neighborhoods[edit]

People moving abroad sometimes make things easier on themselves by finding in an ethnic or cultural enclave of some kind to live in: an area like an expat neighborhood or in some cases a specially planned compound. You might be familiar with ethnic enclaves from back home—for instance, there are Chinatowns (Chinese enclaves) all over the world. Expat neighborhoods exist in many major cities, where residents can find food, housing, people, lifestyles, schools, and languages that are more like back home. Some of these enclaves are specifically designated by companies or governments for foreign staff; others develop over time, perhaps near a port or other center of international traffic. In these neighborhoods residents are shielded from many of the difficulties of culture shock.

But staying in an enclave comes at a price: it isolates you from the local culture. If you're living in an expat district, it's easy to become dependent on the comfort of familiar surroundings and never quite get around to learning the local language, getting to know the culture, and making friends in the broader community. There are people who've lived in a foreign country for years but still don't really understand the culture and can barely speak a few words of the language—sometimes this is because they're dependent on the enclave where they live.

For earnest travellers who really want to experience and get to know the culture of the country they're in, the wisest strategy is to avoid enclaves, except maybe as a treat once in a while. Living and spending your time in an enclave full of people from your country may ease the strain at first, but ultimately it slows down your adaptation and reduces your motivation to learn.

Return home[edit]

See also: Returning home

If you've been abroad for a long time (months or years), expect a certain amount of "reverse culture shock" (also known as re-entry shock) when you finally come back home. Not only will you have half-forgotten how some things work in your native country, things will also have changed since you left, which can be disorienting and jarring. You may find yourself wondering "Why can't we do it like in country X?" - just like you used to wonder "why don't they do it like in my country?" when you first went abroad.

Re-entry shock comes on sooner than culture shock (there's less of a honeymoon phase), lasts longer, and can be more severe. Travellers who had an easy time adjusting to the new culture sometimes have a particularly hard time readjusting to their native culture.

When returning home after living abroad, you've adapted to the new culture and lost some of your habits from your home culture. If you adapted easily the first time, you may be overconfident now. When you went abroad at first, people were probably patient and understanding, knowing that travellers in a new country need to adapt. People may not anticipate that patience and understanding are also necessary for travellers returning home.

Another problem is that your memory of home may not quite match reality. If you were gone for a long time, your country probably changed while you were away (currency reforms? Economic development? New trends or different laws?). You might also have idealized what home was like and forgotten or minimized some of your country's problems. Or you may see other problems that you wouldn't have noticed without the context of the foreign culture. This clarity and awareness of your own culture is ultimately a gift and huge benefit of having lived abroad, but when you first get back, it can be stressful and unpleasant. (On that note, don't be too hasty to share all your newfound insights with all your friends and family. You surely have a lot to share from your experience, but you don't want to come across as arrogant or offensive—the same concerns that apply when discussing cultural differences while you're visiting a foreign country.)

Be patient with yourself and with your country while you make the adjustment, and follow some of the same techniques for dealing with regular culture shock.

See also[edit]

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