What is Culture Shock? How Do I Cope?

Our big beautiful planet is becoming smaller and more accessible.  And it provides lots of exciting opportunities for personal and professional growth.  Besides travel, more and more people spend extended time abroad on work, study, language-immersion, and volunteer-related activities.  Both short and extended stays in another culture come with certain challenges, including culture and reverse culture (re-entry) shock, which can afflict newbies and seasoned expats alike. 

Culture shock is defined as the emotional reaction to living, studying, or working in a new culture.  It is often described as feeling a lack of grounding after losing familiar signs and symbols of the daily life that we're used to.  There are the obvious adjustments - such as a different language, climate, and food.  But what makes culture shock often so tricky is an accumulation of several smaller losses, such as different accessibility of goods, services, and comforts, and new norms for social interactions.  All this can take an emotional toll.  Subtle cultural difference also should not be underestimated (eg, the US vs. Canada), because they can have a cumulative effect. 

People who experience culture shock often report the following:

  • Homesickness
  • Boredom
  • Withdrawing from other people
  • Sleep Disturbance
  • Frequent Crying and Sadness
  • Irritability, having a shorter fuse
  • Increased focus on ordering and cleaning one's immediate environment
  • Aches and pains, feeling sick 

For most people, culture shock resolves after a few days or weeks as the mind and body adapt to the new conditions.  For those struggling longer, or those who'd like to help themselves along in the adjustment process, here are some tried and true strategies:

  • Make new friends, share your thoughts and ideas with others. Meet locals and ask them about their culture. It’s normal to feel shy when meeting new people, but with practice you will be more relaxed. Remember that lasting friendships develop gradually, if you keep trying.
  • Read and learn about the new culture with an open mind.  Openness and learning are important skills that help people adapt to their environment.
  • Keep active and be curious about your new surroundings. Stake out museums, theaters, restaurants, and neighborhoods. 
  • Look for opportunities to participate in community activities. For example, join a sports team or volunteer group.  Joining others with similar interests helps with social adjustment around the globe, regardless of language or background.
  • Keep working on language skills (if applicable) 
  • Keep a sense of humor. A sense of humor is important because in another culture there are many things which lead one to weep, get angry, be annoyed, embarrassed, or discouraged. The ability to laugh off things will help guard against despair.  Everyone makes mistakes in a new situation, and it's part of adapting and learning.
  • The ability to respond to or tolerate the ambiguity of new situations is very important to intercultural success. Keeping options open and judgmental behavior to a minimum describes an adaptable or flexible person.
  • Keep your expectations realistic and positive.
  • Be patient with yourself and take care of yourself.
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Living and learning in a new culture which may have different beliefs and values can be difficult. During this process, it is important to be in contact with the new culture. Yet, it is also important to take your time in this process of learning and adapting.  There is some evidence that participation in more than one culture can actually lead to healthy adjustment. When we learn other ways to think and behave, we can develop adaptive strengths and flexibility, which can help in daily life.

If adapting to a new culture takes longer than expected, or if culture shock is interfering with your daily ability to work, study, and socialize, consider consulting with a licensed mental health professional.

Third Culture Kids

A home away from home.  Caught between cultures.  A foreigner in your own land.  These phrases all describe the experience of a third culture kid.  The term "third-culture kids" refers to children who spend a significant amount of developmental or formative time outside their (parents') home culture.  Children of military, missionaries, or other expats are good examples.  This results in an interesting phenomenon - these children, caught between two cultures, create a culture of their own.  

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Spending one's formative years in another country means that third culture kids internalize that country's customs, culture, and language, while also retaining their home culture and language.  At the same time, however, they are perceived as foreigners in their host country.  They create a "third culture" to deal with this tension.  This usually means spending lots of time with others who experience the same situation - usually other third culture individuals, who can bond around the same shared experience.  Often, third culture kids have multiple stays abroad, at times in multiple countries, therefore repeating this process over and over again.

Here are some interesting positive trends observed in Third Culture Kids:

  • They usually do well academically (40% have postgraduate degrees or doctorates) and usually grow into successful professionals.
  • They adapt to new situations quickly and are skilled at navigating culturally diverse social situations.  
  • They develop excellent communication and diplomatic skills, and pick up new languages quickly.
  • They have good self-confidence.

Some challenges faced by Third Culture Kids are:

  • They may have difficulty immersing themselves completely in the host culture.  As adults, they may often feel like perpetual outsiders, regardless of their environment.
  • Making new friends and saying goodbye becomes routine, often creating an out-of-sight-out-of-mind attitude.  It can be hard to maintain close friendships and relationships.
  • Returning to one's home country after many years can lead to "reverse culture shock".  Third culture individuals are expected to remember how to behave at home, which can be hard when you've internalized other cultures.  Peers in the home country have moved on within their own cultural customs.  This, too, can lead to feeling like an outsider.
  • For the third culture kid, the home country can prove to be more foreign than previous host countries, and many of them create and retain their own, separate identity as a third culture person.  Many move abroad again as adults, and will work and raise their family in a foreign country.

Support for third culture kids is crucial.  Their adjustment usually depends on their personality, the duration of the stay abroad, their age, the parent-child relationship, family support and circumstances, and parents' attitude.  Giving third culture kids a sense of stability and consistency is important.  Parents should encourage safe and supportive dialogue around cultural and social issues.  Parents are also encouraged to support safe immersion in the host culture and promote learning of the host language(s), and interaction with locals.  And when returning home, parents should expect their children to experience reverse culture shock, and be supportive and available in this process.  Finally, parents of third culture kids may need to get their own outside support to help cope with these challenges.

Resources for Third Culture Kids:

TCK World

Denizen Online Magazine

Book:  

Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds