Life Abroad
10 min

What’s a Culture Shock and How To Overcome It?

Culture shock is integral to the experience of living and studying abroad. What causes it and how to deal with it?
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We’ve talked about it with Kristina Roppelt, international communication and soft skills consultant, simultaneous interpreter, and the founder of the Agency for International Cooperation.

Kristina Roppelt is a private-sector diplomat, mediator, and guide to a tricky and sensitive world of intercultural communication. People involved in business, politics, culture, and education seek help from her. She provides delegation and negotiation support, moderates intercultural groups, teaches clients successful international communication, and helps them enter new markets.

So far, Kristina has been to 57 countries. Thanks to the experience of living in the US, South Korea, Australia, and the UK, she knows how hard it can be to get over the culture shock and adjust to a new environment. In this article, Kristina is looking at why culture shock even occurs, whether one can prepare for it, and how to turn it into a springboard for your growth.

What Is Culture Shock and What Causes It?

Culture shock is about puzzle pieces not fitting together in our heads. We live following established behavior and communication patterns that work well where we grew up. Then we move to another country and observe completely different social and cultural patterns. And they work too! This discrepancy between the familiar and the new can evoke a whole range of emotions, from irritation and fear to delight and admiration.

You don't have to go miles away to get culture shock. We tend to think of it as something that can only be experienced by international students or work migrants. However, culture is not just about countries, languages, and ethnicities. It’s about a way of life.

You can experience culture shock in your own country, city, or even apartment block. For example, you visit your neighbors. You see them cook, have meals, raise kids, and clean the house completely differently than you do. They may just as well not clean at all.

In this case, we are talking about a "microshock." However, if you notice and analyze these situations at home, where it’s obviously easier to handle stress than in a foreign country, you’ll be able to overcome it faster abroad.

What Does the Intensity of Culture Shock Depend On?

Some might think that culture shock only occurs when they encounter a different culture very far away from home. According to this theory, you are highly likely to experience it in Asia, for example, while feeling totally okay in neighboring Europe. This is not quite true: there are many scales that can be used to compare how “close” or “distant” certain cultures are. Geography is not the only and maybe even not the most important factor here.

For example, if we talk about religion, Montenegro is much closer to Orthodox Russia than Catholic Poland, with which Russia shares a border. In terms of language, China is much more “distant” from us than Serbia, although it has an extensive border with Russia, while Serbia does not. If a Russian takes a look at the economy of Brazil, they will observe a lot of familiar things.

There is a concept of high- and low-context cultures. The term was introduced at the end of the 1970s by the American anthropologist Edward Hall. Depending on a country or community, people have different approaches to communication. Low-context cultures are more explicit in communication, while high-context cultures deliver messages in a less direct way. 

For example, a “low-context” New Yorker will find communication with people in Japan, a country that exhibits a high-context culture, much harder than with Australians, even though a flight from New York to both countries will take approximately the same amount of time.

In Russia, we have a relatively homogeneous society. Although Russia is a large country with a vast number of languages, ethnicities, religions, and time zones, we are homogeneous in many ways, for example, in terms of language compared to Germany, Italy, or India.

The Soviet time has left us a legacy of numerous cultural patterns. For decades, TV, radio, and newspapers from Moscow to Vladivostok have broadcast the same “official party line” in the same dialect of the Russian language.

The thing is we tend to transfer these patterns to other countries. In a big country like Russia, where the nearest border may be hundreds of kilometers away from where you live, you can go your whole life without coming into contact with foreign cultures at all. On the other hand, there is small Estonia, for example, that is surrounded by a global context due to a large percentage of the Russian-speaking population, foreign neighbors, and many expats. As a result, life in Estonia implies many news agendas and the use of different languages.

A lot depends on the person too. In the era of globalization, you can find two people who grew up on neighboring streets but have completely different cultural identities. It makes sense that an inquisitive and observant person with travel experience will be more able to accept these cultural differences.

Is There a Link Between Culture Shock and Language Barrier?

Speaking the local language facilitates understanding of the cultural context. Language can tell you a lot about a community. For example, if it has special pronouns and verbs for people of different genders and ages, one may assume that the understanding of gender and age is probably a pretty complex and nuanced issue in this culture.

One cannot speak all languages though. So, if you lack language competencies, I’d recommend you to develop your ability to observe and build up the experience of observing. Ask questions, pay attention to details, and don't hesitate to ask for feedback. All of that will make your life in the new country more comfortable even if you don’t know the local language.

Pay attention to universal "categories". Regardless of language, people all around the world do things you understand: eating, drinking, sleeping, having fun, working, and interacting with others. There are many categories, you’ll find in any society, including

  • address (formal and informal ways to address people)
  • physical contact (How do people say hello, do they keep their distance?)
  • gift exchange (Is it customary? What gifs are common? What are the gift-giving traditions?) 
  • inter-gender and inter-age relations (How do women and men and people of different ages communicate with each other?)
  • business communication (Is there a hierarchy and what does it involve?)
  • table manners (What’s the proper behavior during mealtime? Are there any traditions or dinner routines?)  

The list can go on and on. 

How To Prepare While Still at Home?

Before giving advice on "preparing" for culture shock, I’d like to make two things clear.

First, one can never be completely ready for culture shock. There is no algorithm or magic pill that will allow you to live a regular life, be highly efficient, and be fully integrated immediately after moving. No matter how thoroughly you’ve done your homework, there is always the uncertainty factor.

Second, remember culture shock happens to you, not the world. It may feel like people around don't get you, avoid you, or act weird. However, your feeling uncomfortable is the result of the changes that are happening to you when you get immersed in a new environment. And that's okay!

Tip #1: Get to know your reactions. How surprising and difficult is it for you to see people of other ethnicities or hear other languages? Do you find it challenging to immerse yourself in another culture when traveling? Is it hard for you to adjust to a new reality? What did you feel in this kind of situation? Was it interest, curiosity, fear, anger, frustration, or something else? Think about whether these experiences are too overwhelming for you or whether you know how to deal with them.

Tip #2: Learn as much as you can about the place you're going to. I’d recommend you to use information search tools, for example, those offered by the design thinking method, such as "desk research" or "empathy interviews".

As part of your "desk research", I suggest googling different articles, reading books on the topic, watching videos on YouTube, and looking through relevant accounts on Instagram and other social networks. Pay attention to which networks are popular in the country you are going to. Find out more about the press and other mass media there. Most of the countries have local press in English, so go through the news that makes headlines there.

Recently, I happened to read an Indonesian newspaper, and I was surprised by the issues raised there. What are we doing within ASEAN? How are we cooperating with our partners from Singapore? Sports would report on cricket, rugby, and basketball games with teams from China, Japan, and the Philippines. Apparently, people there don’t care so much about the Ukrainian crisis, the war in Syria, or the European Football Championship. 

"Empathy interviews" are conversations with those concerned. These can be people who have already experienced culture shock, are experiencing it now, or are getting ready, just like you.

It would be great to find "respondents" who are really close to your culture and share as many cultural layers with you as possible. They can be your classmates, groupmates, neighbors, etc. The more values and beliefs you have in common, the better.

For example, I try to be eco-friendly and sort waste at home. When I was going to England, it was important for me to have an "empathy interview" with someone who already had the experience of scrupulously sorting bottles into different types of plastic. It was unlikely I could get help from someone thinking "The British have gone completely insane to bother so much about trash!"

People with different experiences can help you in different ways. Those who are already there can tell you not only about cultural aspects, but about everyday life too, including where to buy food, how to save money, or how to connect to the Internet.  

If you know someone who is preparing for a trip, just like you, pool your efforts by sharing tips and sources. To find the "associates", use special communities on Facebook, as well as relevant resources offered by your university or study program.

People from another culture can be helpful, too. For example, when my husband and I moved to South Africa, the expat community helped us a lot. We shared our thoughts, shock, and frustration with friends from England and from India who had moved before us. Exchanging experiences would iron out the problems associated with moving to another country. Surprisingly, people from distant cultures often experience culture shock in similar ways.

So try to make friends with groupmates from other countries. Thus you’ll improve your language skills and build a certain cultural foundation at the same time.

Tip #3: Look for sensory experiences. This will make your receptors and nervous system prepared for the shocks that await you.

The most obvious option is to try the food of the country you're going to. All major cities in Russia and the CIS have restaurants that offer all kinds of cuisines. If you live in a small town where there are no such places, try making something yourself at home.

In South Korea, for example, what to eat was an issue for me because I don't like spicy food. The residence hall didn't have a kitchen where I could cook, so for a while, I used to eat at small Japanese and Italian cafes. Even Indian dishes tasted less spicy to me than local food. I would frequently drop into a Russian restaurant and even grew to like mayo because they added it to most of the dishes there.

I was prepared for this mentally. I had been to cultural events at the Korean Embassy and in Korean restaurants before. So when I came, I didn’t expect to eat in Korean cafeterias all the time. As a result, it wasn’t a stress factor for me.

Some countries (for example, India) have typical smells that the Russians may find too exotic. Incense, oils, and spices are part of the culture that you have to get used to. Look for opportunities to attend events organized by cultural centers, embassies, or consulates. Many of them are open and free of charge. For example, national festivals are not only a great place to get to know people who represent the culture but also taste and smell it. These experiences stimulate new neural connections that will make it easier to adjust to a new environment. Even if something goes wrong at such an event and you don't like it, you can always "evacuate" yourself home. Remember that fleeing home from abroad will be somewhat more difficult.

Tip #4: If you don’t find things interesting, that's okay! You come to a new country with a background of values, interests, and tastes. If you’re not excited about the local information agenda, that's fine.

Don't force yourself to like what you don't like, but don't get fixated on the differences either. Instead, try to find something in common and focus on it. Get to know these things, explore them, and form your own opinion. That's enough for a start in the country.

How To Help Yourself Handle Culture Shock When in the Country?

Tip #1: Culture shock is stressful for the body. Make sure you get through it safely. How do you usually combat stress? Do you sleep, eat, read, talk to your family on Skype? Or maybe you lock yourself at home and avoid any interactions with the world? No matter what it is, do the same when experiencing culture shock.

Give yourself time and don't blame yourself if you haven't made ten friends, visited all the museums, and tried all the top five national dishes in the first weeks. There's no such thing as a lot of self-care.

Think about what you'll need for a start to get over the stress. I used to work like crazy, get little sleep, drink almost no water, and eat very little, which has significantly weakened my immune system. Because of this, now I tend to catch colds when under stress. That’s why when I find myself in a new environment, I need to stay in bed and have a supply of certain medicines in the first few days. If I were you though, I wouldn’t try what I did.

Tip #2: Make your new place feel like home. When you go through culture shock, everything seems unknown and alien. It's essential to create a safe place where you can refuel. Bring your favorite toy, hang up pictures you like, light a candle with a familiar scent, and put on pajamas. All these things will help you create an atmosphere of comfort and safety.

It’s great if you have a close friend or family member in your new place. Their presence and support can mitigate the effects of the most intense culture shock.

Your job is to turn the stress of culture shock into eustress. This is the so-called "beneficial" stress, where unfamiliar circumstances are not seen as a source of frustration and fear, but as a positive challenge. Many researchers deny though that stress can ever be positive. 

If you succeed in it, the culture shock situation will boost your growth, make you a more conscious person, give you hope and enhance your self-confidence.

How To Level Up Your Intercultural Communication Skills?

  1. The easiest way to develop intercultural communication skills is simply to live abroad. Even if you don't make any deliberate effort, after a few years of living in another country you'll master some intercultural literacy anyway.
  2. A powerful tool to pump up intercultural skills is the opportunity to safely satisfy your curiosity. It's not always possible to ask your colleagues or group mates tough questions without the risk of ruining your reputation.

For example, you wonder why lectures at the university start half an hour late, or why the employees of the company where you are interning are always late. Asking it bluntly might be awkward, so you need to find a relevant source of information.

A good solution is to find yourself a local buddy who will answer your weirdest questions. He can become your guide to the local culture and your “ticket” to events that foreigners generally can't get into.

  1. While working on group projects abroad, you may be confused about why you and your colleagues can't understand each other. "Why did they send such a weird email? Why am I always doing more than everyone else? Why aren't they listening to me?" This is what happens when the patterns of teamwork in the home culture and "adoptive" culture don't match.

It might be a good idea to make a "disclaimer" that you are from another culture and don’t know your way around local realities. There is nothing to be ashamed of. Thus, you build a space for a dialogue based on respect.

  1. Learn from situations where things go wrong. Don’t take it personally, if your project mates didn't reply to your email, gave harsh feedback, or didn't invite you to a meeting or a party. Sometimes these things happen on account of some cultural factors that you are not aware of. Try to understand why it happened to avoid mistakes in the future.
  2. Use the mirroring technique: anytime you are not sure, do what the locals do. Since it is not always appropriate to ask blunt questions when having dinner with foreign colleagues in a restaurant or during a business meeting, pay attention to how others act, and do the same. This strategy works in most situations.
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