Living in a new country – even for a temporary visit – can be quite a challenge. The temperatures may be unbearable, the streets too noisy or too quiet, the people too rude or overly friendly, the food mildly or wildly strange and you’re feeling like you fell into a different planet – welcome to culture shock.
Similar to learning a language, the rules and customs that define a particular culture are learned early and reinforced steadily throughout our life. A person’s culture shapes their identity and provides an understandable framework for social interactions.
When a person travels to another region of the world, even where the people speak their own language, they find there are many cultural differences. When those rules, behaviors, and social customs you always understood no longer serve you well, the traveler experiences culture shock.
All travelers experience some level of culture shock when arriving in a new place – in fact, many travelers will say it’s all part of the experience. How much it affects any particular traveler can range from mild confusion to sincere fear and anxiety.
1. Prepare for what’s coming by reading up on your destination
One of the worst mistakes travelers make is thinking that it won’t be that bad, that culture shock won’t affect them too much and they can just think their way through it. Unfortunately, these travelers sometimes have a terrible trip but preparing for the differences in culture can help.
Resources to study include updated travel guides and the Kwintessential website (which has a lot of information for business travelers, but leisure travelers can benefit as well).
What you’re looking for in those guides is the following:
How to order food
Tipping – frowned upon or necessary?
Use of the bathrooms
Basic dining etiquette
What to wear so as not to offend
Simple social rules
Some basic language: greetings, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, etc.
Essentially, learn what’s different about doing all the basic things you do every day.
2. Check the local calendar
Many regions of the world have local festivals, celebrations and national holidays that may be taking place when you are visiting. Knowing the local calendar can help you in two ways:
You can learn ahead of time about the origins of the holiday and be prepared to join in – even if on the fringe at the start – and share in the culture
You will be prepared if stores and restaurants are closed and you have to find alternatives to entertain and feed yourself for a bit of time
Every country’s rules are different and holidays can have a significant effect on whether a traveler can visit a museum or historical site, get a meal, shop for groceries, etc. on a holiday. Knowing ahead of time means you’re a far better traveler even if you don’t quite blend into the fabric of your host country yet.
3. Ask around for a local contact
If you have friends or family who have traveled where you are going, see if you can get a local contact – someone they met along their trip, for example. It’s especially helpful if you can be shown around in the new culture soon after you arrive. Someone to walk you through the basics, so to speak.
You can find websites that will help you get in touch with someone at your destination. Women travelers will find hermail.net useful and if you’re planning to go on the cheap for a few days or your entire trip, couchsurfing can be a great way to connect with others. If you’re home swapping, ask your host if they can introduce you to a neighbor or friend who would be willing (for the price of a free lunch perhaps?) show you around the area for a day and walk you through the do’s and don’ts.
If you can’t find a local contact, try a walking tour – a private one if you can arrange it. A walking tour will give you a close-up, ground level view of the culture that bus tours won’t and you’ll have time to chat with the tour guide and learn from them.
4. Befriend, be friendly, and observe
Befriend your hotel desk clerk, concierge, tour guide, host – even the local cafe owner – anyone whom you will see on a regular basis and can be your go-to person to answer questions and clear up confusions. These folks are often your best source of information for understanding the cultural differences so you can ease the shock you’re experiencing.
Be friendly (with reserve in many countries) to everyone you meet and smile. Try to greet locals in their language and make every effort to be polite. In many cases, people will help you along simply because you made an effort.
Observe how people interact with each other and in groups. Notice how they greet each other, where they stand with each other, how they sit, who speaks first, and where their eyes land when they’re talking together. What is normal for you – walking up to a fruit stand and selecting a piece of fruit to buy, for example, could be a significant affront to someone in another country. Hint, don’t select your own fruits and vegetables in France.
5. Be patient and gentle with yourself and others
As with many other types of stress, culture shock affects the traveler both physically and emotionally. It’s important to take a moment and be patient with yourself and with others (especially fellow travelers) if you are feeling the effects of culture shock, which may include:
Feeling lonely, lost or sad
Difficulty sleeping or severe sleepiness
Loss of appetite or overdrinking
Feeling isolated or overly critical of local customs
Lack of confidence, feeling insecure
Remember that all of these are most likely due to the physiological process of adjusting to culture shock. Some travelers adjust to it more quickly than others, so if you are not adjusting as quickly as your travel companion is, ask them to be patient with you as well.
6. Establish healthy eating, exercising, and sleeping routines quickly
Many travelers forego their healthy living standards when they travel: eating too much, drinking too much, and forget about exercise. Eating and drinking too much can affect your ability to get good quality sleep. If you’re used to exercising, the lack of exercise can leave you feeling restless and anxious.
All of those routines and habits that keep you sane and healthy and operating well at home are more critical when you are in a foreign culture, however, so it’s important to establish healthy eating, sleeping, and drinking habits quickly and get a little exercise every day.
Not only will your efforts quickly banish jet lag – which is often confused with culture shock – it will help you get in tune with the local environment and daily routines of local citizens. An early morning jog that ends at a local cafe can introduce you to some great folks who can help you figure out what to see that day, for example. Plus, they’re more likely to check on you the next day if you meet them at about the same time.
In the end …
Most travelers find they earn more respect, make more friends, and enjoy their trip far more when they focus on the people they meet and spend a little time learning their traditions and customs. Each positive move you make toward stepping into a foreign culture opens up more opportunities and diminishes the effects of culture shock. It can take a little time, but oh the experiences you’ll have and the stories you’ll be able to tell!