1.7.1 - Common Reactions
Culture shock is an extreme response to an international transition. There are other "surprises" that are less severe. It is helpful to think of common reactions when going abroad in these terms:
They usually come from:
These kind of frustrations are likely to solve themselves as you become more knowledgeable and competent in the new culture. They probably fall under the category of "culture fatigue." Culture shock is a somewhat different and more intense version of "frustration" and usually arises from sources which are far less obvious and circumstances which persist over time.
While reactions that signal transition shock are frequent enough to be considered completely "normal" by psychologists and study abroad advisers, they can present a great personal challenge to students struggling through a difficult period in their adjustment. When travelers begin to ask themselves questions like, "What have I gotten myself into?" "What am I doing here?" "What is the matter with these people?" and "Why can’t they do it the right way?" you can be pretty sure that some degree of transition shock is present.
The symptoms of culture shock are quite varied and can be easily misunderstood or even overlooked because they are similar to reactions that can occur in everyday life. The link between culture shock and what you are feeling at a given moment may be difficult to see. It is very common for people experiencing culture shock to not only deny the possibility that culture shock might be the problem, but to shift the focus, attributing their stress wholly to the behavior or values of the people around them.
Common symptoms of culture shock:
In addition to studies on what causes culture shock, many studies have been done on when culture shock occurs and its stages. From this, we can generalize the following:
In spite of jet-lag, local transportation and housing issues, communication difficulties, and the normal heightened anxiety one feels when embarking upon a journey and after arrival, most travelers find the first few days or weeks in a new country an exhilarating experience. Called the "Honeymoon Phase," this can be a little like the "It’s a small world" sentiment one can succumb to on a visit to Disneyland. Things are new, different, interesting, "quaint," "traditional," novel, or "historical" and everything takes on a slight glow of unreality. Beyond the "quaint," it is the similarities that stand out, not the differences (or they are minimized or romanticized).
The "Honeymoon" phase of initial cultural contact will likely be brief, but in some cases it may linger for a month or more. For some students the phase may quickly give way to a downward spiral where an increasing realization of difference is coupled with a tendency to place exaggerated emphasis on these cultural characteristics. Some begin to see these differences as “defects” in the host culture. Others, criticized for inappropriate actions, respond by “blaming the hosts,” thereby increasing their own alienation and justifying their attitudes. This makes it even more difficult for them to evaluate their own behavior or objectively observe the host culture.
Deepening Culture Shock
More serious culture shock arises as a result of cumulative, largely puzzling encounters resulting in equally negative perceptions. For that reason, the “shock” is deceptively gradual. Those who enter another country with an attitude of what anthropologists call “naive realism” the view that everyone sees the world essentially as they do are susceptible to being quickly disabused of that idea as reality sets in. If the naive realist also holds an ethnocentric belief that his or her cultural ways are preferable and superior to all others, the likelihood of some kind of conflict escalates enormously.
For most study abroad students, culture shock is a mild, transitory annoyance that can be overcome with relative ease through personal effort and increased knowledge and with the assistance of sympathetic friends and advisers. Culture shock is simply the deepest trough of the “U-curve” and rarely lasts more than a few weeks. The recovery from culture shock is the mirror image of its onset–that is, it comes on gradually and leaves the same way. When you feel particularly down or discouraged, it helps to know that it will almost surely get better.
Most important, culture shock can be a period of intense self-assessment and culture learning. Experiencing the process itself can be beneficial. Overcoming even a mild case of culture shock will result in your feeling more confident, self-reliant, independent, and capable of your ability to cope with cross-cultural experiences. In a way, having a little culture shock can immunize you for future travels. Even though coping with culture shock in one context won’t necessarily prevent it from ever occurring again, it will definitely lessen its impact and give you the insight and understanding to deal with it effectively.
While few study abroad students experience the more severe forms of culture shock, most feel some of its effects unless they rarely interact with the local populations. Fortunately, although culture shock cannot be totally avoided, simply being aware of its symptoms and knowing how and why it happens can make adjustment to overseas living easier and more effective. Remember, culture shock signals that you are learning something new about the culture and, presumably, that is what you want to do.
Many students never experience culture shock to any appreciable extent and perform their overseas tasks and manage their relationships just fine. For those who do experience a degree of discomfort in the process of living abroad, it can be an opportunity to grow and learn, although probably best appreciated from the perspective of being on the "right-hand" side of the U-shaped curve of adjustment.
Moving On and Adapting
Moving beyond culture shock and continuing to live and learn overseas puts you on the path to becoming interculturally fluent. Becoming more deeply engaged with the local culture increases your level of intercultural adaptation and your ability to reach your goals. It also makes cultural learning more enjoyable, if not always easier.
This learning process is complex and almost inevitably results in reports from returning students that, “I learned more about myself and my culture than about the culture I was living in.” The learning process can be a bit painful, take longer than expected, and can lead to the onset of symptoms associated with culture shock. The good news is that this indicates that learning is occurring and that you are getting better and better at understanding the culture.
Being aware of this cycle of cultural adjustment will allow you to better understand your reactions during your time abroad. In addition, this cycle of cultural adjustment can be linked with levels of Cultural Awareness.