Culture shock

What is culture shock?

The term “culture shock” is used to describe the temporary disequilibrium or disorientation often experienced as a result of traveling or living in culturally and socially unfamiliar environments. Culture shock can be experienced in a mild form as uneasiness or homesickness, but can also be experienced as strong unhappiness or even panic. Typical feelings associated with culture shock include irritability, hypersensitivity, feelings of isolation, and a loss of perspective.

The cause of culture shock is considered to be the loss of the familiar cues and signs that help us negotiate daily life; not knowing the rules in a new cultural setting leads to emotional strain and even physical signs such as fatigue, irritation, disorientation, and even mild depression.

Sometimes, culture shock is experienced immediately, and a new traveler may find different cultural standards for food, personal space and social life dismaying and upsetting. Sometimes, however, culture shock is experienced in a delayed form. Often, in the first stages of adaptation after arrival, a traveler experiences a stage of exhilaration, when all the new experiences of living in a new country and culture are charming, fascinating and exciting, and the similarities between one’s home culture and the new one seem more salient. It is only after the honeymoon period ends that the traveler begins to register the subtle differences in everything from how to get a transport pass or order food to how to stand in line or get basic services such as telephone and banking.

Faced with what appears to be overwhelming cultural difference and the friction of miscommunication, the traveler may fear he or she will never belong or that people in the host country don’t understand or are indifferent to the challenges that he or she is experiencing.

Reactions to culture shock

Reactions to culture shock include everything from hostility, over-reaction to things one would usually laugh off, suspicion and self isolation at one extreme to an overeager embrace of the culture in an attempt to fit in at the other extreme. Some travelers may withdraw, making little or no effort to learn the local language, adapt to cultural difference, or make new friends, while others may seek out the company of expatriates in order to find a familiar cultural context and others with whom to commiserate. Neither response helps with the cultural adaptation that is necessary to overcome the culture shock.

The good news is that culture shock does not last forever! It can be managed and shortened with preparation and a little bit of effort. As you negotiate some of these challenges, become more comfortable in the new language and culture, and learn how to function in this new environment, you will see your confidence and self-esteem grow, your sense of humor return, and your social life develop.

Preparing for culture shock

First, prepare for the fact that you will almost inevitably experience some culture shock as you learn how to do even routine things in a new cultural environment. It’s all right to make mistakes, and it’s all right to miss home. Remind yourself that the minor frustrations and challenges you experience are actually just culture shock, and that these difficulties are just one aspect of the new experiences that you are having and from which you are learning.

Second, take responsibility for your part of the process of adaptation. Before you go, learn as much as you can about the language and culture of the region in which you will live. Once you arrive, become a careful observer of the new culture and its norms, being proactive rather than reactive. Continue to learn and to practice your new cultural skills, and remind yourself that your experiences will be a function of your attitude toward the new culture, and so the more you can practice openmindedness and flexibility, the faster you will adapt!

Third, manage your emotions and don’t isolate yourself. Be energetic and proactive in seeking out new experiences, set learning goals, and make an effort to get to know local people, using campus activities, local events, and other social and cultural occasions to get out and meet others. Don’t be negative and critical of yourself or judgmental of the new culture. Instead, try for positive thoughts and experiences, be open to diversity and new ways of understanding social interactions, and try to reframe your understanding of your experiences by looking at them through the eyes of the local people instead of using just your perspective. This shift in perspective is one of the biggest lessons of travel.

Communicating with home while adjusting abroad

Communicate with your parents and friends in your home country on a regular basis, but make sure that you are fully present here at UW-Madison. While an initial adjustment period can be challenging, try to form new friendships and engage fully with life here. Stay in touch with people at home, but make sure that you immerse yourself in life abroad. Communicating with people at home too frequently can prevent you from fully developing connections here in Madison.