One Way to Survive Culture Shock

culture shock

You’ve spent two weeks in a new country and the honeymoon phase is over! You start to realize there is more to this place than the pretty scenery.  You are a little home-sick and cultural nuances are creating some questions and confusion – this is the Negotiation Stage of Culture Shock.

This can make or break your extended holiday or your transition toward a new life in a new country. Normally this stage lasts about six months, but I have encountered people who never adapt.

How for example, could you have possibly known that citizens of a certain culture are possessive once you befriend them? That due to your friendly, carefree, touristy personality, especially if you are Canadian – you are now under surveillance.

Your actions, comings and goings, are being monitored and scrutinized by your new friends’  friends, whom you’ve never met. That whispers about you and, “How you carry yourself“, are circumventing the place you are in like the script of a soap opera and you are the lead actor?

And what’s up with the seemingly cranky merchant who doesn’t make eye contact in Asia? How would you know this is actually a respectful gesture in their culture? How could you know that in some countries such as Bermuda, they rely heavily on lineage to determine a person’s likability or trustworthiness?

And that, if you choose to associate with a person who is not ‘link-able’ (has no ‘place’ in the cultural interpretation of the social scale) according to your Bermudian host, you may find your luggage outside on the step and the door locked when you try to return to your accommodations.

You may find, such as I did, you will be sleeping in the back yard on a lawn chair teaming with curious lizards and other night creatures, bags emptied, wearing all of your clothes on your body to keep warm; wondering what the hell you did to end up in such a way …

The best way to alleviate Culture Shock is to learn as much as you can about the place you intend to visit before you arrive. Read, read, ask questions and read some more.

And don’t just read news of the day, you must go even further and learn the history of it’s people.

1.Where did they originally come from?

2.How did they have to adapt?

3.What experiences may have shaped their ideals?

You will still experience The Negotiation Stage, but you will be better equipped to deal with it. Your coping skills will come from the knowledge you acquired pre-departure.

At this point, when depression, anger and frustration set in it is a good time to step back, observe and remember what your research taught you – because at this point, it will be the furthest thing from your mind.

I studied Socio-cultural Anthroplogy for this very reason. The premise of this social science is that by understanding others, we will understand ourselves, where we come from and how to amalgamate the two.

Culture shock is the bi-product of ethnocentric ideals. They are ingrained in us from birth and we are unaware of them until we immerse ourselves in a different culture for so long it starts to change the way we think about what we know. What is innate within our psyche, instilled by our own Culture. At this point, we begin to believe the way we live, think and do things is the correct and only way. We become Ethno or Ego-centric.

That is a problem that needs correcting to over-come your feelings. But how do you do it?

Myself, I keep a journal. Stress can lead to short term memory loss and I find writing about it puts it into a perspective that makes the transition much easier.

I use two pages, one with the things that are upsetting me and the other, how it differs from my Culture; because that is the foundation of the shock you are experiencing.

This method will help you remember the crucial things you have forgotten about your host country and it’s culture.

Here is an example:

1. Let’s say you are in a country where you discover monogamy is a façade. You have become smitten with a local but they’ve broke your heart by having relations with another person. Are they idiots? I guess they are if you compare them to your culture, but that is a highly unfair conclusion.

Perhaps historically, this person’s culture stems from one whose belief in monogamy would be harmful to their very survival. You need to consider this.

My advice to you is this. Grab a piece of paper. Remove yourself from distractions and keep your self there for however long it takes to develop a ‘comparable’ list.

Divide the paper in two. On one side write in point-form the issues you have a hard time dealing with. On the other, how it differs from home.

Now read this list.

1. Do you see any similarities? Take note of them. They are there, slightly different, but there are underlying similarities. You don’t see them yet? Continue the process, you will.

2. Now try to remember what you have learned about that Culture’s history. Close your eyes and try to imagine yourself in their shoes. Focus on one issue at a time and try to ‘feel’ how your life would be different, how you would think and act differently if you were they.

At this point you will realize they are who they are, because they are. It makes them no different, no better and no worse than yourself and your culture.

Religion is a prime example. Although there are many, they all have one underlying theme; A Supreme Being.

As you go through this process your subconscious will start to kick up historical facts that were hidden by the stressors. This is what you want to happen, because in your frustration your not able to dig them up on your own.

The result will be a new understanding and appreciation. This is your coping mechanism and at this point, you will move on to the next stages of Adjustment and finally Assimilation.

Pat yourself on the back, the most difficult thing to relinquish is control, and by doing that, you have just accepted that although we are different, we are truly the same; One no better than the other. You have also learned, something about yourself. Culture Shock is the greatest teacher!

And this is why we travel! 

Has culture shock ever interfered with your travel or relocation experience? How do you cope and what is your advice to fellow travelers?

Do let me know if this method was helpful to you!


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