A Quick Guide to Coping with Culture Shock

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by Heather Pears

One sunny afternoon my cousin and I were seated on the small patio of a restaurant in the Hungarian countryside. The beautiful scenery was lost on us because we were busy staring blankly at the menu in front of us. Slowly the feeling of panic grew, nothing made sense! What was “galuska”, was it something I wanted to try? Suddenly a waitress set a big bowl of food in front of us, saying something that sounded like “Is good!” With that she was gone.

Fast forward ten years. I found myself standing in an underground subway having an emotional meltdown. I was paralyzed by confusion and anxiety. There were 6 sets of stairs radiating upward to street level and I had no idea which way to go. I couldn’t understand the signs and, even if I could find someone who spoke English, the people rushing past me looked too busy to answer my questions.

These stories can be used as examples of two of the emotional stages we go through when we travel. First, we are excited at the idea of being in a new place, meeting new people, taking on new challenges. My experience in the Hungarian restaurant fits this description. I was in holiday mode, relaxed and open to new things. After a brief hesitation I dug into the meal and found that it was a delicious stew. Even if it hadn’t been so tasty, it was only one meal and I would be off to a new location the next day.

My emotional state in the subway station demonstrated a very different stage of adjustment. In that case the sense of adventure had passed and I was trying to fit into a culture that I hoped would be my home for some time. I was a seasoned traveller with the belief that I would have no trouble making my way around, yet the constant bombardment of new experiences was too much. I had reached the point where I was just plain tired of having to think so hard about everything! What were everyday things at home were now obstacles; catching a bus, finding a washroom, shopping at a grocery store. Culture shock had set in, in a big way!

Coping with Culture Shock

The first step to dealing with culture shock, or any sort of stress, is understanding yourself and how you react to stress. What is stressful for one person may not be stressful for another. For example, some people thrive on public speaking. I’d rather have all my teeth pulled by my dentist! Learn to recognize when you are feeling the strain. Are you more irritable than usual? Are you having trouble sleeping? Are you constantly complaining about things? There are many symptoms of stress and some great online resources to help you identify them. The next step is finding ways to deal with how you are feeling. Just as one thing stresses you out while another doesn’t, so will your coping strategies be different from another person’s.

Build a snowman. Identify the things you can control, don’t waste energy worrying about the things you can’t. Staring out the window and cursing all that snow won’t accomplish anything. Instead, why not get on some warm clothes, go outside and build a snowman? Finding ways to have some fun is a great way to alleviate stress. Local newspapers, community centres and libraries are good sources of information about recreational activities. Many of the events going on in your neighbourhood will even be free of charge. Get some fresh air, have some laughs and things won’t seem so bad.

Eat well and get some rest. Scramble yourself some eggs, with spinach and cheese, for breakfast. Eating a well-balanced diet is important for good health and foods rich in B vitamins can be especially helpful for alleviating stress. Make sure you are also getting enough exercise. That romp in the snow won’t just be entertaining; you’ll be burning off some of that pent up tension. Exercise contributes to a sense of well being and you will also enjoy a better night’s sleep.

Connect with others. While taking in recreational activities you may also begin to meet new people, people who can help you adjust to your surroundings. When we are stressed we often want to stay home with our heads under a pillow. Attempting to avoid things will only add to the isolation you might already be feeling. Connecting with others is crucial in your quest to fit in.

Be patient. Learning the ropes of a new environment is difficult. Give yourself some time and be patient with the people around you. You are attempting to overcome some major challenges so accept that you aren’t going to “get” everything right away. Assume that the people around you are willing to help you. Give them a chance and try taking the first step by offering a smile. It’s truly amazing how often a friendly approach can turn around even the worst situations.

Someone trying to fit into a new environment can go through some alarming emotional swings. Most of their waking hours are spent feeling confused and anxious, leading to a belief that everything is out of control. From there they might begin to feel isolated and that there is nothing positive about the guest culture. They might refuse to try and learn the language or eat the food. Ultimately, a person in this state will begin to become preoccupied with going home. In many cases, going home isn’t an option. Even if it is, you need to remind yourself about why you made this move in the first place. Whatever the reasons, if you can find ways to cope with the stress, you’ll see that once you have ridden out the rough patches a life in a new place can be exciting and rewarding.