How to Take the Sting Out of Culture Shock
By Laurel Brown
One of the biggest fears about an overseas move
is culture shock. How do you get over a craving for a certain type of food? What will you do if you get lost and can't speak the language? Can anything help when you feel out of place but don't know why?
When faced with a new environment, just about everyone experiences some degree of culture shock, and the bouts of depression that can come with it. The key is to develop strategies to deal with it before you face it, especially if you are going overseas for a long time.
The first step to dealing with culture shock is to recognize it. You might be in a place where everybody speaks a different language. Maybe you're of a different ethnicity, or you just don't understand the local sense of humor. Culture shock can even be a recurring problem -- after years in a new situation, certain words and actions can still send you into a tailspin.
However, even when you view your travel as an exciting new adventure, culture shock can be extreme. Shelby Raiser, who traveled to Belize on a medical mission, was surprised to find that “they needed hugs and bars of soap more than they needed Western medicine.” When expectations and actual experience don't match up, culture shock is often the result.
Culture shock can also come from positive experiences. Keith Wynne, a young American starting work in Japan, was taken aback when he saw how willingly people went out of their way to help when he needed it. He was shocked by a level of kindness and openness unfamiliar to someone who had grown up in a large American city.
Culture shock does not have to be a bad thing, and recognizing it as such can help to deal with it. “Culture shock is a necessary part of adaptation, says Patricia Linderman, co-author of The Expert Expat: Your Guide to Successful Relocation Abroad
. If you do not feel culture shock at some point, she says, you are not adapting to your new situation.
How to deal with culture shock varies from person to person.
You might feel better if you can talk to another person who has had a similar experience. Find expats from your country and share “war stories.” Write or email others who have traveled – just knowing that others have survived culture shock can lessen the blow.
Alternatively, you might want to spend some time alone. Stay home and read a book, or exercise alone. You can also try to find a location that feels comfortable to you. Look for places like restaurants that serve familiar food, or movie theaters showing films from home.
But the longer-term fix is to learn about the culture that is “shocking” you. At the root of all culture shock is unfamiliarity. Once you begin to learn about a new culture and its people, the surprise begins to fade.
Linderman suggests that you “take things slowly, gradually venturing out to meet people and explore.” Try to make friends with native co-workers and acquaintances; read up on the history and traditions of your location; visit important local landmarks and destinations; try out different dishes and hope to find a new favorite among them.
Culture shock is an unavoidable part of an overseas relocation
. It is, however, also part of a successful transition to a new environment. If you work on ways to ease the severity and shorten the length of the culture shock, you will find that you begin to feel more comfortable.
Laurel Brown is the author of articles on health, diversity education, history, and astronomy. She has a background in international and outreach education, editing, and observational astronomy. She is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in the history of science.