Culture Shock: What is it and how can you best deal with it?

CultureShockCulture Shock: What is it and how can you best deal with it?

By Caitriona Rush

Global Living – Issue 13 | July/August 2014

What is Culture Shock?

People often joke about culture shock when they go on holidays or first move to a new country. However, culture shock is not a myth, it’s a foreseeable experience that occurs when a person is taken out of their home environment and placed elsewhere. The online Oxford Dictionary defines it as the ‘disorientation experienced when suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture or way of life’. It is a period of adjustment that often comes with phases of homesickness, alienation and frustration. At its simplest, culture shock is the inability to integrate.

In order to better understand the implications of culture shock, let’s first take a look at culture. Often, when we think of culture, it’s clothing, food, music, literature, architecture, etc. that come to mind. And while these can certainly define any society, culture goes a lot deeper than many of us first realize. It influences how we think, act, communicate, and how we view the world. Culture plays a huge role in determining what we see as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘good’ and bad’, ‘professional’ and ‘unprofessional’, ‘efficient’ and ‘inefficient’, etc. It determines to whom we show extra respect in society and whether we bring up our children to ‘speak when spoken to’ or to be part of the family and share their opinions. Living and working overseas is like playing a card game, except in this cultural game everyone is playing by different rules, and no one has a clue what rules the other players are playing by!

The Four Phases of Culture Shock 

Phase I: The Honeymoon Phase

You’ve just moved to your new country, everything is wonderful; you go exploring and are fascinated by what you see around you. It’s a little like being on holiday. The differences between your home and host culture are seen with excitement and wonder.

Symptoms Phase I: excitement, thrill, wonder, fascination.

Phase II: The Denial Phase

After a while, reality sets in; you get used to the outward differences, and they don’t excite you any more. You begin to notice the deeper differences: how people communicate (or don’t communicate) with you and each other, how society works, the values people have, etc. The differences between your home and host country become more and more evident and you may not always like what you see. You know you’ve hit the ‘I don’t like it here’ phase as excitement gives way to unpleasant feelings of frustration and anger, and everyday events seem offensive to your cultural beliefs.

Symptoms Phase II: anxiety, homesickness, hostility towards locals, depression, loneliness, frustration, anger.

Phase III: The Adjustment Phase

Slowly but surely you start to make sense of the new culture. You’ve reached the ‘I’m beginning to get the hang of it’ phase when you begin to understand a little more of your new environment and the reasons people act the way they do. You become more accepting of the differences, and better able to reconcile these differences both in your private and professional lives. You know what to expect; things become more ‘normal’ as the host culture starts making sense.

Symptoms Phase III: acceptance, less negativity, willingness to learn/be open, life more ‘normal’.

Phase IV: The Settled Phase

Finally you reach the ‘I’m actually quite happy here’ phase. You have a good understanding of the local culture and while you may not like all aspects of it (you’ll probably realize that there are aspects of your home culture which you also don’t like), you are able to resolve the differences. You are comfortable living in your host country, you know how to act, communicate, participate in society, etc.

Symptoms Phase IV: contentment, ability to reconcile differences, understanding.

Who is Affected by Culture Shock?

Almost all of us, when taken out of our home environment and placed elsewhere, will, to some extent, experience culture shock. Some get through it quicker than others and some have a lot more difficulty with it than others. And while some people get to Phase IV quite quickly, there are others who get stuck at Phase II and never move on. A lot of it comes down to your own attitude. If you hold to the belief that your values and your way of doing things are the ‘only’ way, the chances are you won’t be overly happy in your new environment, and you are less likely to be productive at work. On the other hand, if you are open-minded and willing to learn and accept that others are simply different, you may well have many ups and downs (especially in the beginning), but you are more likely to be content living overseas and more productive in the work environment.

5 Tips for Dealing with Culture Shock

  1. Accept that not everyone thinks the way you do or has the same values as you. We all have different ‘definitions’ of right/wrong and good/bad. The right way to behave in your society may not be the same as in your host country.
  2. Learn the language – if the language is different than your own, do your best to learn at least some of it. You’ll be amazed at how much more about the people and their culture you’ll understand by speaking the local language.
  3. Be curious; find out more about your host culture – why people act and communicate the way they do. Look for the real meaning behind their actions.
  4. Stop judging – we all have a tendency to judge others and evaluate their behavior. However, when we’re dealing with people from other cultures, we tend to evaluate them based on our own norms and values, ignoring the fact that their norms and values may well be very different. So hold off judging others until you understand the culture.

Get help! – If you’re finding it tough and don’t feel that you are making progress, do something about it. Having someone explain the local culture to you and demonstrate practical ways of reconciling cultural differences both in the workplace and outside can make a huge difference.

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