While it’s common to experience culture shock when exposed to or living in a foreign country for an extended period of time, different people react differently to the cultural adjustments that are necessary when entering a new culture. Essentially, while culture shock is common, some people have much stronger reactions than others.
Understanding that there are things you can do – before and during your trip – should ease the discomfort and make your transition into the new culture a little smoother.
1. Read up and know what to expect
Read up on your foreign land so you know at least a little about what to expect. Guidebooks are the most obvious starting point, as most contain extensive information about how the culture works in your new locale. You can also ask people who are from that area to share their thoughts.
Knowing what to expect, and checking your assumptions at the border, can take a lot of the initial shock value out of the equation and prepare you for accepting your new culture more quickly.
2. Practice keeping an open mind
It’s important to keep an open mind when traveling in a foreign culture. This means rejecting the automatic impulse to compare anything that is different against your own culture.
The new culture is simply different – not bad or good. Withholding judgement, and avoiding the urge to package each thing that happens into a specific box, is the best way to remain fully objective and facilitate the process of cross-cultural understanding.
3. Develop a new routine
As soon as possible, develop a new routine to help you settle in. Eat proper meals on a schedule (even if that schedule conforms to the timing in your new culture) and get plenty of rest. It’s also important to exercise regularly as a stress reliever.
Bring familiar items into your living space as they’ll remind you of home and give you a sense of comfort when you start feeling that everything is just a little too much to handle.
4. Integrate and make new friends
Making new friends is a great way to get closer to your new host country and culture. It’s OK to make friends with other expats, but having local friends is important too. While you may need to vent your feelings about the new culture with your expat friends, you don’t want to stay stuck in those old perspectives.
Making local friends is an important way to begin to understand the new culture in a meaningful way. Once you’ve begun making friends, invite them to your home and cook your favorite foods. Often, it’s as much fun for them to learn as it is for you.
5. Stay in touch with family and friends back home
While it’s important to become a part of your new culture, it’s also important to keep in touch with who you are back home. You’re going to come home a different person, so it’s good for them to be a part of that change.
Stay in touch through e-mail or voice calls. Your family and friends are not only interested in how you’re doing, they’re also your best comparison of whether you’re adjusting well or not. They can provide encouragement as well as a familiar, stabilizing force to help you settle in.
6. Practice your new language
Whether you’re experienced in the new language or not, learn some phrases in the local dialect and use them to interact and connect with the locals. Smile at those you’re speaking with and make a real effort to learn and use their names. That way, they’ll be more tolerant when they hear their language spoken badly and more likely to help you correct your pronunciation and usage.
One of the best ways to get started practicing the language is by stepping out your door and meeting your neighbors. Bring flowers or some food items to share and they’ll be more likely to help you figure things out (like who to call when you get locked out).
7. Wallow in your new culture
Enjoy your new culture by wallowing in it. Go sightseeing, join a church, enroll in a club and attend the local festivals. If surfing is the thing to do on the weekends, take a class and head to the beach. If everyone sleeps in on Sunday, take that time for yourself or indulge in some extra shut-eye.
Often, simply engaging in the local activities will give you great insight into how the culture works and why people act as they do. It also gives you more opportunities to make new friends.
Next: Starting it all over again when you return home – reverse culture shock.
This page is part of our Culture Shock 101 guide.