Dealing with Culture Shock

When people relocate to an other country, preparing for, or dealing with, culture shock is not usually the first thing on their mind. But as experienced as you may feel with traveling, settling down for a daily life abroad is as huge a leap of faith as moving from dating life to married life.

This analogy may surprise you, but like with dating, when you travel, anything that doesn’t appeal to you is short term. If you do not enjoy a place, a dish, an atmosphere, you can just easily step away. In full contrast, an expatriation implies a much higher level of commitment, one that binds you, and one where routine prevails.

Colourful urban jungle in Bangkok

Experiencing culture shock is not something you have much control over. It just happens, regardless of how many books you read, how much you learn the language. It happens regardless of your country of origin or destination, your education or the comfort of your new life. It is not necessarily an issue with your host country, but will invariably be linked to you and your country of origin, the way you grew up there, as this sets your default perception and standards.

So what is culture shock exactly? To give you a simplified definition, it is a feeling of disorientation, a set of strong and unsettling emotions that one may experience when encountering or being surrounded by unfamiliar cultures, attitudes, social standards, or contrasting lifestyles. It is, therefore, possible to have a culture shock in one’s own country, by changing location, social environment, integrating a new group. Culture shock can affect you when joining a new company or a new school, when moving from a large city to the countryside or vice versa. This sense of change is, of course, greatly heightened when moving to a foreign country, even more so in a country that is fundamentally different from yours.

Who wouldn’t dream to move to Australia? What sort of culture shock could someone expect there?

In the specific cases of expatriation and immigration, people face change at multiple levels: new home, modified family life/dynamic, different environment, often different climate, change of food, work place and work patterns. You can top this with the culture difference of the country of relocation: different life style, different social standards, different behaviours.

Once the excitement of the novelty fades slowly into a routine, and the reality of your new life sinks in, comes the moments of uncertainty and the phase of culture shock. The turning point can be a specific moment in time or an accumulation of small factors which, if taken individually, may seem fairly unimportant. It could appear after an encounter, a disagreement, the difficulty to overcome a daily complication (public transport). It may translate through various sets of emotions, anger, frustration, distrust. Among other things, sociologists associate the signs of culture shock with issues such as:

  • sleep problems
  • feeling of insecurity – including for minor problems
  • a struggle to resolve problems
  • spikes of irritability
  • obsession over minor things (smells, tastes, recurring attitudes)
  • an excessive urge to clean everything
  • loss or increase of appetite

Can culture shock be averted? At best, can it be minimised? The answer is a flat yes, but just like the major cause of the shock is within us, so are the solutions.

Blocks of buildings in one of China’s industrial cities

One’s own capacity to adjust, to find solutions, to distance ourselves or seek help and advice is key to making the adjustment smoother. At first, make sure to settle into a home as rapidly as possible. Play your favourite music, buy a plant or flowers, plug in your Xbox, fill your kitchen with food you like, display a few familiar objects that you packed in yowursuitcase or your air freight. You have plenty of time to adapt to your new host country, but no one said you had to adapt or taken it all in within just a few days. Developing a little evening ritual during the first few weeks, will bring comfort and help ground you. As weeks pass, this nest will slowly open to guests, you will invite new friends, cook for colleagues or neighbours.

During the first few weeks you may want to seek the company of other expatriates, as they will often relate to your problems, your doubts, and many will have already found some solutions and be able to bring you some support. Their experience will help you overcome certain cultural complications or help you bypass the ones that you may struggle to reconciliate with. A similar culture shock can affect people from different origins, while people coming from the same country as you may not necessarily relate to your emotions or your doubts.

Making local friends goes also a long way, just like having a language teacher who can in many small cases assist you and make some of your daily complications feel a little lighter. Making friends, in and from the country you have move to, is a turning point to adapt and integrate country and culture. A neighbour, a teacher, or someone met during a common activity (gym, class, children’s school)

Ultimately, cultivating a sense of humour and taking a step back (via a little holiday, or a trip to your home country) will go a long way in helping you resettle the balance.

What you need the most to combat culture shock, is a solid sense of humour, the capacity to start most things with a smile (as it is a universal sign, understood by all), and somehow manage to distance yourself from a lot of things happening to you, no matter how odd they may seem to you. And perhaps you should take a couple hours to watch Lost in Translation.

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