So, what’s culture shock?


Enjoy this excerpt from Culture Shock – A Practical Guide by H.E. Rybol

A Matter of Perception

Culture shock is often talked about in terms of symptoms or phases. It’s about a series of ups and downs. It’s important to acknowledge those feelings because they are a gateway to what lies beneath, but we shouldn’t forget to dig deeper. So to begin with, here are feelings travelers might experience when going through culture shock:

  • alienated
  • alienated from our own culture
  • angry
  • anxious
  • at peace
  • confronted with our own limits
  • confronted with yourself
  • curious
  • disconnected
  • easily annoyed
  • excited
  • feel like your personal space is being intruded upon

    culture shock a practical guide
    ©H.E. Rybol
  • feeling of familiarity
  • feeling out of place
  • free
  • full of anticipation
  • fully alive
  • guilty
  • happily overwhelmed
  • happy
  • in touch with yourself
  • inexplicably connected
  • insecure
  • interested
  • irritated
  • isolated
  • judgmental
  • lonely
  • nervous
  • numb
  • on edge
  • raw
  • sad
  • scared
  • shocked
  • stressed
  • tired
  • torn
  • uncomfortable
  • vulnerable

Culture Shock - A Practical Guide

A Moment of Growth

As I see it, this is only the surface. What lies beneath this emotional roller coaster?

1. we need to process a lot of new information
2. we need to process our reaction to that information

Adaptation consists of digesting all of that. On the way, we are led to put our whole lives into perspective, question what we know and assume, and learn new ways of functioning to attempt to understand another culture and ourselves within it. Culture shock strips us from our comforts straight down to our core, puts us eye to eye with our basic needs and propels us into a moment of accelerated growth. We slowly begin to make sense of all the new sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures. We learn about this place we didn’t know before, about people’s lives and we attempt to understand our relation to both.

So, in its essence, the experience of culture shock is a profound shift in consciousness. How does that shift take place?

Often our ideas and the reality we find sur place don’t match. There is a dissonance on multiple levels that can feel threatening because some of our basic assumptions and abilities might be challenged. What do I eat? Where do I sleep? Who do I connect with? Where do I belong? Will it be safe? We question our abilities to meet some of our basic needs.

Then of course we also wonder about our new surroundings: What is there to see? What are the stories behind it? How do they reflect local beliefs? What do people think? What do I think? The list is endless.

To get through culture shock, we need to reconcile the information we’re getting with our own reactions, thoughts (in the shape of ideas, preconceived notions, expectations, hopes, cultural background) and personal needs, and adapt our thoughts and reactions to that information as well. We need to let go of preconceived notions to make room for reality.

So essentially, by learning to live in another culture we…

  • confront our own boundaries (cultural, self-imposed or other)
  • question ourselves
  • confront our own notion of personal space
  • confront our own way of relating to other people
  • redefine our need for comfort
  • learn about our need for control
  • develop a stronger sense of self
  • confront our own prejudices and biases, and those of others
  • see our own roots and culture with different eyes…and so on.It is a raw but exhilarating experience. One of the wonderful things about culture shock is that it brings us back to basics. It is a reminder of what’s essential.

Of course, the essential is sometimes clouded by our perception of everything surrounding it. So when it feels like we suddenly don’t control anything, everything around us simply happens and we’re not quite sure how to manage, it’s important to realize what we can control: our own behavior and attitude. Through both we can learn to meet material and emotional needs at a time when meeting those needs is not a given and we don’t necessarily have many resources to do so.

In this sense, simple actions also have a deeper effect beyond the immediate relief they may bring. They help us tune into our core, handle change, connect across cultures and become aware of others and ourselves.

In the end, culture shock is about growth. It teaches us compassion, kindness and gratitude. So what matters is what we learn and how we act and change as a result of that experience. But we can only grow and learn if we take responsibility for our experiences, reactions, perceptions, behavior, thinking, beliefs and interactions.

In this sense, experiencing culture shock is a gift that helps us find our story within a world of stories and understand how all are connected.

©2014 H.E. Rybol

H.E. Rybol

H.E. Rybol is a TCK and author of Culture Shock - A Practical Guide. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook and Goodreads.

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