Why Culture shock is good for you
It keeps the mind nimble and fosters humor
There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar: it keeps the mind nimble, it kills prejudice and it fosters humor. – George Santayana ‘The Philosophy of Travel’
The term culture shock most commonly associated with difficulties adjusting to a foreign environment. First-known in public appearance in Brazil, at the Women’s Club of Rio de Janeiro, 1954, when Kalervo Oberg a Canadian born antropologist and educator talked about the challenges of adapting to life abroad.
In his talk he addressed ‘fear of physical contact with attendants or servants’ and referred to culture shock as an ‘occupational disease’, showing ‘symptoms’ of absentmindedness, feelings of helplessness, fits of anger and refusal to learn the language.
Off course in some ways, Obergs talk is dated, nevertheless the essence of his description of the mental strains caused by cultural adjustment, fits our current understanding. The causes of culture shock that he identifies all relate to the largely unconscious process of learning and adjustment.
Defintion of culture shock: the impact of moving from a familiar culture to an unfamiliar one. Or in words of Joseph Shaules – the acclaimed interculturalist –these are the small differences we notice abroad are a sign that our unconscious mind is hard at work detecting, interpreting and judging anomalities in our surroundings. These experiences can have powerful effects on our mind, which is one reason moving abroad can be stimulating, stressful and transformative.
Showing up in:
- Etiquette and behavior
Preliminary stage: Learning about the host culture, preparing the move, sorting out stuff, organizing fare-well party and actually moving.
Initial Stage of euphoria / ‘culture surprise’: feels like a never ending holiday, some interculturalist call this stage ‘the honeymoon phase’ full of new sensations, exiting local discoveries, everything at biking distance, highly efficient public transportation system, unfamiliar delicious food and lots of new places to be explored. It can be viewed as a cognitive adjustment to a foreign environment: culture surprise.
Irritability / ‘culture bumps’ : Then one fine day, you find yourself in a catch22 situation where you can’t get a subcription for your smartphone, because you haven’t managed to get a bankaccount yet. Which is quite a frustrating process because the bankemployee requires you to show your credit history; reason for not having a credit history is because you don’t have any history at all-in this country, you just arrived here.
Labels on products your purchasing at the grocery store, which you can’t read. Just guessing what is in the package you just bought.
Not knowing which bus takes you to the nearest train station, where you are trying to find this specific servicedesk allowing you to use cash to purchase a trainticket – remember you are still not owning a bankcard yet. What’s left of enjoying this highly efficient public transportation system, when going places becomes such a project instead of easy piecy lemon squeezy ….
Gradual Adjustment : The culture surprise experience contains frayed threads that may start to unravel. The difference that stimulates us at the beginning of the move can start to wear us down.
Currently for a number of my clients passing their drivers licence and being able to ride their bikes here in the Netherlands really is a huge victory. If anyone, two years ago, would have told them about this sense of victory, they problably would have rolled their eyes. The thing is, for all my clients, this victory has an underlying value to it: regaining a sense of freedom and independence in their new situation. With this a sense of control.
So try to find activities, which you know you like a lot and which give you energy, lift you up and are befinicial to creating and shaping your new life.
Just some random ideas for you:
- joining a writers club
- exploring your new place
- finding hicking buddies
- signing up for art or work out classes
- going to study
- visiting museums or music events
Adaptation : By now you have learned how to remain functioning well in your new culture and perhaps even feel a little bit part of it. Embrace its differences and accept what it has to offer. This phase is marked by low anxiety and the increased ability of to interact successfully with members of the host culture and build social relationships. This phase also brings a sense of satisfaction, accomplishment, and personal growth for having overcome culture shock.
Re-entry phase : Reverse culture shock follows the same phases as cultural shock and similar symptoms. Reverse culture shock occurs because the traveler’s changed perception of aspects of the home culture, the system that was once perceived as natural is now object of critical analysis and comparison with the host culture. During the honeymoon phase one is usually happy to be home and enthusiastic to reconnect with family and friends and re-experience the domestic environment. When normal life resumes it is usually accompanied by nostalgia for the time abroad this is a characteristic of the reentry crisis phase. Eventually the reentry recovery phase begins when you start to reconcile and accept differences between the two cultures.
Wishing you a lovely and recharging time and a smooth adaptation where ever you are landing this Summer!