To live in a foreign country and in a different culture is exciting — it can give huge personal development and it can be highly stimulating intellectually.
However, it can also at times be frustrating. It is one thing to travel abroad as a tourist, and then move on when one has “seen enough”, but it is something completely different to move to another country for an extended period of time and then having to function according to the various — and sometimes “mystical” — set of norms that another culture often possesses.
Having lived for a long time in unique countries such as South Korea, Hong Kong, Australia and Norway, I have been through this process, and I believe I’ve learned how to counter such, quite natural, albeit annoying feelings and frustrations. Today, I will share this knowledge with you.
If you’re only travelling or moving to places on a very short period, then culture shock (and thus this article) may not be as relevant to you. Instead, you might like 6 Great Tips to Prepare for A Destination You Know Nothing About.
What Exactly is Culture Shock?
When adjusting to a foreign culture it’s inevitable to experience an array of feelings; everything from pure ecstasy and great interest to all the novelty, to deeper moments with home sickness and fear. Most people go through such a process, often referred to as “culture shock”, marked by alternately mental highs and lows.
Typically, culture shock contains 4 stages:
- Honeymoon: fascination, enthusiasm, shallow relations with hosts. Everything is new and exciting.
- Crisis: language barrier, confusion about values, frustration, anxiety, anger. What was new and exciting is not that exciting anymore and you start instead to become frustrated over the things you are not used to. The language is different, different sets of behaviour and thinking. You start to get home sick.
- Adjustment: the crisis is being handled, the person learns some of the language and culture in the host country.
- Mastering: the person starts thriving in the new environment albeit with minor issues. Instead of criticizing the cultural differences you start to accept these and learn to appreciate the differences and learn and understand how to navigate in the new environment.
The cultural differences can be a challenge in itself. One meets a foreign language which one does not necessarily understand, one can feel isolated, and at times misunderstood. However, even though there are certain risks in meeting such challenges in the initial phase of a stay abroad, it usually wears off and one sits left with a fantastic experience, and an incredible valuable and meaningful experience that one has for the rest of the life.
Especially with these tips mentioned below you will be able to minimize culture shock substantially and easier integrate into the foreign country and culture.
One of the most important things you should do in order to mitigate the culture shock pre-arrival is to undergo thorough research. By researching more about the country and your place of stay you will be more prepared about what you will meet and what you should expect.
Among others, you should read about the country’s history and culture and through that find explanations and reasoning on habits, customs, and attitudes that manifest themselves in that country. Simply put, learn the culture’s core values.
In addition, by investigating more about the culture’s body language, religion, holidays, manners, dressing, tipping, color meaning etc. you will easier avoid awkward and tricky situations.
Last but not least, talk to other people that have been to the host country you are going to. Should it be that you do not know anybody that has previously been there, then there’s always various agencies you can contact, as well as forums online. Do not be afraid to approach other people that have been in your shoes, those people usually love talking about their abroad experiences.
Expat Culture Shock Articles | Expats Blog
2. Learn Some of the Language Straight Away
One of the greatest causes of culture shock is due to language. It will therefore make a huge difference if you take some time to learn as much as possible of the language that is used where you’re going. This will make your life so much easier and it will give immediate respect among the locals, plus that it could open unknown possibilities for you. Today there are numerous applications and websites where one can learn language in an easy and efficient way, such as Duolingo and Memrise.com (link below).
However, do not worry if you have not been able to learn much of the new language before departure. At least learn the words for “yes”, “no”, “hello”, “good bye”, “thank you” and “please”. If you know these you will be able to greet people in a friendly way, and show respect and gratitude. Keep learning the language when you arrive. If you show an interest in other’s language and culture they are likely to show an interest in you.
3. Accept Some Uncertainties and Learn About Culture Shock
No matter how much research one does before departure it is impossible to know with 100% accuracy what to expect. Therefore, by simply acknowledging this fact, and understanding that things might be somewhat different than anticipated with a degree of incertitude and doubt, it will be greatly easier to cope and handle such a situation. If you are aware of the phenomenon “culture shock” and its possible causes, then you are more likely to be able to reduce such. Therefore try to get accustomed to its symptoms. And throughout your stay it can be of great benefit to use some time to reflect on your daily experiences in order to enhance your understanding of those.
Culture Shock | Wikipedia
4. Have an Open Mindset
Probably the most important thing to have when traveling overseas is to have an open-mind set, which will make it vastly easier to integrate and appreciate the new circumstances. A person without an open mind set — who does not aim to understand the foreign culture — will in many ways remain in a condition of culture shock throughout his or hers whole stay.
Once your mindset changes, everything on the outside will change along with it
– Steve Maraboli
An underlying reason to all the negative reactions one often get towards the foreign culture is that one judge the things that are”different” as of lesser value and thus may easily get irritated by these. It is therefore crucial to be open-mined towards the new culture and try to put away the ethnocentrism, stereotypes and prejudices that one inevitably have to some degree.
Remember that people might have a completely different set and pattern of thinking and a different concept of time and other things than you might have. These are not of less value, just different.
Said in a bit peculiar way: you can reach a good understanding of your cultural counterparts when you see that your cultural binoculars affects your view of them. In other words, one has to know one self, one’s own culture and how it affects oneself in order to get a more all-rounded and deeper understanding of other cultures.
With research and an open-mind you will easier understand and appreciate the new situation.
Remember: do not expect things to be as they are at home, because you have traveled abroad to find things differently.
The Importance of Travelling with an Open Mind | Open Minded Travel
5. Be Active
When you first arrive overseas you might not know many people — a situation that can lead to oneself feeling lonesome and annoyed. It is therefore crucial that you try to get in contact and befriend new people as early as possible in your new environment. Keep yourself therefore active and get involved in as much as possible. Join activities, events and relevant organisations. If you’re a student sign up for student organisations you might find interesting. If you’re overseas in terms of a job, then look for relevant things going on in your field of work. If you’re a solo entrepreneur, then check out some co-work spaces, and so forth.
By doing so you’ll more easily get new friends and acquaintances that will in many ways make your new life a lot easier.
A typical reaction associated with culture shock is that one tends to only relate and hang out with fellow countrymen in the host country (or people with similar cultural background). But just remember that you travel overseas to learn about a new country, its people, culture, and its language etc. Simply put, by avoiding the host people you are basically “shooting yourself in the foot” and in many ways just prolonging your culture shock process. So, don’t do that.
Digital Nomads and Coworking Spaces | Nexudus
The Stress-Free Guide to Settling Down in a New City | LifeHacker
To summarize, if you do some research before you travel, learn some of the language, make yourself aware about culture shock, keep an open mind towards the host country, and stay active and create contacts early on, then you substantially reduce the culture shock and its negative effects. And you’ll very likely have an awesome and unforgettable stay.
I hope you enjoyed reading this self-help article! Have you previously experienced a strong sense of culture shock? Do you have other tips that could be valuable to readers in overcoming culture shock? Do share in the comment field!
Jon Pedersen is an entrepreneur, digital nomad, and passionate adventurer fanatically obsessed about his bucket list and the founder of BLF. Besides occasionally sharing bucket list worthy experiences from around the world, he also seeks to offer tools & resources to enable you to really live life to the fullest — which you can read at www.jonandrepedersen.com