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Settling In: 10 Common Myths (and One Uncommon Truth) About Culture Shock

By Nancy Longatan

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Summary: Longatan outlines 10 common myths about culture shock and one uncommon one. She'll help you see why culture shock is a gift.

Culture Shock - 10 Common Myths

The term "culture shock" is by now widely known and loosely applied to many different types of interactions and emotional states, but there are still a lot of misconceptions, even among experienced world travelers and long-time expats. Here we look at ten common myths about the cross-cultural adjustment process and try to sort out hard fact from lazy fiction.

1. It won't happen to me!

Culture shock happens to everybody. It can even hit on a smaller scale within ones own country, in a new town or a new job, but the most striking experience of culture shock is, of course, when moving to an entirely new country. Kalvero Oberg, the scholar who coined the phrase points out: "[There are] a thousand and one ways in which we orient ourselves to the situations of daily life: when to shake hands and what to say when we meet people…how to make purchases, when to accept and when to refuse invitations, when to take statements seriously and when not…" And in a different culture all these and many other cues and clues are different, so a newcomer will always feel a bit off balance and out of touch. It is this experience of being out of kilter with the surroundings that precipitates the experience called culture shock.

2. It's a kind of illness, weakness, or fault.

Culture shock is a natural process that everyone will go through. It's not an indication that something is wrong, only that a lot of new material needs to be accommodated all at once, and a kind of system overload goes into effect, causing some distress. Some people feel great discomfort and clumsiness when entering a new culture, while others will adjust more easily, but some level of culture shock is always to be expected.

3. It mainly happens to people going to a very different kind of environment.

Some people believe that when moving to a country with the same language, or at a similar level of economic development that culture shock will not be a factor, but the reality is that even if the language is the same, the culture can differ in a wide variety of subtle and/or obvious ways. Although moving from, say, an industrially developed or rich country to a very poor one (or vice versa) can expose one to more immediate "shocks" in terms of seeing extremely different lifestyles or living conditions for the first time, culture shock is a different process that will come into play regardless of physical conditions.

4. a) Everybody is really alike underneath. b) You can never really understand foreigners.

Paradoxically, this myth can take two opposite forms, while underlying it is an attitude of oversimplification and misunderstanding of the true nature of cultural differences. Culture is real, and people really do hold very different values about life and living. However, the ability to understand such differences is a part of being human, and we can all learn to appreciate others' values even while determining never to share them or give up our own.

5. I just need to be more reasonable and less emotional.

Culture shock can be an intensely emotional experience. The sojourner in a new place finds that everything is "up for grabs", and previously unexamined assumptions are challenged on a daily basis. Everyone else seems to understand what's going on without need for explanations, and ones own expectations get violated without any acknowledgement or clarification. That challenges like these cause emotional distress should not be surprising, and you cannot expect to reason yourself out of feelings of this nature. Try instead to analyze the triggers that cause you the most distress and reflect on what, exactly, of your personal "baggage" is being challenged by these triggers.

6. Just be yourself and people will like you/adjust to you.

Unfortunately, many of the communication cues that seem natural within one culture can actually be offensive in another. This can be as simple as learning to avoid a gesture that may have a different meaning, to subtle and unconscious processes such as volume of speaking and eye contact. Without being aware of it, a sojourner can be projecting an unpleasant or unattractive persona because of communication styles that are common in the home culture and considered improper in the host culture. It is necessary to be alert and ready to learn when entering a new culture, so that the ways of communicating politely and effectively can be gradually picked up and practiced on the way to becoming a competent cross-cultural communicator.

7. It can strike at any time, like lightning.

Culture shock is a process of adjustment that builds up and is resolved over a period of time. The "shocks" that hit hard from time to time are not culture shock itself, only a symptom of it. Some days are just hard. Feelings of frustration and even despair well up and no resolution seems to be in sight. Other days or moments can be euphoric, giving a sense of oneness with all the universe. Both of these points are part of the whole culture shock experience, and will need to be integrated gradually as the sojourner becomes adjusted to a new environment and lifestyle.

8. One only has to go through culture shock once.

Each new place requires a new adjustment process, and experienced expatriates know that they have to live through all the stages of adjustment each time. Of course, one develops skills in entering new cultures and a familiarity with the practice of coping with culture shock, but the need for adjustment continues all the same.

9. I need to know what stage I'm in.

Scholars have observed people in cross-cultural situations going through a series of stages of adjustment running from pre-departure to re-entry, but these stages are not subjectively identified. Rather, they are discerned from a large sample of people reporting on their feelings and experiences over time. The information that one is "at" one stage or another may or may not be helpful, and some, especially those living overseas for long and undetermined periods, may not "go through" stages at all, but may experience them as a cycle or even as randomly occurring experiences. Take the information gained from researchers with a grain of salt, and observe your own adjustment process with as much self-awareness as you can. Your own observations will probably have more validity for your own adjustment process.

10. It will go away naturally.

Everyone adjusts to a new environment eventually, but not everyone learns it well enough to appreciate its own real strengths and weaknesses. Many people moving to a new country get used to their life there, but do not question or give up their original ethnocentric assumptions, making them constantly critical and unappreciative of the host culture. To avoid this trap, it is necessary to think of oneself as a learner and to look for ways to actually take on the point of view of a native, at least for a short time, to try to catch a glimpse of the culture from the inside, on its own terms. In this way, a newcomer can gain a deeper respect for the new culture, and perhaps even move to integrating some of its values or approaches into a changed, bicultural life.

One Uncommon Truth

Culture shock is a gift. It shakes up our small world and forces us to question and reappraise what we thought we knew. A person who can be open to the challenge posed by a strange culture can grow and expand mentally, emotionally and spiritually, and gradually be transformed into a true world citizen. Culture shock should be welcomed and celebrated!

About the Author

Nancy Longatan is a specialist in adult education, especially for cross-cultural communication and surviving culture shock. She has worked in Nepal, where she managed an integrated rural development project, later, she worked in a training center in Japan, providing training in rural leadership and community organizing to participants from all over Asia and Africa. At present, she lives and works in rural Philippines, supporting church workers and other rural development activists. She has articles published in print publications in Barbados, Nepal, Japan, the UK, the Philippines and the USA, as well as on the web. She also teaches an online class in cross-cultural communication and culture shock designed for people moving overseas without a big company's support.

Nancy teaches online cross-cultural training courses.

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First Published: Apr 16, 2009

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