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Culture Shock


What is Culture Shock?

To go through a "culture shock“ during your stay in a foreign country is nothing weird or uncommon. It is a necessary process of adaptation we unavoidably have to go through when immersing ourselves into another culture and a mental reaction towards the unknown - the overcoming of and adaptation to different behaviours and customs. "Culture shock“ is actually a misleading term, as we do not experience the emotions associated with it, such as uncertainty, discomfort and the feeling of being foreign, but also the positive stages of "understanding“ and "feeling-at-home“, as a sudden incident, but rather as different phases that can totally vary in terms of duration. Thus, it is often difficult to diagnose a culture shock as such.
Not everybody goes through a culture shock or through all of its phases. Also, the length of each phase is not predictable. It highly depends on former experiences, attitudes, self-confidence, knowledge, etc. It is possible that there is not any conflict at all, as well as there may be phases which are being experienced stronger or weaker than others. To know about the phenomenon of culture shock doesn't mean trying to avoid it: as mentioned above, it is a regular and important part of the inevitable process of adaptation.
Culture shock can happen at the place you are staying (but please be aware that most of our host families are well-experienced with foreign travellers and adjust to their needs) or – which is more typically the case – at the place where you are volunteering/doing an intership due to differences in the understanding of work practice.
To understand the phenomenon of culture shock entirely, it is important to understand the meaning of "culture“: Culture is a kind of orientation system which is defined and shared by a certain nation, society or group of people. It influences or controls the perception, way of thinking and values of the nation's/society's/group's members and therefore directs their behaviour, helping them to cope with their surroundings. The orientation system provides affiliation to a certain group or nation. This orientation system however differs from nation, society and group to another.
When we get in contact with a foreign culture, we notice that our own orientation system, our familiar behavioural patterns, values and strategies for coping with our daily life don't completely work any more. We are suddenly faced with a different system of values where our own criteria cannot be applied and we have to understand and apply unfamiliar customs, conventions and behaviours.

The Phases of Culture Shock

Scientists have identified various typical and mostly inevitable stages of a culture shock that most people need to go through when staying with another culture for a longer time:
1. At the beginning we feel euphoric; everything seems to be exciting and interesting; we are looking forward to upcoming experiences, we are eager to learn and curious and overwhelmed by new impressions.
2. This is often followed by the phase of alienation or disillusionment: contact problems can occur (e.g. due to language barriers or knowledge gaps about the new culture). Suddenly we notice things we don't like about the new culture compared to our own culture and we notice certain behaviour and characterstics of local people that confuse us. Our satisfaction and comfort worsens and our general mood deteriorates.
3. Escalation/culture shock. This is the peak of the culture shock. It is a stress situation. We notice that our home culture cannot be used as a valuation standard for the new culture and we feel disorientated. Possible consequences and symptoms can be: 1. feeling helpless and homesick, 2. physical stress reactions such as headache, tiredness, rapid exhaustion, 3. frustration, anxiety, overreaction, seclusion, 4. a feeling of loss of friends from home, status, job, belongings, 5. the feeling to be rejected by members of the new culture, 6. hostility towards the other culture, 7. confusion about the own emotions, identity, role expectations from others, 8. feeling powerless, the feeling not to be able to cope with the new environment, 9. increased need of sleep or hygiene
It is important to keep in mind that intensity, symptoms, appearance and duration of culture shock can vary immensely from individual to individual. The knowledge and realization of culture shock as a "normal“ part of the adaption process to a new environment might help to better deal with negative and troubling emotions. It is essential to understand that it is not a personal problem but a regular process.
4. The "recession“ phase is usually followed by an "upswing“: the phase of understanding and adaption: we develop an understanding and appreciation and even start to make use ourselves of the different behaviours and ways of thinking of the locals.
5. Some things in our new surroundings we might find more enjoyable than at home, others we still won't like. We will recognize realistic advantages and disadvantages of the new and our own culture and will feel satisfied and in balance.

Tips To Avoid Culture Shock

  • Be patient, try to get to know other people
  • Often try new and typical things of the other culture to overcome inhibitons (e.g. local food, clothes, etc.)
  • Write a diary and note down positive and negative emotions, experiences and thoughts
  • Learn and use the foreign language (even if you only speak a few words, it will be appreciated by locals and will give you a good feeling)
  • Take regular breaks and time for reflection. To think thoroughly about your experiences and feelings, both negative and positive, might help to understand conflicts and avoid frustration.
  • Pay close attention to the body language and behaviour of locals: a typical reason for disappointment is the lack of understanding of other people's behaviour or feeling of not being understood by locals
  • Think positively (for instance: try to realise continually that the process of adaptation to the new culture is a common phenomenon everyone has to go through)
  • Deliberately name and affirm your personal strengths; set realistic goals for your stay, also allow bad moods and frustrations
  • Consciously appreciate the chances of your stay abroad: clearly point out the advantages for your career, your personal development, and how much it broadens your horizon
  • Respect foreign traditions, even if you are not able to understand them entirely due to your different system of values (for instance related to the role of women in other cultures, the understanding and handling of sexuality, religion, etc.)
  • During longer stays, it might help to keep intensive and regular contact to your friends, family and colleagues at home (by letters, emails, telephone calls, etc.). Sharing emotions and experiences with family and friends might certainly help to avoid overreactions, might strengthen your self-confidence and help reducing stress.
  • Participate at local activities: you will meet new people, understand local traditions, immerse yourself with the local culture more quickly. If you have hobbies at home, also practise them at your new location with locals (e.g. play football with the locals)

Reverse Culture Shock

It is interesting that on your return home, a little "reverse culture shock" often occurs. The reason is that you have adapted your cultural orientation system during your stay abroad and the local cultural learning process, while this is not the case with the people with whom you interact at home. You cannot fully understand some of their thinking and behavior, for example, when it comes to evaluating your experience in another culture. This "little culture shock" at home, however, is most easily overcome.
Our intercultural preparation will help you quickly understand the culture of your host country and to minimize the effects of culture shock.

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