What is Culture Shock

Imagine yourself in the situation when you don’t know how to ask for directions; how to use the phone; how to tank up the car; how to pay for your groceries or even how to identify the groceries you need to buy. That is what a culture shock is: finding yourself in a situation which is very different from what you are accustomed to without being able to get out.

The term culture shock was first used by an anthropologist Kalvero Oberg in 1954. He stated that culture shock was the result of anxiety caused by loosing familiar signs and cues for social intercourse. Even if you can speak the language well enough there are tons of non-verbal clues which are specific to the new culture and determine people’s behavior. Without knowing those rules of the land it is so easy to make mistakes and feel absolutely out of place.

Culture shock is difficult to overcome, it takes time and it should be taken seriously. It can be considered a mental illness; luckily, it passes. The symptoms of culture shock are irritability; high criticism of new country, its customs and people; constant complaints about climate, food, etc; concerns about cleanliness and sanitary conditions without apparent cause; refusal to learn the language; idealization of previous culture; fear of being cheated; health concerns; feeling powerless and useless.

There are several stages in the development of culture shock. At the beginning you feel excited about being in the new environment and everything is not so different after all: people still have two legs and two arms, they live in the houses, and they sleep at night and so on. But then other things start to sip into existence and you suddenly realize that you have a lot of problems you never had before, at home, because there you knew almost instinctively how to deal with them.

You need to learn so many things so fast in order to survive: how to pay your utility bills, how to write checks, how to use credit cards, how to List goes on and on. On top of everything you have problems with people understanding you and sometimes people will laugh at the way you talk. You almost loose your identity and from a somebody you were back at home you became a nobody in the new country. That feeling may cause further anxiety, hostility and withdrawal which makes situation even worse.

At that stage it is very common to become judgmental about the new country and to gravitate towards people from your own culture. Unfortunately, it will not help to overcome the difficulties of assimilation. In order to feel comfortable it is necessary to get out there and try to find your fit.

With time passing you inevitably become familiar with your surroundings and the way of living. Return of sense of humor is usually the first sign of life getting back on track. Situations which made you mad a month ago suddenly seem so funny. Eventually you obtain your niche in new place, find friends and begin to feel that you belong.

Believe it or not, the most surprising part of culture shock is still ahead of you. It will happen when you go back to your old country to visit and find out that it has changed and you don’t belong there either! While you were away trying to build yourself into the new way of existence your old country did not stay where you left it and you find yourself almost in the same position as when you came to the new country. For example, you may not know how to pay for public transportation since the system was changed or you don’t know how to use a phone.

The main thing to remember if you are experiencing culture shock is to be aware what is going on. Try to take small steps in learning the ropes; don’t be judgmental about the people and customs; engage yourself in some kind of useful activities with natives such as volunteering or aerobic class; learn the language. Changing environment can be such a mind stretching experience but it takes time and patience to accept another culture without surrendering yours.