Coping with Culture Shock

The concept of Culture Shock is nothing new. We've all heard the term, and perhaps even experienced its symptoms. No doubt, for hundreds of years humans have been subject to the phenomenon as they explored the globe and encountered new peoples. Imagine how Alexander the Great felt upon reaching India, Marco Polo's reaction when he arrived in China, or Sir Walter Raleigh's experience with the Native Americans when he disembarked at what is now North Carolina.

Since then, we have attained a much greater understanding of just what culture shock is, and isn't. It is more than just psychobabble, and has its roots in our physiology, in our bodies as much as our brains. As a result, even those who travel a lot are not immune to its disorienting effects.

Regular IM contributor Bill Drake has been fascinated by cultural studies and comparisons for many years, and has published volumes on the subject. Today he delves into the deeper meaning and causes of culture shock, to provide an understanding of what is behind the often-uncomfortable feelings.

What is Culture Shock?

Every time a person moves to a new environment - whether that environment is a new school, a new job, or a new culture - culture shock occurs. In fact, even people who have lived in many different countries still experience this phenomenon when they move to a new country, regardless of how confident and well-adjusted they may appear.

What is Culture Shock?

Culture shock is nothing mysterious. It occurs simply because your mind and body have to go through a period of both psychological and physiological adjustment when you move from a familiar environment to an unfamiliar one. The cues received by all of your senses suddenly change. During the day, your senses are bombarded with unfamiliar sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. Everything around you is different, from the language, gestures and rules to the interactions, demands, and expectations.

Even when you sleep in a new environment, your ears continue to receive sounds that your brain does not recognize ... your nose continues to detect unfamiliar odors ... and your dreams likely contain new and unfamiliar features and characters.

The cumulative effect of all of these stressors creates culture shock, and this period of adjustment lasts between six to twelve months for most people.

This initial period usually poses the greatest risk to personal and family security, since the wide range of unavoidable psychological stresses experienced can cloud and distort your perceptions of what is happening around you (as well as your decisions regarding how to respond). Far more people get in serious trouble overseas during their first six to twelve months than during any other time.

The Comfort of Home

In your home culture, everybody knows the rules. You know that if certain rules are broken, there are going to be certain consequences. Furthermore, you know how to deal with those consequences and how to make things right again. Even more important, these strategies work!

At home, you also know how to read and judge the state of mind of other people - you can tell whether they are upset, mad, angry, or potentially violent. You know the signs that are given off when a crowd turns from merely excited to potentially threatening. Depending on your level of alertness, you may or may not pick up on the situation, but if you do, you are probably able to see it for what it is and respond appropriately.

Such certainty gives you a sense of control and security in your home culture as you encounter a wide range of situations every day that contain the potential for misunderstanding or conflict. Whether you are driving to work, walking down the street, calling a customer, having lunch, or disagreeing with someone, if you and everyone around you didn't basically agree on how to make things right when rules are broken, then society would descend into chaos. But because everyone is basically "on the same page," most potential conflicts can be avoided or managed without major damage - as long as that is the intent of all parties...

Unknown Territories

One of the first things that will become clear shortly after your arrival in your new overseas home is that there are many new rules, and you probably don't understand any of them. This realization can create anxiety at deep levels, and can lead to some rather predictable behavior in the newcomer.

For example, since you don't know how to get people to do what you want them to do, you may very well resort to the excessive politeness of the typical tourist, thanking everybody profusely for minor courtesies and chatting brightly with anyone who speaks to you. This basic appeal of innocence, which translates roughly as, "Please like me and help me, or at least don't hurt me or make fun of me or take advantage of me!" is, of course, immediately recognized anywhere in the world for what it is - helplessness and vulnerability.

Instead, be friendly and don't reject offers of friendship, but rather, step back and ask yourself whether or not this person has a legitimate reason for liking you. The first people who approach a newcomer offering friendship are, sad experience reveals, not likely to be the people who you will want to have as friends in the long run.

Sooner or later, you will start learning the rules that govern behavior in your new home. Then the problem becomes that the people around you who know all the rules - especially the "unspoken rules" - are generally not capable of articulating them (which of course is why they are called unspoken rules!). Sometimes, you have to be pretty creative to extract basic critical information, such as why it is important that things be done a certain way, or at one time and not at another.

Adjusting to life in another culture can be difficult, but it is possible for the person who is prepared and knows how to deal with the psychological processes that accompany culture shock. Here's a couple of tips to help make the transition go more smoothly: During your 'honeymoon' when everything and everyone is delightful and new (which lasts about the first two months), avoid making any long-term commitments. Next, have a nice vacation planned (and paid for in advance) for the 6-8 month time frame, because that's when you're going to be feeling alienated and out-of-place. You'll need a vacation to recharge your batteries, but you'll only take one if it's already been paid for! And with that, Bon Voyage!

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