What to expect when culture shock hits

Culture Shock

the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.

Many things come to mind when we start to talk about culture shock. After a brief office survey, the most common first question is, “coming or going?” Culture shock is not just for people leaving their home country — it’s also for those returning to a land they left.

The “shock” part of culture shock is typically derived from a difference in cultural attitudes, often characterized in five phases. It is the feeling of disorientation brought on by the unfamiliarity of day to day life, and after the rose-colored glasses of excitement have faded, it is the frustration and coping mechanisms with which we carry on toward assimilating into a new culture, including re-assimilating into our own.

So what is the process of culture shock and how can we best prepare for it?

Some of the best advice we’ve heard across the board is in the ancient proverb, “Walk Humbly, Act Justly, Love Mercy”. The difficulty of culture shock often comes from judgments we aren’t even aware that we are making. Our frustrations come from faulty expectations we didn’t know we had, and our disappointments when we find out things truly are different than what we had in our mind. If we submit to walking as humbled people of equality, knowing that we are not better than any other, we will not only have greater experiences in foreign lands, but will also be in a posture to be in awe of the vastness of the created earth in which we live, and loving the people with whom we cohabitate the world.

The Phases of Culture Shock:

Culture Shock

Phase 1: Preparation

In the preparation phase we are typically getting ready to depart from one place to another for a period of time. The preparation phase usually involves a lot of excitement and anxiety, awareness, document gathering, studying of the new culture, and goodbyes. For new places, it is always a good idea to seek out others who have been there, done that. Make a new friend, invite them out to coffee, and pick their brain. It is always a good idea to study your future culture before departing, even if this is your home country that you are returning to. Here are some good topics to research about your future home: history, social customs and practices, religions, natural resources, art and music, accepted social behaviors, government structure, current events, social concepts of time.

Pro Tip: Establish a healthy routine that incorporates time for reflection and analysis. Morning and evening routines are best, though you can anticipate some disruptions. It is the practice of making time to evaluate life that prepares you for healthier and balanced perspective upon arrival.

Phase 2: Honeymoon

The “honeymoon phase” is a familiar colloquialism in the United States often referring to a relationship of some kind. It is the time when everything is new and perfect, and all of life is perceived through optimistic eyes. What could possible go wrong?

The same is true with you and your new country, even if you are returning. You are ready for the new adventure, whether it be finding the grocery store in a new land and language, or seeing old friends and family again. But this phase doesn’t last forever. The honeymoon phase is ending when the euphoria has dissipated and life is no longer an exciting adventure.

Phase 3: Frustration

You know you’re in the frustration phase when everything is a bigger deal than it should be. But not without cause — you’re acclimating to a new environment, adjusting to the basics of everyday life, trying to be productive and accomplish your goals of coming to this new land, and finding your thoughts about time and ideals about communication and treating people don’t line up as well as you previously thought.

Here are a few tips for when you’re in this phase:

1: Seek wisdom and perspective. Often times what we consider to be a big deal is completely understandable in the eyes of a local.

2: Give yourself grace, and build extra time in your schedule. At ELIC, we work in some of the hardest to reach places on earth. Things we consider simple, such as cooking a meal, may take three or four times as long in another country. It’s not because you’re inadequate at cooking; it’s just different.

3: Remember why you came. It turns the focus from our seeming failures and reminds us that people are more important than our agendas, and relationships are more important than time. It reminds us that we aren’t there just for our own benefit, but for the mutual encouragement and experience of one another, sharpening each other as we seek to walk and grow and share in this life, together.

Pro Tip: When you find yourself in the frustration phase, remember to “see people”. Seek genuine and authentic conversations and relationships with locals and teammates. Remember that you are likely not the only one experiencing frustrations. Practice the presence of mind to self-evaluate when things aren’t going as you planned, and do your best to not be part of others’ frustrations and growing pains too.

Phase 4: Adjusting, Adapting, Assimilating — A Continuum

Phases three and four are often mixed on a continuum of growth. It is the process of becoming oriented in your new location, both with establishments and people, and performing functionally in your new culture. Being fully in phase four means that you pick up on social and cultural cues, your “foreignness” decreases and you fall into a comfortable rhythm of life. You have the ability to be self-aware, self-controlled, poised, and can take intentional action over your life instead of reacting to the events of each day. Being fully assimilated into a new culture allows you to live well, experience the land you’re in, and enjoy the people with whom you have come to know and share life.

Pro Tip: Be poised and enjoy life in your new country!

Phase 5: Re-Entry

Re-entry is a common term for returning to your passport country. There are many books, and articles, and blogs written about this topic, as it is a complex set of emotions and experiences. But in a lot of ways, the process is the same. Even if it is your home culture, do some research and study before heading “home”. Try to find out ahead of time what’s changed, what you can expect to be the same, and what might be different. Re-engage with that daily practice of making time to evaluate life and your day-to-day experiences. And know that you will likely experience all of these phases again, even though you are technically “going home”.

Pro Tip: Enjoy the people, the time you have, the newness of what home can be. Know that you’ll be frustrated, then you’ll start to get the hang of things again, and repeat — Un-learn, re-learn, repeat.

So, why do we do this again? Because we want to engage with and share LIFE with the rest of the world. We want to be less self-absorbed and embrace our world with hope through unity and justice and love.

There’s an ancient proverb about living well in relationship with one another: “walk humbly, act justly, love mercy”. May this be our foundation for dealing with culture shock, both coming and going.