What is culture shock?
Culture shock is the reaction one faces when confronted with a new cultural environment; the effect of going from culture into another. By the time you begin orienting yourself, you could be experiencing the first signs of culture shock.
There are four states of culture shock:
This is the initial state of culture shock, which tends to blend in with the highs of planning a trip and starting off on an adventure. Like a new love, we tend to overlook some of the host country's short-comings and delight in all the new pleasures of being abroad. A quaint 3-hour walk to the closest market and source of food is a quaint representation of how to enjoy the simple things of life. Enjoy this initial state but prepare for a come down.
A growing amount of anxiety can develop during which the traveller may feel helpless. The difficulties of living abroad, such as language barriers, absence of social cues and familiar geographic references can come to the surface. This can develop into frustration, anger and sleeplessness. Not knowing where and when to cross the street or even how to find your way back to the market can result in a physical discomfort.
Rejection of the new culture:
This is where that once quaint 3-hour walk becomes an unbearable nuisance. You find yourself thing in terms of things being 'wrong' and 'backwards'. Commonly travellers in this stage start to withdraw themselves from the local community preferring to surround themselves with other foreigners. Beware the 3 am impulse to suddenly call a family member or friend back home.
With a it of luck and advanced preparation, one enters the adjusted stage. At this point you can recognize some of the perceived shortcomings of your host culture without rejecting everything. The 3-hour walk becomes just that; a necessary inconvenience.
Preparing for Culture Shock:
The first step in preparing for culture shock is just knowing what it is. While travelling, remember to look for signs (sleeplessness, anxiety, frustration, anger) and take it serious.
There are other ways in which you can prepare:
Know the host culture. Being familiar with the cultural and social nuances of a host country is essential. Before travelling to a country, you should try to gain as much knowledge about the country as possible.
- What are the geographical conditions? What are the weather patterns? What seasons will you experience during your travel?
- What is/ are the spoken languages? Learn some simple phrases such s "hello" and "thank you".
- What is the current political situation Are there any dangerous areas that you should avoid?
- Do Canadians/ foreigners have a good/ bad reputation in the area that you will be staying in? What are the reasons?
- What is customary dining etiquette? Greeting etiquette? Etiquette surrounding business?
- What are the norms of male/female relations?
- What is the cultural perspective on privacy? Personal space?
- What is the accepted form of dress? What is appropriate for casual/formal situations?
- Are their any religious customs that you should be aware of?
- When are the national, local holidays? What are the significance of these days?
- Are there special rituals, customs to observe when entering government buildings? Places of worship?
- The more familiar you are with your host country, the quicker you will be able to adapt. Rather then spending time overseas learning these answers you will be able to put them to practice immediately.
International Awareness: More important then ever, while travelling one should have knowledge of the world abroad. Before leaving, take time out to explore world news and geography. Knowing a little about a lot will provide the basis for meeting other international travellers and help give you a better global perspective on things.
Cross Cultural Communication Skills: Explore new cultures and communities at home. This will not only serve to teach you about other cultures but will also assist you in developing new communication skills. Consider how it is not to speak (or speak very well) the used language, or not to understand simple social cues such as non-verbal communication.
Cultural Sensitivity: Quite often you will encounter things or ways of doing things that will seem confusing or down right wrong. It is important to keep an open mind to the experience and not to immediately place value on what you are observing. Remember that you're there to learn about a new culture and making quick judgments will close yourself off from that opportunity. It is also useful to develop a cultural curiosity. What better way to people watch then while being held up in a 4 hour bank line!
How do I minimize the effects?
While it is expected that all travellers will have to go through some form of cultural shock, there are ways of helping to minimize the effects and duration.
Prepare, Prepare and Prepare: The more prepared mentally and physically you are, the better suited you are to combat culture shock. Try packing the right items from home, being careful not to overwhelm yourself with too many things to carry (or things better suited if purchased in the host country). Bring a photo. Remind friends and family of the importance of writing and keeping in touch. Most of all, it is important to be familiar with as many customs and cultural trends as possible. The more familiar you are with the host country the less strange or shocking it will appear.
Being Open to the Experience: Try to recognize culture shock as part of the travelling adventure. By recognizing it, you can see through some of the emotional states that culture shock puts you through and also relieve some stress. Know that given time, you will reach the adjustment stage.
Culture shock does not need to be seen as a bad thing. Consider the fact that you having adjustment difficulties is the effect of the fact that you are truly entering into a new culture. The more one dives into the culture (versus skimming it as some tourists can do), the stronger the cultural differences will effect you.
Keep Mentally and Physically Fit: Observing a healthy lifestyle is important to combat some of the physical and mental strains of travelling. Try not to cut budget costs by eating fast food all the time. Rather cut costs by cooking for yourself at home. Try to take time out for yourself. Exercise. Read a book.
And if it doesn't work?
Recognizing what works for you is an important part of the adventure. Emerging into a new culture is not for everyone. If you are still interested in travelling abroad when you arrive back home, try getting involved with the ISC or another International Association and develop your cross cultural skills. Sometimes a successful trip is all about timing.
Keeping A Journal: Many sources recommend keeping a writers’ journal. By starting the journal at the earliest conception of your trip, you can remind yourself of the reasons why you have decided to go abroad. A recollection of goals can put some of the travelling hardships into perspective. This can also help you recognize the signs of cultural shock and see it as a series of phases.
Once back home, many travellers consider their diary one of their most value mementos of the journey.
Travellers’ Mantra: So you’ve had one of those days. You waited in line for 3 hours to cash a travellers cheque only to find out this bank doesn’t cash checks on Thursdays. You wait again in an additional line for another 3 hours until you find out they only cash checks in the morning. Defeated, you return to your hotel by taxi only to have the taxi driver charge you twice what the fare reads.
Sometimes the very best the traveller can do is to stop and take a deep breath and repeat the traveller’s mantra: “okay, okay”.
There are many things that you might not be able to change or even begin to understand. Just remember that you are there for the whole experience. And in the end, it is okay!
Safety is not necessarily about knowing site-specific details for each place you travel. Safety is about knowing the right questions to ask and what to be aware of. Come to our sessions to discover the ins and outs of travelling abroad.