Salut, Hålla, Olá, Ciao, Kumusta: these are all ways to say ‘hello’ in various languages. The first letters also happen to spell out the word shock.
Culture shock is a term that we hear in our everyday language; the feeling that might happen when we move abroad and experience a different cultural environment to the one we know. But do we really know the ins and outs of culture shock?
I have been living in Italy, my home country, for most of my life.
At 24, I was finishing my Masters degree in Pharmacy at the University of Milan when I decided I would apply for a research internship abroad. Although I did not travel to the other side of the world, looking back, Ireland is where I first experienced a culture shock.
I will never forget the wind gusts and the taxi driver’s accent upon my arrival in Cork. The first obstacle to my integration was no doubt my scarce knowledge of English, followed by a tendency to hang out with Italian friends. Life in Ireland differed from that of Italy in numerous ways, from distinct food habits to a strong pub culture — which was for me a pleasant discovery — as well as getting used to cycling in the rain.
At the time, I was not fully aware of what culture shock meant.
Lately I have grown increasing interested in this topic, for two main reasons.
First, as a researcher, I am very aware that mobility is a crucial aspect of a career path in the scientific field. You might just have a glance at funding opportunities for researchers and you will notice that most of them encourage (if not compel) flexibility and mobility. Indeed, researchers gain skills and experience by working in different countries, different laboratories and by taking part in international collaborations.
The second reason is more personal, as I have recently moved to yet another country, France. Not only am I facing some minor cultural changes like wine instead of beer, or a prolonged summer heatwave instead of an all-year-round duvet; the real problem arises when you have to choose between more than two languages, and they now seem to be fighting each other over who gets to talk first.
Culture shock might influence our mental health in various ways; difficulties adjusting to the new culture can lead to disorientation, confusion and significant psychological distress.
The idea behind this blog is to share some of the interesting information I found on culture shock, its features and some ideas on how to cope with it.
What exactly is culture shock?
The term culture shock was coined by the Canadian anthropologist Kalervo Oberg in the sixties. In his publication, he refers to it as “a malady which I am sure has afflicted most of us in varying degree” adding that “when an individual enters a strange culture, […] he is like a fish out of water”. An extensive list of symptoms includes excessive hand-washing; the absent-minded, far-away stare; a feeling of helplessness and a desire for dependence on residents of one’s own nationality; delay and refusal to learn the new language; and finally, that terrible longing to be back home.
While the word “shock” makes me think about obstructive or cardiogenic shock (a condition which affects the cardiovascular system) I never really thought of culture shock as a disease and I find Oberg’s point of view very intriguing.
Culture shock follows a developmental curve that reminds me, in a way, of that of a classic disease. It is characterised by a recurrent pattern divided in four distinct phases.
In the honeymoon phase, the newcomers are fascinated by the new culture and appreciate the discrepancies between the old and the new one in a romantic fashion. Often they associate with nationals who speak their language. This phase lasts from few weeks to few months and eventually ends.
By the time they realise they must cope with the real conditions of life, the newcomers find themselves deep in the culture shock phase, characterised by increasing anxiety and a hostile attitude towards the host country. The anxiety grows out of the difficulties which the visitor experiences in the process of adjustment. In this phase, the language barrier represents a major obstacle in creating new relationships and a very common risk is the tendency to think of members of the host country in terms of stereotypes, which results in a denial and misinterpretation of the cultural differences. Oberg describes this phase “a crisis in the disease: if you overcome it, you stay; if not, you leave before you reach the stage of a nervous breakdown”.
The adjustment phase starts when newcomers get accustomed to the new culture and develop routines. The new culture is now approached with a positive attitude and considered just another way of living.
During the final adaptation phase, individuals are able to participate fully and comfortably to the host culture.
Drawing by Sofia Cussotto
This is more or less the course of this “disease”, but there is something more.
While I was digging into Oberg’s theories, I discovered the existence of a different type of shock, the reverse culture shock, which might take place when the travellers are returning to their home country after getting accustomed to a new one. A sense of discomfort and psychological distress can arise mainly from the realisation that the life back home is now different from when they left. The editor of this blog platform, Carmine Pariante, has recently talked about reverse culture shock in returning to normal life after COVID lockdown, in an interview for British Vogue.
If culture shock was a classified disease, I think it should be placed among the whole-body disorders, as it affects different areas and systems. The difficulties that the newcomer experiences are real and derive from a variety of factors: food/drink habits and consequent effects on the intestinal equilibrium; climate conditions and associated emotional status; anxieties and frustrations derived from loss of social relations; sleep alterations; sadness; and many others.
So, what are the possible outcomes?
Culture shock can have different outcomes. For some individuals it becomes impossible to integrate, they isolate themselves and cannot exit the shock phase: they never really reach the adjustment and adaptation phases.
Some other people manage to adapt to some aspects of the new culture while still keeping some of their own. And a minority of individuals will integrate fully and lose their original culture, in the process of cultural integration. These are the people for whom the host country has now become home country.
How can we deal with it?
To get to know the people of the host country is a key step for counteracting the detrimental effects of culture shock.
In order to do this, we need to know their language. This task alone can cause frustration and anxiety, but in the long-term it will help with gaining confidence, in addition to opening up a whole new world. Yet, we should not forget our cultural background.
As Oberg says,
“Understanding the ways of people is essential but this does not mean that you have to give up your own. What happens is that you have developed two patterns of behaviour.”
The newcomers should give themselves the space and time they need to adjust, in order to smooth the transition and develop their own coping mechanisms. The adaptability in this case is crucial, together with an attitude of openness towards the new culture.
Being aware of cultural differences is also an important starting point for handling culture shock. These differences can include a diverse sense of time (such as punctuality versus lateness), or a different sense of humour and differing communication styles. For expatriates who experience prolonged emotional stress, counselling and psychological support might be beneficial in speeding the “healing” process. Finally, emotional distress can cause physical tension, therefore good physical habits and self-care are extremely important.
Not just negative…
From my own experience, I believe that culture shock is not just a negative and frustrating process, but also an exceptional opportunity for growth.
I think it should not be equated to personal weakness but rather a normal physical and psychological reaction to a new environment. Being aware of its course and symptoms should not put off our plans to move abroad or to travel, it should instead encourage us to approach the new experience with a positive attitude. Our self-awareness will be deeper as a result of the cross-cultural confrontations and even misunderstandings.
Why? Our home culture, with its cues and symbols, is often accepted as the normal way of living. But when we move to a different cultural environment, we have to contrast or adjust our behaviours, attitudes and assumptions, thus increasing our self-awareness.
Five years later, here I am: new country, new language, new culture. It has been an exciting rollercoaster and I do not deny there have been moments when I really felt like the only option would be to go back home.
With time, I realised that “home” is not such a strict concept, from my experience a good dose of adaptation and the willingness to exit the comfort zone have been decisive to overcome culture shock.
“I am not born for one corner; the whole world is my native land.”