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.

Relationships: When Cultures Clash

Every person is a cultural being.  And therefore, we each bring our own story, family history, and cultural background into our relationships.  Unlike 20 or 30 years ago, in today's globalized world, we are more likely to interact, make friends, and fall in love with people from cultures other than our own.

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Whereas intercultural romantic relationships, like any romantic relationship, are based on mutual love, respect, openness, and sincerity, they also present with unique challenges that may only become apparent after the initial honeymoon period has passed.   Common challenges faced by intercultural couples are differences in family culture and expectations, religious and political differences, language barriers, and decisions around cultural practices, such as how to celebrate holidays and eating habits.  Down the road, these challenges may also play a role when the question of how to raise children may arise.

Other unique challenges and decisions faced by intercultural couples are:

o Response to stress & conflict

o Response to illness

o Sexual behavior

o Values

o Place of residence

o Friends and interpersonal relationships

o Finances

o Cultural and society’s acceptance of the relationship

o Parental/family approval

o Gender roles

o Cohesiveness of family

o Emotional expressiveness

Factors For Success

Facing all these challenges together as a couple takes much energy, patience, acceptance, and most importantly, the willingness to "go back to the drawing board" as often as necessary.  A first important step is to identify which cultural differences may cause stress and conflict in the relationship.  In this process, it's important not to make any assumptions about the other's standpoint.  Remember, differences are merely differences - they are neither good nor bad.  They are honest expressions of personal and cultural values.

As humans, we assume too quickly, and can accomplish much more if we are curious about each other.  Also, don't assume that understanding each other better necessarily means agreeing with each other.  Living with cultural differences takes constant work.

For additional relationship advice, see these blog entries:

Improving Relationships Through Vulnerability

Managing Expectations In Relationships

Are You In An Abusive Relationship?

I am a Houston psychologist who specializes in working with intercultural couples.