When you travel, at one point or another you are bound to be hit with some uncomfortableness. Things around the world are vastly different. Religions are different. Languages are different. Clothing, gestures, food, societal norms; you name it. These are some of the joys of being able to travel. On the other hand, we can often find these differences to be shocking or distressing.
This shock and distress is defined as Culture Shock.
Culture shock is often experienced by travelers. It is the disorientation and uncomfortableness that people feel when they enter a new culture, and it’s very normal to experience. I know I have experienced it myself on multiple occasions.
Culture shock affects different people in different ways, but there are four phases of culture shock that most people endure:
Phase 1: Euphoria
You’re finally here! You’ve planned and researched and waited for the day when you finally arrived here! Everything is amazing and exotic and all your dreams are coming true. You take ALL the photos and enjoy all the must-see sights. Everything is awesome. This phase is also often called “The Honeymoon Phase”.
Phase 2: Frustration
Things start to go downhill. You begin to pin-point the differences between this culture and your home culture. You focus on those differences and they irritate you. You struggle with a different language. You can’t seem to remember proper etiquette. You are more easily offended by the differences in social interaction. Loneliness sets in as you struggle to communicate with your peers. You tire of eating local dishes and just really want a good burger. At this stage, generally you have difficulty sleeping and may experience some homesickness, fatigue, or other illness.
Phase 3: Adjustment
After some time, you begin to get used to the cultural differences. Things start to feel more normal, or at least less of a shock. You feel more and more comfortable in your new culture and as a result, you gain confidence. You can accept cultural differences for what they are and have adjusted so that you can view them in a less negative way.
Phase 4: Adaptation
You are now able to fully participate in your new culture. Things make sense to you and come to you naturally. This new culture feels more like home to you and your cultural anxiety has ceased. Congratulations!
Not everybody is able to make it from Phase 2 to Phase 3. Some people simply cannot make the adjustment and the stress forces them to withdraw and return home. There are a number of things you can do to help reduce the stresses of Phase 2 and fully adjust to your new culture.
Research Cultural Elements Before Arriving
Knowing some of the cultural differences ahead of time may help to reduce the shock factor. This way, your mind has time to prepare for taking in new things and they won’t seem so stressful. A simple Google search can help identify some of these differences. Or, speak with others who have experience traveling in that place for some pointers on what to expect.
Recognize What You’re Going Through
When you are familiar with culture shock and can identify the symptoms within yourself, you can more easily rationalize your reactions. You can step back from the situation and say “Hey, I know this is strange for you but you just have to give it time for it to feel less strange.” Recognize that you are going to go through all four phases and ready yourself for those coming frustrations.
Learn the Language
Learning the local language is key to pulling through that frustration phase. It will help you be able to communicate and develop relationships with others. It will make asking for directions so much easier. You won’t have those blank stare moments, as people try and speak you you in a foreign language. If you can begin the language learning before arriving, that is helpful. Be willing to practice the language with locals even if you’re afraid to look foolish. It’s the best way to learn!
Don’t Bash the New Culture
It can be easy to get so caught up in the differences that you convince yourself the new culture is inferior to your home culture. You may complain and roll your eyes. This will get you nowhere, except deeper in to that pit of frustration. If you do get caught up in a web of negativity, it’s important to recognize it and combat it. Brainstorm positive things and remember that what is different is not necessarily bad or wrong.
Practice Seeing From Other Perspectives
Having an open mind is key to adjusting to a new culture. You must be willing and able to rationalize things from different perspectives. This will help in understanding different cultural practices and beliefs. If you remain one-sided you will only increase the stress of experiencing a different culture.
Sometimes it can be really beneficial to confide your struggles with a peer or even a professional counselor. Being honest with your frustration and discussing them with others can help you release some of the stress and get input from others on how to adjust. Having that support from others is a really great tool for learning to adjust in a new culture.
Don’t Be Too Hard On Yourself
All in all, it’s important to not be so hard on yourself. Culture shock is a very normal thing to experience. It doesn’t make you a bad person to feel frustrated in a new culture. Try all these ways to help cope with culture shock, and it if turns out that you just can’t shake it, it’s okay to go home. Some people are not ready to handle these big challenges. Just don’t let it stop you from travelling. Take smaller steps and give yourself time.
Have you ever experienced culture shock? What did you do to deal with it?