Living and working overseas

Culture Shock

Culture Shock can be a real trauma that some travellers have to deal with. Contributor Stephen Wright offers some suggestions and tips to dealing with culture shock when heading off overseas....

I’ve often thought, as a reasonably seasoned traveller, that ‘Culture Shock’ was a term used by the kind of traveller that went abroad and couldn’t find a McDonalds to eat at, or the kind of traveller that stayed in three-star hotels and found there was no porter available to carry their luggage up to the room, or the kind of person who likes to order things from exotic or foreign restaurants by pointing at the picture or just saying the menu number. In other words, I thought culture shock was one of those things that happened to travellers who weren't really travellers.

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It was only until I’d come across the term re-entry shock (or reverse culture shock) that I actually sat up and took notice of the whole phenomena. Re-entry shock refers to the shock to the system a person feels when they have been away from their natural homeland for a period of time. It’s that feeling of not belonging in your own backyard, that feeling that you’d changed more than your home has, and it’s brought on by the degree of change a person has gone through when living abroad for a while. Re-entry shock is considered to be worse than culture shock as it happens to you in your own home, and this is exactly the feeling I had when I arrived home after nearly a decade away. When such a feeling hits you, you suddenly become aware of how much you are forced to change when living abroad, and how much living abroad actually does change you. It’s then that you realize that perhaps you too have been subjected to culture shock in all its subtleties.

Many culture shock symptoms arise from the unexpected and the fact that even the simplest of duties can become difficult. Things we take for granted in daily life, such as shopping, reading the newspaper, going to the bank, and even just socialising with other people takes it toll on your senses (and your patience) when in another land or dealing with another culture. Naturally the condition is worse when you find yourself in a land where the language is entirely alien to you, but culture shock can even occur when the language is essentially the same and the culture only slightly different – just ask any English speaking person who has been to Australia! A new arrival to a place often makes comparisons about their old home and their new one. When things aren’t going so well it’s often easy to make such comparisons with statements like ‘Why don’t they do it this way…?’ and ‘Back home we do it like this…’.

The term ‘Culture Shock’ surprisingly has been with us since the 1950’s and was coined around the time when people started to move around the globe much more freely. It is loosely used to describe any number of conditions that a person might be likely to experience when in a new land, such as:
  • Loneliness
  • Sleeping disorders
  • Lack of self-belief, or confidence
  • Disorientation
  • Homesickness
  • Physical illness
  • Dissatisfaction
  • Irritability
  • A sense of being overwhelmed
  • Insecurity
  • Helplessness
  • Frustration

Of course, that is not to say that someone who receives a dose of culture shock is likely to experience all of those symptoms at the same time, or even at all, and culture shock is not an immediate reaction to finding yourself in a new environment. Indeed, there might be an incubation period where you first arrive in a new place, where excitement and intrigue are much stronger emotions. For a while you might not get homesick, you might not get irritated or lose sleep, and you might not feel overwhelmed. But after a while, once things settle down, you might find yourself displaying any number of symptoms associated with culture shock.

Language difficulties can be a major contributor to culture shock for new arrivals. Communication, in all its forms, is the basis of living anywhere and when it becomes nearly impossible to say even the simplest of things it can reduce a grown man to tears. Even for those who undertake to learn the local language will probably reach a plateau in their learning curve after a while and that in itself can lead to frustration and irritation.

Next: Culture Shock continued
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