Culture Shock

Today we hear much talk of the 'global village'. People are have more opportunities to travel and live abroad than ever before. However, when you leave a familiar environment and go for an extended stay somewhere quite different, you could experience a whole range of unexpected and unfamiliar feelings. Many of these emotions can be very strong, making you feel out of control and confused: just the sort of problem you could do without as you try to cope with a new job, a new way of life. This is the experience we call 'culture shock' and its course is well understood and documented. So, the first thing to remember is that culture shock is normal, that it has clearly defined stages and that, provided you understand what is happening to you, you should be able to cope with it.

Why might we experience culture shock? The first point to make is that in your new environment you lack the support network of family and friends who would normally help you to cope with difficult situations. Another important factor is that you could find the people you are working and living with are not aware of your feelings and may appear not to understand your anxieties. Basically culture shock is part of the process of adapting to the unfamiliar and it is a process that inevitably takes some time to work through.

Some of the differences can cause you practical anxieties, driving on the other side of the road, for example. But even quite small differences such as the non-availability of certain foods or the fact that shops have different opening times can all contribute to making you feel disoriented in the short term. The important point to try to remember is that these are perfectly normal reactions and they will pass as you become more accustomed to your new way of life. For those going to a society with very different customs and behaviour patterns from their own, the impact of culture shock may be even more pronounced, as you find all your expectations about people and their behaviour are no longer met. Common areas of difference are: modes of dress, behaviour considered appropriate to men and to women, aspects of religious practice, social customs, food and eating habits, climate.

At the beginning, in the honeymoon period, you are likely to feel excited by the new experience of going to another country and you will be looking forward to arriving and meeting new people and embarking on your career. Quite quickly, however, you may find that the new experiences begin to overwhelm you and you react with distressing emotions that might be unfamiliar to you. What you first found exciting may now seem alien, even frightening and you may be wishing you were back among the familiar places and people at home. You may be unused to sudden mood changes and strong reactions to apparently trivial events. This is perhaps the most difficult phase for any new teacher and it is important to try to remember that what you are feeling is normal and that it will pass.

However, if you find yourself feeling unable to cope, do try to contact other staff of the same nationality as yourself with longer experience of the new environment. Although, objectively, you may not wish to seek out your compatriots, especially if you are trying to avoid speaking your native language in order to learn the language of the host country, it will help you at this stage to look for their support. People from a similar background to your own will understand your reactions to the new environment. They will be able to talk about what is happening back home and they will make you feel less cut off and less a stranger. You will be able to cook your national food together, listen to familiar music, exchange newspapers and books and discuss the different aspects of the new culture that you find difficult to accept.

Eventually you should find that you have been given enough support from fellow nationals to enable you to feel more at home in the new environment. Together you will wish to explore more and more of the host culture. Gradually you will come to re-evaluate all that is new and you will find that many of the different customs now seem attractive to you.

It is not possible to say how long these different phases will take, as so much depends on individual reactions and the extent of the differences between the cultures they are experiencing. But try to remember that it is quite natural for you to go through stages of rejecting all that you find - the food, the mode of dress, the behaviour patterns, the climate and that, as time goes on, you will gradually learn to re-assess them, finding some of them more acceptable than you first realised.

However, the feelings you have may be very powerful and there could be times when you need to seek help. Below are suggestions for ways of obtaining help with specific difficulties as they arise:

Homesickness - general feelings of being unable to cope Seek contact with other people of your nationality, either through your work or by contact with official organisations such as the Consulate.

Problems with work - Speak to your boss and ask for initial support. If other people of your own nationality work in the company, get to know them and they will be able to guide you through the initial period of settling in.

Loneliness - Find out if there are any societies for your nationality in your town. Join societies that cater for your leisure and sporting interests. When you have contact with fellow nationals, find out where you can buy foods that you eat at home, newspapers in your own language and take the opportunity to share experiences and feelings with them.

Opportunities for worship - If you wish to practise your religion while abroad, make sure that you ask what facilities are available when you have your initial interview.

Gender issues If you find you are in a society with different attitudes to gender than those you are used to, discuss the problems with colleagues of the same sex as yourself to compare findings. Again, try to inform yourself as much as possible before you leave of any differences in attitude that exist in your host country.

General preparation for the new situation - Find out whether your recruitment organisation will be holding an orientation session for employees before they leave. Read as much as possible about the host country beforehand and try to talk to other people who have already worked in the country to see if they have any special advice.

You may think that culture shock is only likely to affect people going to countries with very different cultures from their own. If you are going to work in a country that you already know well, you may feel that you will be immune from culture shock symptoms. However, you need to remember that living and working in a country exposes you to a very different aspect of it from what you may experience as a tourist. There will still be significant differences ranging from the purely practical to the sort of attitudes people hold, so do not be surprised if you find yourself experiencing the sort of emotional reactions described above.

Finally, on your return home, you could find culture shock working in reverse. With your new experiences, you will feel a different person from the one who left. You may have a broader outlook than the people you return to and you will look at some aspects of life in your own country with a more a critical eye. Also, many things will have changed in your absence so that your return could be as unsettling as he experience of going abroad in the first place. Again, this is normal and there will be similar stages of readjustment.

Brenda Townsend Hall is a writer and trainer in the field of cultural awareness and English for business and is an associate member of the ITAP International Alliance:

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