Living and working abroad can be both exhilarating and exasperating! I have been fortunate to have had multiple experiences living abroad and each came with its own unique challenges.
Some experiences I have loved, and others I have hated. Or perhaps it might be more accurate to say, there were times when I struggled and hated the experience of living and working abroad.
Over the years, I’ve learned that culture shock is a key factor in the success or failure of living abroad. The more you know about it, the better able you are to recognize the symptoms and manage them. Unfortunately, many people underestimate culture shock and its effects because our everyday use of the term is INCOMPLETE.
The most common use of the term culture shock is to express the experience of being “surprised” or “shocked” by something you encounter when abroad. Surprised about new foods or shocked by a squat toilet.
Culture shock is not a singular experience, but the cumulative effect of multiple experiences.
Another common understanding of culture shock is that it is something that can be avoided or overcome after accumulating enough experience.
Culture shock is more of a continuum, there are times when the effects are minimal and easy to manage and then there are times when the effects a massive and difficult to manage.
So what exactly is culture shock?
Culture Shock is a state of anxiety that results from not being familiar with the norms of a new cultural environment; when your “normal” contradicts with their “normal”.
The attempt to maintain or adapt and adjust one’s own cultural norms in a new cultural environment creates psychological stress. From the stress you experience trying to complete simple tasks, like going to the bank, post office, or grocery store, to the more complex like navigating new familial or professional relationships.
Culture shock IS NOT the recognition of something different, but rather the result of going through a series of these “stress inducing” experiences that conflict with what you are used to.
There is so much to navigate when living and working in a new culture so understanding culture shock, and recognizing its causes and symptoms are essential to a successful international experience.
The potential causes are vast, but fall into these general categories:
- Daily dilemmas (ambiguous situations)
- Stress of the unfamiliar
- Difficulty letting go of old ways (or what you know)
- Old behaviors do not produce same results (when what works at home doesn’t in the new context)
- Excitement and anxiety combined
- Being stereotyped or judged
- New relationships
- So what are the symptoms?
The first signs are typically:
- Emotional outbursts (irrational sadness or anger)
On extended stays, symptoms may include:
- A desire to withdrawal (isolation or loneliness)
- Hostility toward local people
- Excessive sleeping, eating, and/or drinking
- Depression and/or anxiety
Even the most experienced travelers and expats experience culture shock. Culture shock is real. It’s common. And there are ways to minimize the effects.
STEP 1: Accept that it is a real problem
Don’t downplay the impact. Experiencing culture shock is not a reflection of your character or travel prowess. Cultural norms are so deeply embedded in who we are as humans; it is natural and normal for those norms to be challenged in a new culture. If you experience any of the symptoms, at any time, understand and accept that they are part of the process. *
*There is no statute of limitations on culture shock so you can experience it even if you have been abroad for many years or multiple times.
STEP 2: Learn to recognize its signs
Learn to recognize your own individual symptoms, not everyone has the same symptoms. You know yourself better than anyone else so if you aren’t feeling like your “usual self” you may be experiencing culture shock. The more self aware you are, the easier it will be to catch it early and take action.
STEP 3: Understand it can be serious
After more than 25 years living and working abroad with international professionals, I have seen a wide spectrum of the impact of culture shock. It can get bad. Remember we are talking about stress and anxiety; both are serious factors in our physical and mental well being. Avoiding it and allowing the symptoms to escalate is not a solution.
Here are three recommendations for managing and easing your culture shock:
1. Re-charge your battery!
Do something to relax, re-focus, and get back some of the energy that has been drained away by your experience. This is different for everyone; it could be as simple as exercise, journaling, a phone call home, or a trip to the spa.
2. Take a “time out”.
Take an hour or an entire day to retreat from interacting with the locals. Daily interactions can be extremely overwhelming! Give yourself permission to take a “time out” when needed, a short break from the daily dealings of life in a different culture can make a big difference.
3. Learn more about culture.
Learn more about your culture and the host culture. Culture shock is about dealing with cultural contradictions. Exploring the causes of those contradictions reveals incredible insights into both cultures and your experiences.
For example, when living in Canada I really struggled with business meetings. There was always a lot of talk, and very little action. In time, I came to learn that Canada is a far less individualistic culture than the U.S. and consensus is highly valued in meetings. In the US, meetings are much more action oriented and consensus isn’t necessary to make decisions or plans. With a better understanding of this difference, I was able to reframe and shift my expectations for meetings, reducing my confusion and anxiety.
A greater understanding of your own and the host culture empowers you to more accurately interpret your experiences and interactions. The result is less confusion, stress, and anxiety. Experiences will be less ambiguous, more transparent and productive. The unfamiliar will become more familiar, and you can let go of “your way of doing things” and try to do things in a “new way”.
This doesn’t make one way right or wrong, it is just different. Increased cultural awareness enables you to be more flexible in difficult situations, and more adaptive in unfamiliar settings. It equips you to be more empathetic and compassionate with others, and most importantly, it helps you get the results you want.
Like anything, culture shock comes in all shapes and sizes. Learn how it affects you and to act when it does so you can not only maximize your experience abroad, but also love it.