Recognizing and Coping with Culture Shock

Natives balancing refrigerators on their heads, speeding taxis adhering to no discernible traffic rules, compulsive teeth brushing, snapping at ransom travel buddies, crying because you got a tomato in your sandwich—what do all these have in common?

Culture shock.

One of my favorite readings that we do in the Field Study prep course is an article by Gary Ferraro called “Coping with Culture Shock.”  This article treats culture shock for what it is—much more complex than merely what we experience when we first get off a plane and realize that things are bit “different” than what we are used to.  Ferraro says that culture shock comes in four stages:

  1. The Honeymoon– Everything is different, but there is something fun and romantic about it all
  2. Irritation and Hostility– This comes after the honeymoon stage.  A small number of problems become huge really fast, and all of the sudden all of those little differences from the honeymoon phase are frustrating.
  3. Gradual Adjustment– This is the passing of the crisis and a move towards “gradual recovery” (163).
  4. Biculturism– The last stage represents full or near full recovery, and means that you have the ability to function in both cultures effectively.

I have definitely witnessed these steps within my own cross cultural experiences in Ghana and India, and also with those who I traveled with.  These steps are not necessarily linear either.

So we know that culture shock is bound to impact everyone in their own different ways, but what are some of the common symptoms?

  • Homesickness
  • Boredom
  • Withdrawl (I tend to do this)
  • Excessive sleep (something I had problems with in India)
  • Compulsive eating and/or drinking
  • Irritability (Again, had issues with this in India)
  • Exaggerated cleanliness
  • Marital stress
  • Family tension and conflict
  • Chauvinistic excesses
  • Stereotyping of host nationals
  • Hostility towards locals (Briefly had this problem in Ghana)
  • Loss of ability to work effectively (India month two…)
  • Unexplainable fits of weeping (this happens to people ALL the time)
  • Physical ailments and psychosomatic illnesses
  • Feelings of isolation (I tend to do this)
  • Weight loss
  • Feelings of helplessness (I tend to do this one too…)
  • Tenseness and moodiness
  • Loss of confidence (Sometimes)
  • Fear of the worst happening (I can fall into this too)

Culture shock is manifested differently in everyone.  It is not really avoidable, but once we recognize it we can better combat it.  Here are some points of advice that Ferraro suggests:

  • Understand that learning about the host culture is a process
  • As soon as you arrive, be aware of your immediate physical surroundings
  • Within the first few days, familiarize yourself with some of the basic, everyday survival skills of the community
  • Try to understand your host culture in terms of their culture rather than your own
  • Live with the ambiguity- especially at the beginning.
  • Make conscious efforts to be empathetic
  • Be flexible and resourceful
  • Learn to postpone judgments or decisions until you have acquired enough information
  • Don’t evaluate yourself according to your usual standards of accomplishment
  • Don’t lose your sense of humor
  • Avoid US ghettos abroad
  • Be adventurous!
  • Learn how to you best manage stress
  • Take appropriate health precautions
  • Let go of home (for now)
  • Keep in mind that there are no absolutes in studying other cultures
  • Keep the faith

Culture shock is a very real issue that anyone doing any kind of substantial cross cultural engagement is going to run into.  The important thing is that we recognize it and understand it within its complexity so that we can better combat it.  

(Original blog post)

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