Culture shock is very real and most people will experience it after relocation or immigration. However, it’s not all bad news. This article explores five ways in which you can use culture shock to improve yourself.
It is a common misconception that extensive travel can prevent culture shock. Even ardent travellers that have visited all six inhabited continents experience some form of culture shock.
It can be dreaded, or you can use culture shock to improve yourself. Let’s find out how by discussing its nature and ways to deal with it.
What exactly is culture shock?
A number of aspects in the description need elaboration; these are marked in bold.
“Culture shock is a natural state of psychological and physical disorientation. This experience is the result of moving from a familiar to the unfamiliar cultural environment, due to relocation or immigration.”
The fact that it is a natural state is obviously good news. You do not have to be concerned that it implies an underlying problem or illness.
Keeping in mind that culture shock is psychological and/or physical disorientation will help you appreciate the complexity thereof. The crux of the experience is the movement from a familiar to unfamiliar cultural environment. If you have travelled extensively, the difference between your home and host environments will be less significant. However, spare a thought for people with little or no travel experience, who immigrates to a vastly different cultural environment! You can just imagine the potential impact it can have.
Apart from the cultural aspect, the level of economic development of a country can also play a role. Relocating from a developed country (for example Sweden) to one of the least developed countries (for example Niger) will inevitably test your ability to adapt to different surroundings.
A culture shock experience is not only applicable to immigrants. Expats, even those on short-term assignments, are equally prone to its impact.
What are the main factors causing culture shock?
Different things affect people differently. This means the list of factors causing culture shock is potentially endless.
Through research, our own experience and talking to many expats, I want to highlight five factors that potentially cause 80% of the culture shock experience.
- Language. This seems to be the number one culprit. Being surrounded by a foreign language or trying to look for something familiar or a menu can be daunting! Not to mention getting through bureaucratic processes in a foreign language. It can be downright tiring!
- Religion. The impact will depend on your religious viewpoint as well as your level of tolerance towards other religions, or lack of religion.
- Social behaviour. This includes the host nation’s values, customs, general etiquette and mannerism. These can be a minefield to navigate, especially when you are unprepared.
- Climate. Expats normally joke: “There is no in-between, you will either love it or hate it.” Suffice to say that climate has a bigger effect on your psyche than you would expect.
- Infrastructure. The important aspects include the quality of the roads, the intensity of traffic, public and private transport and sanitation. Each individual aspect, as well as any combination of them, can have a serious effect on our state of mind while trying to settle in a new country.
Food is a peculiar one. For every one that mentions food as part of the culture shock experience, someone will claim it is a mitigating factor. A sort of haven amongst the chaos.
Can culture shock be prevented?
There is no true way to prevent culture shock as individuals differ and react to their new environment in different ways.
Information is crucial to tone down common culture shock experiences, and the best way to achieve this is by reading, lots! As the old saying goes: “forewarned is forearmed.”
Second to knowledge is managing your expectations. Find people with first-hand knowledge of the host country and spend time with them. Even a telephone call or email exchange will help you to get another person’s interpretation of the cultural environment that awaits you.
Don’t be “fresh off the boat”
The phrase fresh off the boat originated at a time when most immigrants arrived in their host country by ship. Locals use it to describe an immigrant who has yet to assimilate in the new culture, sometimes at their annoyance. For some, the expression is derogatory.
My warning has two sides to it. Firstly, it goes back to having the necessary information about the culture that awaits you. There is no excuse for not taking the time to research and read up on your host country.
Secondly, do not be arrogant and ignore some aspects because they seem unimportant. What you may consider as trivial, might be culturally significant to your hosts.
Use culture shock to improve yourself
Here are five ways to overcome culture shock, each a valuable self-improvement tool.
#1 Manage your thought process
Understand that the feeling of disorientation is normal. Manage your thoughts and do not overthink a situation. Learn to live in the moment, and to observe your feelings from a distance.
Remember, you cannot dictate what happens to you, but you can decide how to react to it.
#2 Engage in the culture
One of the best ways to overcome culture shock is to engage in that very culture.
Go out as often as you can, even if it is just walking the streets and appreciating the differences as compared to home. Learn to observe and to respect the customs and mannerisms of your hosts.
Whenever you meet someone that is fluent in your home language, ask about an aspect that bothers or interests you. Apart from the answer, and new knowledge, that interaction is valuable.
#3 Contribute to society
There is always a cause in need of support. If you cannot support financially, support with your time and effort. Ask other expats or look for social media groups to find charitable causes near you.
#4 Learn a new sport or hobby
By learning a new sport or hobby, especially something that is native or has been on your bucket list all along, you will create good memories and an emotional link with your host country.
#5 Learn the language
Speaking the local lingo, even at the most basic level, changes your cultural experience for the better, in many ways. The effort is well worth it!
As a parting thought, don’t fret about the mistakes you have made during your early days in a new culture. It is all personal growth, albeit a bit awkward sometimes!
“There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar: it keeps the mind nimble, it kills prejudice, and it fosters humor” – George Santayana
I would like to have your thoughts about using culture shock to improve yourself. Can you share an example?
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