How to Deal with Culture Shock

Culture shock in a market in Southeast Asia
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Culture shock can sneak up on even the most experienced travelers and the feelings of disorientation, confusion, uncertainty, and even anxiety are enough to make anyone want to pack their bags and head for home.

Whether you are visiting a new country on vacation or are going to study abroad, exploring unfamiliar territory affects everyone in different ways. The adventure of immersing yourself in a different culture might be a thrilling experience for some, while others find it daunting and overwhelming and need some time to acquaint themselves with nuances and cultural norms of a foreign country.

If you’re one of the latter, here are a few of my best tips about how to deal with culture shock.

What is Culture Shock?

Culture shock is the feeling of disorientation, confusion, and many people experience culture shock when visiting or living in a new culture with unique local customs, languages, and acceptable behaviors.

Cultures, social norms, and ways of life can vary significantly across countries and regions.

Culture shock can be caused by a range of things, ranging from simple things like hand gestures and unfamiliar greetings to more complex issues like difficult language barriers, strange food, cultural faux pas’ due to not knowing the local customs.

This unfamiliarity can cause a variety of symptoms such as anxiety, confusion, frustration, and homesickness. It can also lead to physical symptoms such as colds and flu due to being run-down, stomach bugs due to unfamiliar foods and bacteria, and insomnia from international time zone changes.

Stages of Culture Shock

Research shows that culture shock has four distinct stages – honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment, and adaptation.

Honeymoon Stage

The honeymoon stage of culture shock is the first stage and is usually the most euphoric time where you’ll be thrilled to be in a new environment and fascinated by all the exciting and different aspects of a different country and its culture.

Everything from the sights sounds and smells to the local people, their cultural habits, and the way of life is exciting. Sadly, however, the honeymoon period must always come to an end.

Negotiation Stage

As the initial excitement of being in a new place wears off, feelings of disorientation and irritation begin to set in. You’ll find begin to feel overwrought from misunderstanding others’ actions or language, cultural differences, or ways of doing things that you instinctively understand at home.

These feelings can make you begin to feel disconnected and lonely and unable to cope, and you begin to miss your old way of life. It is during this stage that physical symptoms may begin to appear, and you could experience minor health ailments from stress.

Adjustment Stage

At around six months life gradually starts to get better and routine sets in. You will start to become more familiar with everything from local customs and culture to the language and food. You will begin to gain a better understanding of the local way of life abroad. You will have made some friends, perhaps learned a bit of the language, and gained your bearings around town.

Adaptation

The adaptation stage is also known as the bicultural stage as you now feel comfortable in your host country and will feel like you have the ability to cope with things. You will have a strong sense of belonging, and will finally begin to feel comfortable in your new home abroad.

Reverse Culture Shock

Bear in mind that the opposite can happen if you return home for the first time after living abroad for an extended period. This is called reverse culture shock, and you might feel like things have changed since you left, your family or friends may have moved on or your hometown feels different.

You might find yourself feeling displaced and disorientated and sad that your newly learned customs and traditions don’t fit into your old life. You might have to learn to go through the whole process of coping with culture shock again!

How to Deal with Culture Shock

Culture shock is an integral part of living abroad so it’s best to accept there is nothing you can do to change it and may as well prepare yourself for the inevitable so you can adapt to the shock as quickly as possible.

Here are some ways you can best deal with culture shock if you are going to live or study abroad:

1. Research Your Destination

This might seem like a no-brainer but researching your destination ahead of time will help you prepare for your experience abroad and know what to expect. Start by explore the culture and history of the country which will help to understand the ways of life within it and pay particular attention to the customs of the country. You don’t want to risk insulting someone because you weren’t aware of the local customs.

A good source of information about the international laws and customs of every country in the world is the U.S Department of State Consular Affairs website and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office “Travel Aware” webpage. Here you’ll find all you need to know about how to meet, greet, eat, and more in a new culture to set you up before you live or study abroad.

2. Accept How You Feel

Culture shock and being homesick is normal and most people will experience it at some stage. It is all part of the experience of getting out, exploring the world, and having adventures abroad. Be patient with yourself and understand that it is a process.

Revel in the fact that you have the opportunity to see a different part of the world and experience different cultures and traditions. There will be times when you are happy and excited, but there will also be times that are difficult and frustrating – this is culture shock and it’s all part of having a global adventure!

3. Talk to Someone  

The best way to survive culture shock is to talk with other people who are experiencing the same thing. If you are really struggling, don’t be scared to talk about your feelings – hiding the fact that things are difficult will only make you feel more isolated and desperate.

Find someone to confide in and talk about your feelings, whether it’s a friend, a fellow student, your local coordinator, or a therapist. Having a heart-to-heart with someone from the country will help you learn to come to terms with your feelings, help you to better understanding your surroundings, and perhaps give you a new perspective of your situation from a local’s point of view.

4. Focus on the Positive

When you are homesick, it is easy to focus on the things you are missing like your favorite foods or your home language. But try to make the best of the situation and make sure to focus on the good things around you.

Make a list of beautiful buildings to explore in your host country if you enjoy architecture or find the trendiest coffee shops around you if you are a coffee aficionado. Keep in mind, learning about new cultures and ways of life will broaden your horizons, enjoy your time abroad, and help you grow as a person.

5. Keep an Open Mind

One of the most effective ways of dealing with culture shock when you are living or studying abroad is to always keep an open mind. Embrace your new world as much as possible by committing to as many experiences and opportunities as you can.

Meet as many new people as possible and make friends; join locals for meals or go out on the town with new friends. Always remember to use common sense and stay safe but get out there and have some fun!

6. Personalize your Own Space

Personalizing your space with something from home can go a long way to helping you deal with culture shock and feeling more at home. A framed picture of family or friends, a comfy cushion from your bed back home, or a fluffy toy – whatever works for you and creates a haven for you to escape to when the going gets rough.

7. Make Time to Process

Writing about your experience is a fantastic way to help relieve your stress and can be a good outlet for any emotions you are feeling. You have to be Shakespeare – start keeping notes in a journal or write a blog about what you are seeing, doing, and experiencing every day.

It’s not only a great way to release all your feelings while you go through culture shock but can also be a diary of your adventures that your family and friends can follow and that you can look back on in years to come.

8. Get Out and About and Explore!  

No matter how disorientated or homesick you feel, get out and about and explore. Live like a tourist and ride public transport around the city or wander around on foot and take photographs of everything. Find a hangout where you relax or try new routes on your way home and find new treasures.

Exercise is also a must when you are experiencing culture shock while living or studying abroad. Get out into the sunshine (or snow) and get those endorphins flowing – you will feel so much better afterward.

9. Give Yourself a Project

A great way of dealing with culture shock and settling into your new life faster is to set yourself a project and work on it every day. It can be anything from learning the language to practicing the steps of traditional dance or learning how to cook a local dish.

This will not only keep you busy and your mind off thinking about home but may even give you a sense of achievement and help you settle into your comfort zone and new home much quicker.

10. Stay Connected to Home

Homesickness can play a significant role in culture shock and most people who are away from home for any period of time can begin to feel homesick. Stay connected with your family and friends – set a time to Skype or Facetime and chat regularly.

However, make sure you keep a healthy balance though. It’s great to stay in contact with home and to make yourself feel better, but try not to slip into the habit of obsessing about what your friends are doing back home and what you are missing out on. Be sure to put yourself out there and make new friends, too.

11. Find Something You Love Doing

Find something you loved to do at home and do it in your new country. It could be anything from finding the local swimming pool and joining a swim club to hiking in the mountains, wandering around museums, or sipping coffee in the park.

When things get difficult, you can head to your happy place and do something you love, which will undoubtedly make you feel better. Joining clubs will also help you to meet like-minded people and make new friends.  

12. Don’t Compare Yourself to Others

Remember that everybody experiences things differently so don’t compare yourself to other people when you are dealing with culture shock. Understand that some people are better travelers than others and may adapt more quickly to different cultures and traditions. Take things at your own pace and enjoy your experience.

13. Travel Somewhere New

This may seem counterintuitive as traveling to a new place for the first time was the cause of your culture shock in the first place but planning little day trips or weekends away can distract you from the culture shock you are experiencing and offer you new and exciting experiences.

It can be anything from a road trip in the local region to a weekend escape to another city, state, or country. You’ll see new things, meet new people, and have an adventure, and your original destination may feel a bit more like home when you get back.

***

Dealing with culture shock is part of traveling and happens to everyone at some stage. It may be uncomfortable, frustrating, and disconcerting at times, but it’s temporary and once you are over it, you’ll find you are stronger and ready to conquer the world. It’s all part of the incredible experience of traveling.

Mia Russell
Mia Russell
Mia is a freelance travel writer with a passion for adventure, wildlife, and water (not necessarily in that order.) She has traveled the globe to follow her dreams, fight for the environment, and swim in some of the world’s most beautiful places.

About TravelFreak

Travel photographer and adventurer extraordinaire, I’m Jeremy and I’ve been traveling the world for 11 years. From the war-torn countries of the Middle East to the tropical beaches of Southeast Asia, I’ve traveled to 50+ countries and made just about every mistake you can imagine. Now, I’ve made it my mission to turn those mistakes into lessons and help arm you with the advice, gear and knowledge you need for your next trip.

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