1.7.1 - Common Reactions
Culture shock is an extreme response to an international transition. There are other "surprises" that are less severe. It is helpful to think of common reactions when going abroad in these terms:
Culture "Surprise": Usually occurs early in your stay in the new culture when you begin to be aware of superficial, novel, and startling differences. Often characterizes the "honeymoon" phase of adjustment.
Culture "Stress": A mild response to "stimulus overload." Culture Stress" is often seen in travelers abroad. One becomes tired and withdrawn. Annoyance builds as daily reality becomes more difficult.
Culture "Irritation": Often manifests itself in terms of Item Irritation and is usually traceable to a few observable behaviors that are common in the culture, and to which an individual reacts particularly strongly (a personal hot button). These may include spitting, hygiene, verbal harassment, public displays (affection, drunkenness, etc.), or other overt behaviors to which an individual has a strong negative response.
Culture "Fatigue": A fairly short-term response to "stimulus overload." This occurs when you begin to respond to the behavior of the "new" culture and are stressed by trying to deal with lots of new cultural information all at once. Stress and irritation intensify as you attempt to study or work in a foreign environment. There is a cumulatively greater impact due to the "need to operate" in unfamiliar and difficult contexts.Symptoms intensify. Ability to function declines. It can occur soon after arrival or within a few weeks. It can hit you quickly and is often accompanied by "Language Fatigue." Language fatigue occurs when, trying to use a second language constantly, you become physically and psychologically drained by speaking, listening, and finding meaning in, until now, a little used "new" language.
Culture "Shock": Culture Shock comes from the natural contradiction between our accustomed patterns of behavior and the psychological conflict of attempting to maintain them in the new cultural environment. While the time of onset is variable, it usually occurs within a few months of entering a new culture and is a normal, healthy psychological reaction. While culture shock is common, relief is available. There are ways to minimize its effects -the first of which is to accept that it is a real phenomenon- and to learn to recognize its sometimes vague, if persistent, signs in yourself as well as others.
If negative attitudes towards minor annoyances do not change, a low level of persistent frustration is likely to build up. This can quickly lead to volatile anger when accumulated stress inappropriately and unexpectedly erupts and you vent your feelings, but you are unable to trace the outburst to a single source. People around you might comment, "What was that all about?" or "Where did that come from?"
Just remember that unlike temporary annoyance when you are in the presence of a particular cultural practice (e.g., mistreatment of animals or public displays of affection), culture shock is neither caused by a single act nor easily traceable to a particular event. It is cumulative, attributable to many small things that happen over time, and it has the potential to be more deeply felt and take longer to alleviate.
Sources of Stress
The sources of stress overseas are often similar to the ones we encounter at home, but they may become magnified in a new setting. Without accessible support, studying abroad can become, often temporarily, more a daunting challenge than a pleasurable experience. A "bad day" at home can usually be attributed to something concrete (a fight with a friend, a bad test result, lack of sleep) and quickly resolved. The sources of stress abroad are a bit harder to identify.
They usually come from:
functioning in unfamiliar social and academic settings without a clear understanding of how to succeed or avoid failure. "Trying harder" without understanding the "rules" of the culture or modifying your normal behavior tends to compound the problem and rather than resolve it;
going abroad with unrealistic expectations and preconceptions of what life would be like and discovering those ideas are naïve, idealistic, or stereotypical;
making every effort to learn the language or culture and failing to make the kind of progress you expected;
attempting to make "foreign" friends, but finding this does not result in the kinds of relationships you had hoped to have.
These kind of frustrations are likely to solve themselves as you become more knowledgeable and competent in the new culture. They probably fall under the category of"culture fatigue." Culture shock is a somewhat different and more intense version of"frustration" and usually arises from sources which are far less obvious and circumstances which persist over time.
While reactions that signal transition shock are frequent enough to be considered completely "normal" by psychologists and study abroad advisers, they can present a great personal challenge to students struggling through a difficult period in their adjustment. When travelers begin to ask themselves questions like, "What have I gotten myself into?""What am I doing here?" "What is the matter with these people?" and "Why cant they do it the right way?" you can be pretty sure that some degree of transition shock is present.
Symptoms of Culture Shock
The symptoms of culture shock are quite varied and can be easily misunderstood or even overlooked because they are similar to reactions that can occur in everyday life. The link between culture shock and what you are feeling at a given moment may be difficult to see. It is very common for people experiencing culture shock to not only deny the possibility that culture shock might be the problem, but to shift the focus, attributing their stress wholly to the behavior or values of the people around them.
Common symptoms of culture shock:
Feelings of helplessness/dependency
Disorientation and isolation
Depression and sadness
Hyper-irritability, may include inappropriate anger and hostility
Sleep and eating disturbances (too little or too much)
Excessive critical reactions to host culture/stereotyping
Recreational drug dependency
Extreme concerns over sanitation, safety (even paranoia), and being taken advantage of
Loss of focus and ability to complete tasks
It is important to understand that culture shock has a wide range of symptoms and that many people experience only mild annoyances and temporary dissatisfaction in the process of adjusting to life overseas. These reactions are probably better characterized as item irritation (a cultural practice or attitude that drives you nuts when you encounter it) or culture fatigue (a temporary frustration). However, for a few, culture shock can be a profoundly disorienting experience and take much longer to recover from, particularly if those in the midst of the experience are unaware of the sources of the problem and have no idea of how to counteract it.
Stages of Culture Shock
In addition to studies on what causes culture shock, many studies have been done on when culture shock occurs and its stages. From this, we can generalize the following:
In spite of jet-lag, local transportation and housing issues, communication difficulties, and the normal heightened anxiety one feels when embarking upon a journey and after arrival, most travelers find the first few days or weeks in a new country an exhilarating experience. Called the "Honeymoon Phase," this can be a little like the "Its a small world" sentiment one can succumb to on a visit to Disneyland. Things are new, different, interesting, "quaint," "traditional," novel, or"historical" and everything takes on a slight glow of unreality. Beyond the "quaint," it is the similarities that stand out, not the differences (or they are minimized or romanticized).
The "Honeymoon" phase of initial cultural contact will likely be brief, but in some cases it may linger for a month or more. For some students the phase may quickly give way to a downward spiral where an increasing realization of difference is coupled with a tendency to place exaggerated emphasis on these cultural characteristics. Some begin to see these differences as defects in the host culture. Others, criticized for inappropriate actions, respond by blaming the hosts, thereby increasing their own alienation and justifying their attitudes. This makes it even more difficult for them to evaluate their own behavior or objectively observe the host culture.
Deepening Culture Shock
More serious culture shock arises as a result of cumulative, largely puzzling encounters resulting in equally negative perceptions. For that reason, the shock is deceptively gradual. Those who enter another country with an attitude of what anthropologists call naive realism the view thateveryone sees the world essentially as they do are susceptible to being quickly disabused of that idea as reality sets in. If the naive realist also holds an ethnocentric belief that his or her cultural ways are preferable and superior to all others, the likelihood of some kind of conflict escalates enormously.
For most study abroad students, culture shock is a mild, transitory annoyance that can be overcome with relative ease through personal effort and increased knowledgeand with the assistance of sympathetic friends and advisers.Culture shock is simply the deepest trough of the U-curve and rarely lasts more than a few weeks. The recovery from culture shock is the mirror image of its onsetthat is, it comes on gradually and leaves the same way. When you feel particularly down or discouraged, it helps to know that it will almost surely get better.
Most important, culture shock can be a period of intense self-assessment and culture learning. Experiencing the process itself can be beneficial. Overcoming even a mild case of culture shock will result in your feeling more confident, self-reliant, independent, and capable of your ability to cope with cross-cultural experiences. In a way, having a little culture shock can immunize you for future travels. Even though coping with culture shock in one context wont necessarily prevent it from ever occurring again, it will definitely lessen its impact and give you the insight and understanding to deal with it effectively.
While few study abroad students experience the more severe forms of culture shock, most feel some of its effects unless they rarely interact with the local populations. Fortunately, although culture shock cannot be totally avoided, simply being aware of its symptoms and knowing how and why it happens can make adjustment to overseas living easier and more effective. Remember, culture shock signals that you are learning something new about the culture and, presumably, that is what you want to do.
Many students never experience culture shock to any appreciable extent and perform their overseas tasks and manage their relationships just fine. For those who do experience a degree of discomfort in the process of living abroad, it can be an opportunity to grow and learn, although probably best appreciated from the perspective of being on the "right-hand" side of the U-shaped curve of adjustment.
Moving On and Adapting
Moving beyond culture shock and continuing to live and learn overseas puts you on the path to becoming interculturally fluent. Becoming more deeply engaged with the local culture increases your level of intercultural adaptation and your ability to reach your goals. It also makescultural learning more enjoyable, if not always easier.
This learning process is complex and almost inevitably results in reports from returning students that, I learned more about myself and my culture than about the culture I was living in. The learning process can be a bit painful, take longer than expected, and can lead to the onset of symptoms associated with culture shock. The good news is that this indicates that learning is occurring and that you are getting better and better at understanding the culture.
Being aware of this cycle of cultural adjustment will allow you to better understand your reactions during your time abroad. In addition, this cycle of cultural adjustment can be linked with levels of Cultural Awareness.