4.2 Culture shock

People move from one country to another for different reasons. Studying or working opportunities abroad, intercultural marriages, as well as unstable political situations can make people leave their own country. These different situations can be viewed in terms of short-term or long-term, and voluntary or involuntary migration. Someone who is just attending a three-week language course in a foreign country will probably have different experiences than someone who is going to work abroad for three years. The situation is different as well between those who actively choose a foreign country to work or study there, and those who go there as refugees.

In the beginning there are many practical matters that require attention. Moving to a new apartment, taking care of administrative matters, and even buying food at a grocery store can be very challenging issues in a new environment. At the same time finding new social contacts and facing situations where your own behavioural patterns don't seem to work at all may create a feeling of confusion. The term culture shock is often used to cover all these different dimensions of encountering a new cultural environment.

When talking about culture shock, it is good to be aware of the different layers of culture. The iceberg metaphor is often used to show how many things are actually invisible in a culture. Traditions and food habits are something we can learn by observing the culture long enough, but it is much more difficult to understand the beliefs and values that lie beneath the behaviour, "under the surface". This is what also happens in adaptation to a new culture - it is easier to start with some visible features of the culture, and slowly go deeper in the adaptation process.

The symptoms of a culture shock can be very different in different people. Some experience only a little discomfort for a few weeks, while others may be struggling for several months or even years. Previous international experience, personality, expectations, motivation, and cultural distance (i.e., how different the home culture and the host culture are) all play an important role in the process. Symptoms can be both physical and mental, since people react differently to changes. Eating and sleeping problems are an example of physical symptoms, while mental symptoms have more to do with feelings of anxiety and personal loss. Even if culture shock in itself may sound like a very negative experience, it is an important element in the adaptation process.

© Maria El Said, 2006


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