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Culture Shock Revisited PDF Print E-mail
Written by Corina Mihaela Paraschiv   
Tuesday, 19 February 2008 18:22


            In the article “Going Abroad”, country shock and culture shock were explored through the equivalent of a U-shaped model; the fascination of going somewhere new, the sudden difficulties of being a foreigner, the sudden awareness that we are going back home, the joy of being back home.  In truth, after being away from home for such a long time, and traveling in several countries that had such a different lifestyle than mine, I realized heading back home would be just as big of a culture shock as it had been to come in.  Revisiting the notion of culture shock, we can gather a number of different ideas from specialists in the field. 


Will Culture Shock happen to me?


            First, you can ask yourself if your personality matches the host country you've picked.  If you're from a collectivist society and about to enter an individualistic society, you can be sure you're in for a culture shock and some discomfort for quite a while.  But beyond that, you can objectively consider Paige's intensity factors to get an idea of how much you could be affected by culture shock : How ethnocentric are you?  How used is the country you are going to in hosting foreigners?  Will you be culturally immersed or will you be staying with fellow international students? Is the language the same as yours?  Have you traveled (have you lived abroad) before?  Are your expectations realistic?  Will you be a visible minority while abroad?  Will your status be recognized when you will be abroad and does it hold the same significance in the host culture?


I'm living a Culture Shock now : HELP!


Furnham brings the fascinating point that culture shock can be described (and experienced) on three levels, not just one.  The sort of horrified, I-want-to-go-back-home, and confusion feeling represents the affective dimension.  On the behavior level, you'll wonder what's proper in terms of conventions, rules, etiquette, and you will be very confused at first.  Even conducting small talk will be a tough game.  The last dimension is cognitive and it is basically the unability to interpret what is going on because you lack the knowledge to make sense of what is happening around you.


There are two ways that people deal with culture shock, typically.  Take a moment and think about how you've been coping with this lately.  The first option you have is to avoid all situations which you'll find stressful.  It's you trying to controle the environment so that it matches what you believe and want to feel.  That's what we call the primary strategy, and it's all about the actions you take.  The second way you can deal with it is by trying to learn, and change your perception of what happens, and it's about what and how you think – secondary strategies is what this is called.  Because it will always be easier to controle how you think rather than to controle external factors in your environment, it's been shown that students who use secondary strategies reduce their perceived stress level and are less prone to depression.  


Some things you can do that would help is to first write down what you experience, keep a journal to reflect on it.  Also try to have ties to people around you (both friends, and aquaintances).  Some other recommendations are quite simple : because the experience can be draining, if you are tired, take a break, take a nap, listen to your body.  You can also try sharing what you've learned with a newly arrived student from your country – it will probably boost up your self-esteem.  Call or write back home to let everyone know about how you are doing – if you keep a blog, for instance, it can help later when you re-enter, as your friends will have followed your adventures with you.  And if you don't speak the local language, learning it might help you feel more at ease and be more accepted into your new community. 


If you're living the culture shock of going back home, different actions are in order : Use what you've learned while abroad to re-adjust to your own culture.  Catch up on what has happened as you were away – no doubts your family and friends will have things to tell you, too.  If people ask you about your experience, keep it short and simple – put yourself in your shoes and try to figure out what they'd be most happy to hear about.  If they want more details, they will ask.  Go to your Rotary club and other Rotaract clubs to share your experience – while you're out there, keep an eye for friendly Rotarians or Rotaractors who will approach you because a great number of them have experienced what you are experienced.  You will develop a special complicity with them as you are now part of a new community.  Last, while it's important to keep in touch with the people you've met abroad, and to look at things that remind you of your trip, don't forget to be active in your own community and have fun with your friends at home, too.   


Demystifying Culture Shock


            There are a very large number of theories out there about theories on culture shock so we will explore it through the seven-stage “W-model” by Gullahorn, adding ideas from other psychologists or intercultural psychologists at each stage.   


Honeymoon Stage


            In the honeymoon phase, everything is a novelty.  Paige talks here of the “Culture Surprises” when people notice superficial tips of the cultural iceberg, like how people dress, how they seem to greet each other, the music being different, etc.  Even when things leave them a little perplex, people are generally too enthusiastic to really mind at that stage.   Those little odd moments is wha Paige calls the Culture Stress, and it usually comes about when you start to get every-day things accomplished in a country.  Occasionally, they might suddenly feel loneliness or home sickeness very strongly, as author Ting-Toomey explains, but that is soon forgotten as they are busy doing so many things and like the initial vibe they get from the locals.



Hostility Stage


            Because of the efforts of adapting to a culture where they feel culturally incompetent, self-esteem drops, and you feel exhausted and drained.  Paige describes it as a frustrating experience to communicate with others, trying to understand new cues in verbal and non verbal messages.  In his studies, Anderson found that there are four ways in which you may end up experiencing this stage :

  1. The Early Returnees – who pack and go back home and are ethnocentric, attributing all that goes wrong to the host country.
  2. The Time-Servers – who are doing as little as possible to fulfil their mandate but who really want to head back home as soon as the experience is over.  Time-Servers use avoidance or withdraw themselves to get through.
  3. The Adjusters – those who take their time at settling in and mixing somewhat with the local culture. 
  4. The Participators - who are dedicated to gaining new skills and to adapt as well as they can to their new environment, and who immerse themselves in it fully and activily.  They use an ehtnorelative outlook while traveling. 

If you didn't manage to get furthur than this stage, you would end up living a very negative cultural experience caracterized by the following, as stated by Furnham  : “(1) A sense of loss of identity deprivation in regards to values, status, profession, friends and possession; (2) identity restrain as a result of trying to fit in; (3) identity rejection by members of host culture; (4) identity confusion regarding role ambiguity and predicability;  (5) identity powerlessness as a result of not being able to cope with a new environment.”


Humorous Stage


            At this point, you will start looking back on the trip and find all the little mistakes you have made funny.  You will not have such highs and lows as you've had in the previous months, but rather experience little successes and little failures, relitivizing everything and gaining intercultural skills.  And that's when you start making real friendships. 


In-Sync Stage


            With a little more time, you end up feeling completely adjusted to the host country, included in groups and discussions, with a social network, and you understand the locals – all those things that used to surprise and even stress you in the honeymoon stage.  You can take part in the humor because you finally understand it.  You also can act as a mentor for the students from other countries for instance, that come in as “newbies”.


Ambivalence Stage


            That's the going back home stage; upon leaving (or close to leaving), you'll feel a mix of pride because of everything you've achieved but also deep sadness because you realize everything you will miss.  But you will of course be happy at the idea of sharing all sorts of stories with your family and friends.


Reentry Culture Shock Stage


            Perhaps it can be tempered by the fact you're reading this and will be expecting it but it is said that upon coming back home, the reentry shock is actually much more sudden and violent because it is never really expected.  Ting-Toomey writes : “There is a sharp sense of let-down (friends and family does not want to hear all your cool stories of intercultural adventures), and identity disjunction”. 


Resocialization Stage


            By using some of the same skills you've gained with your trip, you'll be able to overcome that reentry shock, and enter the resocialization stage.  For some, this will take the form of going back to the old routines and trying to leave what they've learned behind because it creates too much of a dissonnance with what is expected from them and what they know back home.  Others will never be able to feel at home again aftert he experience and will embrace careers or other opporunities to spend time abroad where they will continuously feel “more at home”.  The last category is the transformers, who head back home, and stay home, and transform their environment with their new ideas and views.   They are the ones that can best adapt to different contexts, that don't fear being labeled as different, and that discover new interests following their trip.    


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