Would you try running an iOS app on an Android smartphone? This illustrates what people experience who have been enculturated (“programmed”) in one cultural setting (our “operating system”) and find themselves uncomfortable and disoriented in another cultural environment.
I want to talk to you about culture shock – a psychological upset that stems from unfamiliar cues and unmet expectations in a new culture.
Why Do We Experience Culture Shock?
Our culture determines what feels normal, right, and real to us. When we go into a new culture, we are trying to process new experiences through our original cultural system which has not yet learned how to read the new cultural clues. Behaviors have different meanings.
Take a basic thing like eating, for example. Besides personal taste, cultural values guide our decisions on what, how, and when to eat, and with what instruments.
To us the new foods we encounter may look, taste, and smell strange. In addition, there are new customs and often also a new language.
Given the many new and unknown factors you are experiencing, it is easy to feel frustrated, out of place, and ill-equipped to deal even with seemingly simple situations.
The resulting condition is culture shock, a temporary condition of stress and disorientation a person experiences on the way to becoming bicultural.
Some of the causes for the experience of culture shock are:
- Inability to communicate
- Changes in routine
- Changes in relationships
- Loss of understanding
- Emotional disorientation
- Disorientation of values
The severity of culture shock depends upon several factors such as your personality, the extent of the differences between the cultures, and the way you deal with new situations.
Some of the more common symptoms include the following:
- Irritation over the local way of life
- Boredom and loneliness
- Overall feeling of dissatisfaction
- Rising stress, distrust, and depression
- Physical illness, especially chronic headaches, hypertension
- Overconcern with one’s health
The Four Phases of Culture Shock
During the process of becoming a bicultural person most people go through four phases.
Initial High (A)—During this phase you usually feel excited, maybe a bit fearful about being in a new country. Your level of satisfaction is high. You are finally there! It’s the honeymoon phase of your missionary stay.
Frustration (B)—Sooner or later it hits you. You are here to stay. The different tastes and sounds will not go away. Some of these strange things begin to get to you. You can’t seem to understand anybody. Misunderstandings seem frequent now. Your patience is wearing thin. The satisfaction level is low. You feel like going home.
Recovery (C)—The good news is that culture shock is temporary. Your efforts to make friends are crucial and pay off. You begin to laugh again. Some of “their” strange ways begin to make sense when viewed from their viewpoint. Bonding begins to occur.
Acceptance (D)—You begin to feel comfortable again. There is a sense of satisfaction about your work. You are accepting the local climate, food, dress, and customs. You function without anxiety. You make friends and enjoy them. Eventually, you will miss them!
Life in a different culture appears full of potential for cross-cultural misunderstandings and stress. Some “danger zones” are:
- Interpersonal relationships (e.g., how to relate to coworkers, people in authority, or a seller at the local market)
- Cultural incompatibilities (e.g., chickens or other animals in the church)
- Rules of politeness, etiquette, and friendship (e.g., how to say “No” to a request where such a behavior would be seen as very rude)
- Privacy or the lack of it (That’s a hard one for westerners!)
- Use of time (Does anyone here wear a watch?) and space
- Communication (Why don’t they get it?)
Concerns about climate, food, living conditions, and hygiene are often high on the initial anxiety list. These are usually not the most problematic areas of trouble because we do adjust to different climates quite readily and we can learn to eat new food.
The list for cultural blunders, however, seems endless. But don’t despair. As you bond with the people of your host culture, you will become more familiar with the cultural clues. Soon you will develop a new sense of security and belonging.
Dealing With Culture Shock
Here are a seven tips to help you deal more effectively with the stress of culture shock.
1. Don’t deny but recognize culture shock. Those who feel they are immune to it may get it even worse. If you bottle up your feelings or act as if you are not affected, you will only isolate yourself.
2. Know yourself. Learn to strengthen your emotional security through self-acceptance. God made you special with your gifts and talents.
3. Set goals that are realistic.
4. Seek a reasonable amount of escape. Reading, your favorite music, or a hobby. You may even pack a few books of healthy humor. Humor is often culture-specific. A good laugh may help you across some difficult moments. Make sure you plan for vacation time if your mission is for a year or more. Ask friends for gift subscriptions to your favorite magazines. In any case, allow time for weekly relaxation and recreation.
5. Get to know your host culture. Try to appreciate unfamiliar ways of doing things as other ways to deal with life’s problems and joys, even though different from your own.
6. Improve communication. Study the language and observe nonverbal forms of communication.
7. Don’t isolate yourself. Remember that culture shock is only temporary and will pass as you learn to bond with people and appreciate the host culture’s ways to cope with life and its challenges.
Record your observations and reflections in your field journal. (It is best to start one even before you leave home.) It will provide you with a wealth of insight when you are debriefing with friends, other missionaries and people back home.
Have you experienced culture shock? What things have helped you deal with culture shock?
Share your thoughts in the comments below.