The second stage people go through when they move to another culture is CULTURE SHOCK. It can happen in very small ways at first. When you get to this stage, the honeymoon is well and truly over!
You can’t understand which bus or train to catch. You don’t understand how much your meal costs. You need medication and you can’t explain to the pharmacist what it is you need, or they tell you that you need a prescription first, but you don’t know how to get one. You get a phone call at work, or don’t understand your tax deductions, lines take forever, people push into the queue, drivers drive you nuts — little by little it creeps up on you — until it starts to bring you down and wear you out. Everything becomes an effort, and you start to wonder why the heck you came here in the first place and maybe you should just call it quits and leave.
I’ve seen people hit this stage after a few weeks, others have taken up to a year before the slump … oh, and believe me, it IS A SLUMP … a significant one!
The slide comes when you feel that your environment makes demands on you that you are not willing to make. You think it’s because you don’t speak the language “if I could just speak Portuguese, everything would be fine!” … Guess what? Brazilians can speak the language, but they also go through pretty serious culture shock! Brits go and live in Canada, the United States, Australia and South Africa, where they can speak the language. And still don’t escape culture shock. Knowing the language or not knowing the language is no guarantee that you are safe.
Sometimes this stage can be severe, sometimes it can be not so bad. However, better to prepare than to be caught by surprise!
During culture shock, you need to be vigilant of yourself and your family.
In some cases people going through this stage are more prone to illness, addictions, depressions, emotional stress, family problems … as you or someone else in your family reacts to the stresses of culture shock, it is possible that other symptoms appear.
I have heard of extreme cases where people become quite ill, then mysteriously get better again once they move back home. An American family I knew were in and out of the hospital constantly for a period of almost a year after first arriving. They have been in the country for several years now, and have adapted well. But the beginning was tough!
Companies which relocate or employees who come from different countries to work with you may be at risk from culture shock. Often times it’s just a stage one needs to go through and push through, what can help is just acknowledging its existence.
GETTING THROUGH TO THE OTHER SIDE
Many people like to pretend they are strong and won’t let anyone know they are suffering. However, if you are going through, or know someone who is going through culture shock, there is hope!
First, acknowledge that something is up and start thinking about your feelings and reactions.
If you are getting more severe symptoms which include emotional outbursts, depression, addiction, over eating or over drinking, anxiety, weird physical symptoms (cortisol, the stress hormone, can cause your immune system to be weakened — which can result in colds, infections, and other physical symtoms. There’s nothing weird about that — it’s biology!)
If you consult a doctor, tell them that you are going through relocation stresses. If things get worse, it might be useful to talk to a psychologist. Tell them that you believe that culture shock is being an issue for you.
THE OTHER SIDE
I didn’t give up in my first 2 years, although culture shock was a significant issue, because I knew that I did there was no way that I wanted to live back in my home country! So, I got to the other side of it. In a future post I will bring some good news about recovery from the culture shock phase.
Just suffice it to say that it doesn’t mean you go back to the unrealistic honeymoon phase.
Intercultural & Leadership Coach and Trainer
A WORD ON MODELS — I love the saying “all models are wrong, but they can be useful!” That’s basically where I stand. Whatever model you prefer, the point is the same Cultural Adaptation can be crappy sometimes! Dr Debora Swallow has a 5 step model which you may find interetsing. There’s also a “W model“, there’s a “U model” … A Spiral model by Young Yun Kim — which may be interesting to explore as it comes from an Asian perspective and may hold new insights to Western minds. But … remember … they are all meant to help with the fundamental task of adjustment/adaptation or helping others in their transistion.