Tips on handling culture shock
Culture shock does not imply a serious mental condition, but rather a more long tern psychological stress.
In 1958 Kalvero Oberg first identified five distinct stages of culture shock. He found that all human beings experience the same feelings when they travel to or live in a different country or culture. He found that culture shock is almost like a disease: it has a cause, symptoms, and a cure. Culture shock describes the anxiety produced when a person moves to a completely new environment. This term expresses the lack of direction, the feeling of not knowing what to do or how to do things in a new environment, and not knowing what is appropriate or inappropriate. The onset can vary from a few weeks to months after coming to a new place.
Whenever someone travels overseas they are like "a fish out of water." In general we do not think too much about the culture we are raised in. Our culture helps to shape our identity. Many of the cues of interpersonal communication (body language, words, facial expressions, tone of voice, idioms, slang) are different in different cultures. When we enter a new culture we do not know all of the cues that are used in the new culture. Everything is different, for example, not speaking the language, not knowing how to use banking machines, not knowing how to use the telephone and so forth.
It is important to understand that culture shock happens to all people who travel abroad, but some people have much stronger reactions than others.
Symptoms are very similar to the those of depression:
- Sadness, loneliness, melancholy
- Preoccupation with health – multiple system complaints.
- Insomnia, desire to sleep too much or too little.
- Changes in temperament, feeling vulnerable-powerless
- Anger, irritability, resentment, unwillingness to interact with others
- Identifying with the old culture or idealizing the old country
- Loss of identity. Feelings of inadequacy or insecurity
- Trying too hard to absorb everything in the new culture or country
- Unable to solve simple problems
- Lack of confidence
- Developing stereotypes about the new culture
- Developing obsessions such as over-cleanliness
- Longing for family
- Feelings of being lost, overlooked, exploited or abused
Stages of Culture Shock
Psychologists describe five distinct phases (or stages) of culture shock.
1. Tourist or Honeymoon Phase
At first a person's stay in a new country, everything usually goes fairly smoothly. This period could last 6 months or longer. The newcomer is excited about being in a new place and experiencing a new lifestyle. The newcomer may have some problems, but usually accepts them as just part of the newness. The newcomer may find that "the red carpet" has been rolled out for him or her. The feeling is the same for developing and highly developed countries.
2. Emptiness or Rejection Phease
The newcomer has to deal with transportation problems (buses that don't come on time), shopping problems (can't buy favorite foods) or communication problems. One may start to seem like people no longer care about your problems. They may help, but they don't seem to understand your concern over what they see as small problems. You might even start to think that the people in the host country don't like foreigners and are becoming alien.
The symptoms listed above start to present themselves in full force. The newcomer may begin to feel aggressive and start to complain about the host culture/country. However, it is important to recognize that these feelings are real and can become serious. This phase is a kind of crisis in the 'disease' of culture shock. It is called the "rejection" phase because it is at this point that the newcomer starts to reject the host country, complaining about and noticing only the bad things that bother them. At this stage the newcomer may either move on to the third stage, seek comfort with a colony of countrymen “Colony Syndrome” or simply go home.
3. The Conformist Phase
The Conformist Phase is characterized by gaining some understanding of the new culture, it’s ideals and values. A new feeling of pleasure and sense of humor may be experienced. One may start to feel a certain psychological balance. The crisis is over when one starts understand and tolerate cultural differences. The new arrival may not feel as lost and starts to have a feeling of direction.
The newcomer is now 90% adjusted to the new culture.
4. Assimilation Phase or Complete Adjustment
In this stage we accept the food, drinks, habits and customs of the host country, and may even find some things preferable in the host country to things at home. One realizes that there are different ways to live and that no way is really better than another, just different. Finally, the expat has become comfortable in the new place. Upon the final return home the traveler will miss the country and cherish the memories forever.
It is important to remember that not everyone experiences all the phases of culture shock. It is also important to know that you can experience all of them at different times: you might experience the regression phase before the rejection phase, etc. You might even experience the regression phase on Monday, the conformist phase on Tuesday, the honeymoon phase on Wednesday, and the rejection phase again on Thursday. "What will Friday be like?"
Minimizing Culture Shock
The majority of individuals and families that immigrate from other countries have the ability to positively confront the obstacles of a new environment. Some ways to combat stress produced by culture shock are:
- When deciding to go live overseas make the decision to move as a group. Is the family stable and strong enough?
- Learn about the new culture through books-brochures – embassy visits-videos-meetings with someone who has been to the country- trying authentic foods- language classes.
- Approach the move with a good attitude. Maximize the good aspects of the new culture-language-. Don’t compare-criticize-complain.
- Settle down - unpack – and set up house ASAP. Avoid long stays in hotels while waiting for your permanent housing. Find a house that will fit your lifestyle. Act as if your are settling down for life.
- Be open to new ways.
- Develop a hobby.
- Learn the language or local ethnic cooking
- Be patient. The act of immigrating is a process of adaptation to new situations. It is going to take time
- Learn to be constructive. If you encounter an unfavorable environment, don't put yourself in that position again. Be easy on yourself. Learn to include a regular form of physical activity and time to relax in your routine.
- Maintain contact with your ethnic group- Newspapers-magazine- TV -email-phoning This will give you a feeling of belonging and you will reduce your feelings of homesickness.
- Increase contact with the new culture. Volunteer in community activities that allow you to practice the language that you are learning.
- Allow yourself to feel sad about the things that you have left behind: your family, your friends, etc.
- Pay attention to relationships with your family and at work. They will serve as support for you in difficult times.
- Find ways to live with the things that don't satisfy you 100%.
- If you feel stressed, look for help. There is always someone or some service available to help you.
Reverse Culture Shock
One may find them self returning to his or her homeland only to experience the fifth phase of culture shock. This is called "reverse culture shock" or "re-entry shock" and occurs when returning home. The traveler may have been away for a long time and become comfortable with the habits and customs of a new lifestyle and may find that they are no longer completely comfortable in the home country. Many things may have changed and it may take a little while to become at ease with the cues and signs and symbols of the home culture.
Most returning expatriates have a fairly rough time before settling at home again:
- A changed social and cultural lifestyle
- A changed economy
- Job shock or job shrink
- Problem with housing
- Problem with children’s education
- The accompanying spouse's readjustment
You may find that you are much more worldly and open minded, compared to your compatriots.
You may feel unappreciated and unwanted at work.
You may feel that your countrymen are spoiled – materialistic- wasteful.
Re-entry shock can be minimized by understanding one’s reaction and approaching re-entry with a positive attitude. With perseverance the stage of irritation-anger-hopelessness –wanting to go back – will resolve itself and lead to full re integration However you will have a new perspective and outlook. Your international life will have changed you for ever.