What's Up With Culture?
This site contains resources gathered and developed over the past 30 years, drawn substantially from the integrated and linked Orientation and Reentry courses of the University of the Pacific's School of International Studies. It also incorporates a broad range of additional materials. Most important of these are the adaptations of material from the pre-departure sections of Culture Matters, the Peace Corps' excellent cross-cultural workbook
Before Departure: Culture Shock
Being away from familiar situations and supportive family and friends can make it harder to deal with feeling low or other emotional problems, but it does not necessarily cause these problems. Culture shock is real, it is normal, and you should expect to experience it to some degree. The symptoms of culture shock may range from mild uneasiness or temporary homesickness to acute unhappiness, irritability, hypersensitivity, and loss of perspective.
The first step toward adjustment is accepting the fact that it is a temporary condition. It will pass as you become more familiar with the language, mannerisms, and local customs. Remember the "W" theory!
Culture Shock or "W" Theory / Adjustment Strategies
The "W" Theory of Culture Shock:
- initial euphoria
- irritation and hostility
- gradual adjustment
- adaptation / biculturalism
After a week at training camp, an athlete's muscles are sore. They have been stretched to new limits as the body has been doing things it has not done before (or at least in a while). So it is with one's psyche when one is immersed in another culture. People who have never experienced another culture have spent their whole lives being programmed by their own culture to do everything they do, from facial movements one makes while experiencing particular emotions, to the distance a person stands from another while talking, to different senses of time and competitiveness. When immersed in a different culture there will be a non-stop stream of stimuli (much of which one is unconscious of), which will differ to varying degrees from the way you have always experienced, expected, and interpreted the world to be. In time, usually about 1-4 weeks, the "newness" and "wonderfulness" of your experience begins to wear off and people sometimes slide into depression, confusion, and/or frustration. This is normal and to be expected. It is even good. It means you are learning and beginning to adapt - your psyche's muscles are getting sore.
Reactions to culture shock vary widely, but it can be quite severe as it challenges all of one's previously held beliefs and psycho-socio-cultural constructs. With depression often comes withdrawal and with withdrawal often comes drinking and/or excessive sleeping. These are to be observed and avoided. Introspection is good to work through the changes and contradictions in your life, but it is also advised to try to be outgoing and involved and to not take things too seriously - as it is all-subjective anyway.
The famous Culture Shock Curve represents over time one's emotional drop and recovery as one adjusts to the new environment. When one departs from home one is inevitably excited, happy, nervous, "psyched"--and thus, well up into the "plus" side of the graph - the Euphoria Stage. The newness and wonder of the new place and culture keeps your "happy meter" high for a while, but, inevitably, things go wrong. The nationals have some customs, habits, and values that are interesting at first but begin to get on your nerves. Your observations of the locals' behavior do not fit your expectations; they are at times extraordinarily unusual and unpredictable. You begin to miss home, friends, family, familiar foods, privacy, hot showers...and your meter begins and continues to drop. Some people's graph is relatively flat; for others, their time abroad can be an emotional roller coaster. Perhaps it has something to do with sensitivity, adaptability, and emotionality, but it is impossible to predict who will react strongly.
The Culture Shock Stage is often filled with hostility, frustration, criticism, and even aggression toward the host country/culture. People often withdraw and feel lonely. Their psyche is shocked and sore and needs time to continue working through the incredible amount of new information that has been taken in and needs to be synthesized and understood. In fact, your very system for interpreting what comes in through your senses will have to be altered or re-built.
In a simplified scheme, a person eventually grows accustomed to and adjusts to the new environment, culture, and roles of life in the Adjustment Stage. Often, one's language skills become more fluent, initial differences are accepted, other's behavior is more easily understood, and one's own behavior is modified to act appropriately. Perhaps most importantly, a sense of humor had taken hold. In reality, there are lots of bigger and smaller peaks and valleys on one's graph as one makes at first superficial adjustments to accept new challenges while smiling, but through the adjustment periods, one's culture shock curve begins pointing back up again. In most cases, people get it together and their "happy meter" is well into the positive again by the time they are to return, full of incredible stories and images.
The final stage - the Assimilation or Adaptation Stage - which may never be reached or, for others, reached early on, involves truly getting in step with the local people. At this point, the person has added to her cultural/ psychological repertoire a whole new dimension of thinking, behaving, reacting, and living. One can, of course, never become "one of them," but depending on the degree of difference between the cultures, it may take a number of years to actually feel completely comfortable on another cultural paradigm.
Some signs of culture shock to be aware of:
- Hostility toward locals/Feeling like an outsider
- Irrational anger
- Excessive sleeping/Eating/Reading
Prescription for Adjustment:
- know your host country -- read as much as you can before you go
- look for logical reasons behind everything which seems strange, difficult or confusing
- find patterns and interrelationships that help explain the host culture
- do not disparage host nationals and do not hang around with those who always find fault with the host culture
- do not constantly compare your host country to your native country; instead, view the differences as a learning experience and an adventure
Skills and Traits that will Facilitate Adjustment:
- understanding and patience
- tolerance for ambiguity
- flexibility and adaptability
- ability to fail - everyone fails at something overseas
- sense of humor
- open-mindedness - "go with the flow"
- maintain positive attitude
Reverse Culture Shock / Re-Entry Syndrome / Havershock:
When one flies home, takes a hot shower, flushes the toilet repeatedly and marvels at the wonders of the modern world, one expects that they are coming back to the familiar--which should be easy. Culture Shock has been described as the expected confrontation with the unfamiliar and re-entry is the unexpected confrontation with the familiar. The returnee had changed so invisibly but dramatically that between a couple of days to many months later, another culture shock "crash" or decline into depression may occur when re-entering one's home culture.
Some signs of re-entry to be aware of are:
- Overly critical
- Disappointment that nothing appears to have changed
- Let down by others' lack of interest
Suggestions for Reverse Culture Shock / Re-Entry Adjustment:
- Give it time to work through.
- Accept the fact that you are changing/have changed. You will need to adjust your self-image, concept of self, and your place in the world. You may need to change/readjust your relationships upon your return with your family and friends, and your role in and feeling for your community.
- Whatever you are feeling, so is somebody or everybody in your group.
- Share your feelings. Talk about it.
- Allow time for thorough reflection as well as time to respond to comments and events; if you are more emotional and excited, you are very likely going to make rash, quick judgments which sound overly critical and know-it-all-ish to others.
- Get involved in your community (especially in projects/services related to your country).
- Volunteer to talk to other students about your experiences, join the Study Abroad Advisory Board, help with pre-departure orientation sessions and other activities sponsored by the Office of International Academic programs.
- Seek others who are going through what you are going through, or have traveled and have similar interests and experiences.
- Unfortunately, you will just have to accept the fact that others will not be as interested or excited by your experiences as you are.
Culture Shock is evidence that dramatic lessons are being learned and incorporated. The more one understands these cross-cultural processes, the better one will be able to articulate insights and decipher aspects of one's own cultural make-up.