Culture Shock Abroad

Cultural shock is a person's experience when one travels to a cultural setting that is different from one's own; it is also a person's personal confusion when experiencing a different way of life due to immigration or a visit to a foreign country, a change between social environments, or simply a shift to some other type of life.

Cultural shock is not the result of just one occurrence, and it does not strike unexpectedly or for any reason. From a sequence of small incidents, it builds slowly. It also comes from living and working in an unstable condition. Living abroad will make one call its principles, which might have been taken as absolute before, into doubt. When going through it, one won't be able to understand culture shock.

Common problems include: abundance of information, language barrier, generation gap, technology gap, interdependence of skills, reliance on formulation, homesickness, boredom (job dependence), ability to react. There is no real way to avoid culture shock entirely, as people in any society are personally affected by cultural contrasts differently.

The term was first named by Kalervo Oberg, a Canadian anthropologist, in 1960 who described it as 'precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse'. According to Oberg, a person is only born with the capacity to understand and use culture, and not a culture per se. As one grows up in a determined cultural setting and learn to interact socially in this environment, this culture becomes it’s way of life.

It should not be presumed that the target culture is dominated by the same norms as the culture of origin, since each culture (not just each country) experiences the world differently and develops different techniques and strategies to interpret the world.

For all of this, all individuals transplanted abroad will be subjected to stimuli that they will not know how to perceive in a cohesive manner at some stage or another, as they will attempt to apply interpretation patterns that they find helpful in their culture of origin, but that are not always helpful in the target culture.

It has been shown that any person entering a new cultural setting would be subjected to this cultural shock. The only difference will be the degree to which it will influence this person. This depends on a variety of factors, the most popular of which are represented by: the intercultural experience the subjects have had in the past: travels to places with cultures that are different from their own, relationships with people from other cultures in their culture of origin; the previous knowledge they have about the target culture: the more we know about the place and the people hosting us (their history, their folklore, etc.) the easier it will be to understand the behaviors we observe; the linguistic ability they have to manage in the target culture: the higher the level of foreign language the subjects have the less probable it will be for them to experience misunderstandings; human values previously learned and developed by subjects: tolerance, respect; the subjects’ personality: confident, open and sociable people will find it easier to establish new relationships with local people who will help them interpret those not very familiar behaviors they will come across in the target culture; similarities between the culture of origin and the target culture: the more similar both cultures are, the fewer the occasions in which the subject will be exposed culture shock will be; Geography and climate: individuals are influenced by certain physical contexts (excessive heights, proximity to the sea, etc.) and climatic conditions (rain, cold, excessive heat, etc.), especially those subjects that are not used to them. Such physical situations raise the frustration of the subjects and also make them project and spread all these negative feelings into the target culture.

Kalervo Oberg first proposed his model of cultural adjustment in a talk to the Women's Club of Rio de Janeiro in 1954.

  • Honeymoon. The distinctions between the old culture and the new culture are seen in a lighthearted way throughout this phase. For instance, when moving to a foreign country, a person can love the new food, the pace of life, and the practices of the locals. Most individuals are amazed by the new society within the first few weeks. They connect with citizens who speak their language and are respectful to foreigners.
  • Negotiation. Differences between the old and new cultures become evident after some time (usually about three months, depending on the individual), and can cause anxiety. Eventually, enthusiasm will give way to uncomfortable feelings of rage and dissatisfaction when one continues to encounter unfavorable occurrences that can be viewed as unusual and insulting to one's cultural attitude.

Moreover, there is extra pressure on communication skills when being transferred into an unknown environment. There are functional difficulties to address, such as circadian rhythm disturbance that often leads to insomnia and daylight dizziness; adjustment of digestive tract to various levels of bacteria and concentrations in food and water; difficulty in finding care for disease, as medicines may have different names from the native country’s and the same active ingredients might be hard to recognize.

Nevertheless, interaction is the most significant shift in the era: people who adapt to a new community frequently feel lost and homesick because they are not yet used to the new world and encounter individuals with whom they are not acquainted every day.

In developing new relationships, the language barrier may become a major obstacle: careful attention must be paid to body language signals unique to one's and others' culture, linguistic faux pas, speech tone, linguistic complexities and practices, and false friends.

In the respect of students studying abroad, some experience additional symptoms of loneliness and anxiety that eventually impact their lifestyles as a whole. International students also feel nervous and feel more pressure when adapting to new cultures because of the burden of living in a foreign country without parental help.

Adjustment, again, one becomes accustomed to the new culture after some time and establishes routines. In most cases, one knows what is expected and the host country no longer seems all that exciting. One gets concerned again with basic necessities, and life becomes more 'normal' One starts to develop problem-solving abilities to cope with the culture and begins to embrace the ways of the culture with a positive mindset.

There are three basic outcomes of the adjustment phase.

Some people find it difficult to embrace and accommodate to the international culture. They detach themselves from the world of the host nation, which they view as hostile, withdraw into a 'ghetto' (often mental) and see returning to their own community as the only way through. This group is often referred to as 'Rejectors' and corresponds to approximately 60% of expatriates. These 'Rejectors' also have the greatest problems re-integrating back home after return.

Although losing their original identity, some people completely integrate and adopt all aspects of the host community. This process is best known as cultural assimilation. Normally, they live forever in the host nation. This group is often referred to as 'Adopters' and corresponds to about 10% of expatriates. Lastly, some individuals are able to adapt to the aspects of the host community they see as beneficial, while retaining some of their own and producing a particular blend.

They have no serious problems with going home or traveling elsewhere. It is plausible to say that this category is cosmopolitan. This group comprises roughly 30 percent of expatriates.

The final phase of cultural shock is acceptance, usually, but often after weeks, months or years of wrestling with the emotional stages described previously. Acceptance doesn't mean that new cultures or societies are fully understood, rather it means realization that full comprehension isn't required to work and succeed in the new surroundings.

In the mastery process, individuals can fully and confidently engage in the host community. Mastery does not imply complete conversion; people also maintain certain characteristics, such as accents and languages, from their earlier culture. It is also referred to as a bicultural stage.

Reverse culture shock (also known as 're-entry shock' or 'own culture shock') can occur; returning to one's cultural background may cause the same effects as mentioned above after becoming acquainted with the new one. These are the outcomes of the stress related and psychological implications of the primary culture re-adjustment process. This is often considered more shocking and difficult to cope with by the affected individual than the initial cultural shock. This concept is encompassed in the following expression- along with the responses that members of the re-entry society express towards the re-entrant, and the impossibility of the two-, which is also the title of a Thomas Wolfe book: You Can't Go Home Again.

In general, reverse culture shock is composed of two parts: idealization and expectations. One concentrates on the positive of our history, take out the negative, and create an idealized image of the past when a prolonged period of time is spent abroad. Secondly, once removed from one's familiar setting and placed in a foreign one, it incorrectly assumes that the previous world has not changed. The acknowledgement that life back home is changed now, that the world has moved on without us, and the process of adapting to these new circumstances and updating our new views of the world with our old mode of living causes discomfort and psychological torment.

In the end, culture shock is a process that any person that wants to work, study or move abroad has to be prepared for. The culture shock process has to be understood in order to understand the feelings that will arise from it, while it demands high abilities to remain positive and to see beneath the surface.


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07 July 2022
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