Why do we experience culture shock?
Losing the ability to connect
For many of us, losing the power of easy communication can feel debilitating. Finding ways to communicate with people in your host culture can be crucial to connecting with and learning about them. Maybe (like me) you’re terrible at learning languages. Don’t fear, because even picking up on non-verbal social cues like how people cross the street or how they address each other can also help us to build connections to a new place. On a recent trip to Ho Chi Minh I really started to feel like a local one week in when I mastered the art of calmly and confidently strolling into the path of five lanes of fast-moving oncoming traffic. In my own culture this would be considered dangerous, but in many parts of Asia it’s the only way to get across the road. When these daily processes start to become familiar the cognitive and emotional effort starts to subside, and we realise we are assimilating into the new culture. Just remember that you may need to shift your habits back when you get home!
A challenge to our identity
Culture shock can rock the foundations of our own identity, leading us to challenge long held assumptions about the world and the people in it. Social Identity Theory suggests that our individual sense of identity is largely based on working out how we are the same or different from other groups of people. When we suddenly surround ourselves with people who are very different from us it can lead us to question assumptions we’ve made about ourselves. Our sense of identity is challenged when we realise that things we thought were universal might actually be specific to our own culture or social groups. People who have the most positive experiences of culture shock are those who are able to reformulate their frame of reference, and adapt their ways of understanding the world to incorporate both their old assumptions and new information from the host culture. This is when your trip becomes a truly transformative experience.
Who is most likely to experience culture shock?
Aside from the obvious answer that it’s people who take exotic trips to far-flung places, there’s no particular ‘type’ of person who is more likely to experience culture shock. However there may be aspects of your identity that highlight or accentuate the differences between you and the people in your host culture. For example if you have dietary restrictions that are usually easily accommodated in your home culture, but cause difficulty in the host culture, this can increase feelings of alienation. You may also have expectations about your host culture that aren’t met, or are challenged, which can feel confusing and challenging. This is more likely to happen when we’ve made inaccurate assumptions about the place we’re visiting, or we’ve become stuck on an idea about what a place should be like, so keeping an open mind can alleviate some of the discomfort.
A note on reverse culture shock
If all of that wasn’t enough to contend with, there’s also the possibility of experiencing ‘reverse culture shock’ when you return home. You may return from a significant trip to find that home feels different. Maybe something about home has changed, maybe you’ve been changed by your travel experience, or maybe a bit of both. However it comes about it can leave returning travellers feeling confused, frustrated and lonely. It can also be a shock because many of us don’t anticipate it. When I returned to New Zealand after living overseas for a few years I was sad to realise that I’d forgotten how to pay for the bus in my hometown. Did I need cash? Could I use my credit card? Will my overseas credit card even work on the bus? These simple daily experiences can have the cumulative effect of making it feel like you don’t quite belong in the place you call home, which can leave you feeling disconnected.
How to cope with culture shock
The idea of culture shock comes with negative connotations because of the challenging feelings it can bring about. But increasingly, research suggests that the experience of culture shock creates the impetus for cultural learning and the development of adaptive social skills. So if you’re ready for the challenge, rather than trying to avoid or minimise culture shock, here are my tips on how to embrace it:
- Before you go, check your expectations. Anticipate what might be hard, wonderful, interesting, or challenging.
- Be ready for surprises and enjoy learning unexpected things about your host culture.
- Understand that it can take emotional, cognitive and physical energy.
- Anticipate discomfort, whether this is during your trip, or on your return, and work out the ways to manage it that work best for you.
- Know your comfort zone. Pushing the boundaries is fine, in fact it can be great, but if things start to feel really out of control you’re not going to manage your culture shock well and you’re likely to enjoy your trip less.
- Be mindful of using ‘home’ as a frame of reference. Making comparisons can help you to understand a new culture, but some comparisons can lead you to make judgments about which is ‘better’. Remember it’s all just different.
- Find ways to connect. Join local groups, or sign up for a tour with a local guide; learn some of the local language; look for the values, habits and beliefs you have in common.
- Stay connected to your own culture. Swap stories about home with fellow travellers and stay connected with friends while you’re overseas.
Furnham, A. (2019). Culture shock: A review of the literature for practitioners. Psychology, 10(13), 1832.
Tajfel, H., Billig, M. G., Bundy, R. P., & Flament, C. (1971). Social categorization and intergroup behaviour. European journal of social psychology, 1(2), 149-178.
Wayland (2015) From reverse culture shock to global competency: Students learn from the shock of the return home.
If you liked this post please check out our previous article How to thrive when you move abroad