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Culture Shock!

Culture Shock! 

This phrase is thrown around often enough and that has been the case for years on end.  Culture shock is the feeling of disorientation that a person may develop when they enter into a culture that isn’t similar to their own.  The further away from their own culture, the more severe the case of culture shock might be. In short, they are shocked by the things they see in the new culture that they’re encountering.  Culture shock is said to consist of 4 phases.  

The Honeymoon Period

During this phase, the traveler is enamored with the new culture that they have entered.  They are thrilled to try new food, traditional clothing attracts their attention, the sound of a different language is exotic, the people are different.  It’s a new experience for a person who’s traveling and they’re taking it all in. However, if they stay long enough, the traveler may find him or herself transitioning to the second phase of culture shock.  

Frustration

As the name says, the traveler now suffers from frustration.  The language that was so exotic becomes an annoyance. It’s difficult to communicate, and who knows, the locals might very well be making fun of the poor traveler.  The food is too spicy (or too bland, or too sweet). There aren’t any “regular” clothes. People don’t honor their commitments, others are too fastidious when it comes to time. Travelers lament “why can’t these people just be normal???”  There’s a lot of anger, irritation, and the traveler may wonder why they are still in the country. Given enough time, the traveler (if he or she is lucky) may move on to the next phase of culture shock.  

Adjustment

When the traveler adjusts, they become used to the way of life in the new country.  They might make friends, learn the language (even if only passingly), and start to have an active life.  It may become easier for them to find the things that they need (like “regular” clothes) and they may start to feel comfortable in the place they’re currently living in.  

Adaptation or acceptance

At this point, the traveler has absorbed the culture and might even be a part of the culture.  They rarely question why people do things the way they do or why things aren’t “normal” like they are at home.  In fact, for some travelers, this place that caused them so much grief, confusion, and shock might become their home while their original home becomes a little more foreign to them day after day.  Now, they’ve become fully immersed in the society and they can function in it nearly as well as a local (some even become more local than the locals).  

Is Culture Shock Necessary?

The idea of experiencing culture shock when traveling has been around for ages and it was a guaranteed part of the traveling experience in the past.  When communications between countries (and even villages) was limited, there weren’t many ways for a person to know what to expect when going abroad except by word of mouth and maybe through reading.  However, with globalization and mass communication that reaches every corner of the Earth in this day and age, is it really necessary for culture shock to occur? Is it possible for travelers (or even expats and immigrants) to prepare themselves for traveling beforehand so thoroughly that they don’t experience culture shock or that the experience is at the absolute minimum?  This is an idea to think about and one that we’ll revisit a little bit later.  

Is Culture Shock a Bad Thing?

Often when people talk about culture shock, there is the idea that it’s not necessarily a good thing.  Culture shock is to be expected, but it has to be overcome in order to truly enjoy one’s experience in a new land, so they imply.  Becoming disoriented, frustrated, and feeling lonely are definitely not good things, but culture shock doesn’t have to be that way and it doesn’t have to be a bad thing either.  If anything, a traveler can reorient his or her mindset and accept culture shock (if it happens) as just another part of the traveling experience. Just as they might expect to eat different foods, take different modes of transportation, and watch different kinds of television shows, the traveler can just as easily expect to deal with the highs and lows of being in a different culture and embrace the experience just as that; not as a good or a bad thing, but just as an experience.    

Preventing Culture Shock

If, on the other hand, we look at culture shock as a jarring experience for a person, is there a way to prevent it from happening altogether?  In the past, it may have been a next to impossible task. Nowadays, the situation is entirely different and I think culture shock can be completely eliminated, or at least mostly eliminated.  Unless a trip is unplanned and happens suddenly, any person who is traveling can easily acclimate themselves to a new cultural environment before even purchasing their plane tickets. Nowadays, we can watch an endless amount of videos on YouTube or other sites and see the people of a culture, their regular routines, their norms, and so forth.  We can meet people online and have language or cultural exchanges with them. We can read forums on traveler websites about what it’s like to go around in the country, how transportation is, what the negative sides of the society are, and more. For the majority of the places in the world, we can get a wealth of information about what to expect and how to prepare for it beforehand.  This is not to say that doing all of this work will totally erase the disorientation and stress that a foreigner might feel from being in a different society. However, once something is expected, the occurrence might not be as harsh as it would have been had it occurred unexpectedly. In short, the more preparations and precautions a person takes, the less likely they are to deal with culture shock.  This is especially the case with a person who has an adaptable nature and is able to go with the flow. Knowledge plus flexibility goes a long way.  

Final thoughts

Traveling can be a wonderful thing.  Culture shock does occur, but it doesn’t have to be a given.  Learn a bit of the language, know what to expect of the people, get some idea of what is considered normal, read “official” information from the big magazines and sites coupled with the experience of visitors from traveler sites and blogs and your shock is sure to be minimized (in most cases anyway).  

Have you ever dealt with culture shock before?  Was it an acute case or mild? Did you go through all four stages, or did you leave halfway through?  Let’s hear your stories in the comment section below!  

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2 Comments on “Culture Shock!

  1. I enjoyed this read. Thanks. I think culture shock is more the case when people move to another country – it affects people in different ways so there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. I suffered from it badly but you are right – there is so much information out there these days! Learning a language is important and helps with settling in as does finding groups of like minded people. However, if you are looking to work in another country and can’t find work because of different qualification requirements or language skills, you will go through proper culture shock!

    • If you’re in another country and can’t find work, culture shock will be only one of many things you’ll have to deal with. I totally agree with that. You’re right in saying that there isn’t a one size fits all solution, so it’s good to let people know that there might be ways to deal with culture shock especially those who are traveling for the first time or who are infrequent travelers. Your comment made me wonder about airline employees and whether or not they become numb to culture shock. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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