During our recent End of the Year Party we were fortunate enough to have Lucia Camardon, Sociologist in the University of Buenos Aires, to discuss Culture Shock, what it is, how it affects us, and what can be done.

Lucia pointed out that before defining culture shock we have to think about what is culture. Emile Durkheim defined culture as a collective consciousness that essential in keeping society together and preventing the disintegration of society. There are two ways the collective consciousness if formed. First, from social ties that make a person feel a part a whole and generate a sense of belonging to something greater; secondly, through individual to individual interactions, which make it possible to predict the behavior of others and create a framework of certainty in everyday interactions. This sense of collective consciousness, for the majority, develops naturally as one grows in their own society. However, once they venture outside of their own society into another, the absence of their own culture and the clash they feel from not belong to the new collective consciousness can be painful and cause feelings of anxiety and depression.

Causes

Culture shock does not occur uniformly and its manifestation and duration will depend on individual characteristics (the language skills, ability to form interpersonal relationships, etc.), as well as historical and cultural aspects (society of origin, socio-economic, macro-social context, etc.)

The following situations may lead to a traumatic confrontation with a new culture (Robert Kohls, 1979):

1. Being isolated from the cultural clues and known patterns that are familiar, especially the subtle and indirect ways to express feelings. All subtle meanings that were once understood instinctively and made life easily understandable are now suddenly gone (total deprivation of common sense and cultural patterns of origin).

2. Living and/or working for a long period of time in an ambiguous situation of instability or precariousness (socio-economic constraints).

3. Values that were once absolute are now called into question (difference value).

4. Difficulty in establishing relationships or integrating into society with the people of the new culture.

Stages

1. The first step is usually called “honeymoon.” When the individual first encounters the new culture and everything that is different about the culture is still exciting and new. It’s the “love” or euphoric stage.

2. The second stage involves the development of the internal crisis the individual feels as they encounter problems in everyday life which hinder their interaction with others. They begin to highlight the negative aspects of the new culture. The find themselves unable to cope with the constant clash they feel internally with the external world. These visible and uncomfortable situations demonstrate the difference between the two cultures and can generate feelings of frustration, anger, sadness. The magnitude and depth of those emotions depend on individual and social factors, among which include the degree of contrast between two cultures.

3. The third stage is the synthetic, the individual finds a way to incorporate their original culture with that of the new culture, resulting in feeling more satisfaction and comfort in  the new society. This process is achieved by understanding the new culture, accepting  differences, and looking for the enriching aspects of the experience. This produces a greater sense of belonging and integration into the foreign culture through learning and incorporating the new cultural patterns into everyday life.

How to Fight It

1. As with any problem of life, the first step is to recognize it. It is therefore essential to know its most common symptoms:

  • Sadness, melancholy, isolation.
  • Excessive concern for the health, hypochondria.
  • Psychosomatic illnesses, allergies, pain and physical discomfort
  • Insomnia or, its opposite, excessive sleeping.
  • Frequent and sudden change in mood, depression, feelings of
  • vulnerability and / or weakness.
  • Irritability, anger, resentment.
  • Difficulty interacting with people.
  • Rejection of foreign culture.
  • Construction of stereotypes about the other culture.
  • Rejection of the culture.
  • Lack of confidence and insecurity.
  • Development of obsessions.
  • Excessive longing for individuals, families, friends, country of origin.
  • Feeling abused, neglected, exploited

2.  Learn the language

3.  Develop patience

4. Don’t demand too much

5. Participate in physical activity and/or meditation

6. Set short-term goals

7. Shed stereotypes

8. Create peer networks

9. Seek out help

10. Strive to balance the two cultures

Culture shock is normal and everyone should expect to feel it to some degree. The stages can cycle during month, or the individual might even feel the entire cycle in one day! And although it might cause the individual to feel alone- they can take comfort in the face that they aren’t alone as anyone who has been adventurous enough to live abroad can attest too. Culture shock is not a reason not to go abroad, instead it’s a personal challenge that once achieved will only make that person stronger!