Indescribable frustration. Mood swings. Unexplainable bitterness. Confusion. It may sound like I am describing a pregnant woman or a teenager going through puberty. Nope. These feelings are among many of the common symptoms of culture shock, a phenomenon that people encounter when they move to a new environment. Culture shock typically only comes up when talking about studying, working or living abroad. However, it is actually a concept that many people who have never even left their country have experienced.
Think about when you went away to university or maybe a time when you moved to another city for a job. You left one place where you had friends, maybe family, and good memories. You felt comfortable there and you knew where everything was and how things worked. You may have been nervous about the big move ahead of you, but you felt much more excited. Maybe you fantasized about how great the new place would be and imagined yourself with a new group of friends and new places to go.
Enjoying the “honeymoon phase” in Madrid, 2012
When you actually make the move, the first few days may be a little stressful, but then you start to explore your new surroundings and you meet new people who either welcome you to the new place or perhaps are in the same situation as you. Life is super and grand; you feel extremely happy and you bask in the newness of the situation. This feeling of pure bliss may last a few weeks or perhaps a month or two. It is called the honeymoon phase of culture shock.
However, once you start to get into a routine, your mood changes. You are no longer happy all the time and you start to find fault with the new environment. Little things start to annoy you or maybe confuse you. You start to feel as if you are all alone and you long to return to the old environment. What you were experiencing was, indeed, culture shock.
Culture Shock Abroad
London, England. 2012
Living abroad may seem lovely and carefree. You may think you’d get to travel all the time and see new and exciting things. However, there are actually a lot of challenges a person faces every single day. Many of these are due to culture shock.
One of the best models I have heard of to describe cross-cultural interaction was American University professor Dr. Gary Weaver’s Iceberg Model of Culture. When we think of an iceberg, we know that only a small part of it is above the water. The majority is hidden underwater. The same goes with cultural characteristics. What we see on the surface is a person’s behavior, attitude, clothing, customs, language, etc. These features are always the ones that people are quick to identify. For example, we all know that Spanish people speak Spanish and typically have a different eating schedule than Americans. This surface culture is the first thing we notice and we are often prepared ahead of time to adjust.
However, as time goes on, we start to become more aware of cultural beliefs, values, thought patterns and worldviews-the bottom half of the iceberg. As per Dr. Weaver’s model, this is the result of the “collision” of the two cultural icebergs. This is usually the stage where culture shock sets in. We often find ourselves very confused, upset and even angry and we are not sure why. For example, something that a new friend in the host country says may offend us even though that was not our friend’s intention. It is important to understand this model of culture so we know why we feel this way.
Culture Shock a 2nd Time?
In Segovia in 2012
Although it may be a little hard to believe, you will experience culture shock if you return somewhere you’ve already been. It is inevitable. It may be even worse than the culture shock you experienced the first time since you do not really expect to feel culture shock in a place that is not completely new.
I admit that I did not expect to feel much of a culture shock since I had been in Spain before and I have Spanish friends. However, since I did not think I would experience it, I had a harder shock to overcome. The first few weeks were okay because I was catching up with friends and getting re-acclimated to life in Madrid. Then, I had the bad apartment incident and started to get into a routine in my school and social life. I moved into the good apartment in October and a few weeks after that, the shock hit me. Hard. I would come home from school feeling extremely angry and not wanting to talk to anyone or do anything. At first, I didn’t understand why I was being so unpleasant. Everything was going well in my life. I had no reason to feel that way. I thought back to my first time in Madrid. When I moved to D.C. The first time I moved away from home for an extended period of time to Philadelphia. It all started to make sense. My feelings of frustration were indeed due to culture shock.
How to Deal With Culture Shock
Chinchón, Comunidad de Madrid
Coping with culture shock is a very personal matter. Not everyone is able to overcome feelings of culture shock and some people are forced to go back to their home city or country. In most cases, it is possible to accept culture shock and move on with your life in your new city or country. The most important thing to do is to find a way to get involved in the host community and meet new people.
This is usually easier said than done, especially if you do not have a high level of proficiency in the language of your new home. However, most big cities around the world have thriving ex-pat communities that host meet-ups, language exchanges, and many more exciting activities. In Madrid, for example, there is one ex-pat group that hosts hiking trips for madrileños and ex-pats alike every weekend in the outskirts of Madrid. I went on one of the hikes and it was a great experience.
If you do know the language of your host country or city, you have even more opportunities. Try to continue with a hobby you enjoy at home and find a group that meets to practice your hobby. My main hobby, reading, is a very solitary activity so I decided to try something new: dancing! Yes, I am learning how to dance salsa and swing. (More on this later!)
Another activity to consider, which is great for those who are trying to gain more proficiency in another language, are language exchanges, or intercambios here in Madrid. There are big language exchanges, which are social events held in bars, cafes, and restaurants. You can go and meet people from all over the world and also practice your new language in a fun and stress-free environment. If going to a big get-together is not your cup of tea, Conversation Exchange is a wonderful website you can use to look for one-on-one exchanges. I have used this website before and I met a lot of wonderful people through it. Just make sure you meet up in a public location for your first meet up!
If your schedule is not too packed, you can also consider taking part in volunteer work, or even an internship. The possibilities are endless and really depend on your interests.
To get past culture shock, you need to understand the cultural differences and you must accept that what you are feeling is completely normal. Also, the way your friends in your new city or country view the world is normal. No one is wrong and although you may never truly understand each other, it is possible to have a positive and enriching experience and establish life-long friendships.