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The Cure for Culture Shock

Cover-786x1024This article first appeared in Global Living Magazine, Jan/Feb 2015

If you are about to move to live in a new country, you may be wishing there was an inoculation against the dreaded, inevitable culture shock. Well, I have some news for you: culture shock is not inevitable and there is something you can do about it.

In popular writing today, culture shock is most often described as a virus: you step off the plane in a new country and BANG you catch a bug. This virus has the bizarre property of making you feel exhilarated at first and then after a few weeks you feel awful. The symptoms slowly pass until one day it is but a memory.

I worry about this interpretation of the term ‘culture shock’ because it focuses on the symptoms rather than the source of the problem. The ‘virus’ approach leaves globally mobile people feeling quite helpless: you can take pain killers to mitigate the worst of the symptoms of the flu but otherwise there isn’t much you can do except wait for it to pass. The culture shock terminology gives us the impression that the emotions we go through – the frustration, confusion and irritation – is all the fault of a little virus called ‘the other culture’.

But it isn’t.

The cause of our discomfort is actually ‘change’. The flu-like symptoms we experience are the result of our immune system trying to make sense of everything new – not just the local culture but the fact that we have to function in a new environment.

The difference is not just semantics – it is fundamental: calling culture shock ‘change’ is to focus on the cause of our ailment (adjustment to change) rather than on the symptoms (the emotional stages of culture shock). Here’s the secret to how you feel when you move to a new country: the timing, type and severity of the symptoms you experience depends on how strong and well prepared your immune system is to dealing with change.

The state of your immune system

We go through a process of adjustment to all change in our lives. You have to adjust to a new job or a new boss, to living on your own or with a new partner; you have to adjust when a familiar road is suddenly deviated or your favourite shop shuts down.

Moving to live in a new country is BIG change because almost everything in your life is different. But the way each of us deals with the little changes is indicative of how we deal with this big change.

The Mobile Life: a new approach to moving anywhere describes three basic approaches to change. You can:

  1. Resist change in which case you tend to feel anxiety, irritation, anger, disorientation etc from when change occurs until a time when you have adjusted to the situation;
  2. Wait and see what change will bring in which case you sometimes feel anxiety flu and sometimes don’t depending on how you perceive the new situation;
  3. Proactively take initiatives to deal with change in which case you tend feel pretty positive in change situations and may only get flu-like symptoms during certain particularly difficult moments.

These basic approaches to change are indicators of the default mode of your immune system – whether you get sick the moment there is change or you are somewhat resistant to the anxiety change can cause.

This idea of a personal system helps explain why some people say they experience, and others say they don’t experience, the phases of culture shock. It is my (totally unscientific) guess that upon arriving in a new country, those in category 1 would tend to go straight into shock, those in category 2 may experience the honeymoon phase followed by shock, and those in category 3 may never feel one large bought of overwhelming shock. Because these individuals experience a series of small bouts of flu along the way, they may not relate their experience to culture shock at all.

My point is that our personal predisposition to dealing with change will affect how we experience moving to live in a new country. There is also much we can do to strengthen our immune systems. Though we each have a natural approach to dealing with change, the experience of living through change and making a conscious effort to proactively deal with it can help diminish the symptoms of adjustment.

The nature of the disease

In order to improve our ability to deal with change we must first understand the nature of the change we experience: antibiotics help cure a bacterial infection but not a virus.

The culture shock model gives us the impression that we are undergoing one big process of adjustment. Moving to live in a new country, however, involves three separate types of change:

  1. Physical adjustment
  2. Life balance adjustment
  3. Social adjustment

The first, physical adjustment, is our body getting used to things like the climate, the food and water, the hardness of the bed and internal and external condition of the air. The second, life balance adjustment, is getting used to things like the traffic, the conditions at work, and the things we can and cannot do in our spare time. In terms of these two categories of change, how different our current and past locations are affects how easy it is to adjust. The bigger the difference, the longer or more complicated the task of adjusting.

The third category of change is everything that has to do with being new and not knowing anyone, of having to set up new networks of friends, colleagues and acquaintances, and of having to establish our identity all over again. This is an adaptation process we would experience even if we move to a new city within the same country or start a new job. The added difficulty in moving to a new country is that we also have the added complexity of dealing with new cultures (that of the locals, of the office environment, of those who live in our new neighbourhood, of other foreigners we meet…)

So at any given point in the first weeks, month, year at a new destination, the flu-like symptoms we experience may be a result of different bacteria (adjustment to different types of change). It is vital that we are aware of which type of bacteria is causing our symptoms if we want to be able to do something about it.

In The Mobile Life Anne and I describe many things you can do as you adjust to each type of change. In this short article I would like to make you aware of two bottles of vitamins that will boost your immunity to the stress of change. They are best taken before you arrive at your new location, but if you have already arrived, they can also be taken at any time – better late than never.

Vitamins to boost your immunity

First, grab the bottle of pills labelled ‘What’s In It For Me’. These little pills stimulate you to ask yourself: why am I here at this specific new place? What sort of life do I want to have here? What will I gain from living here? What will be hard and how can I deal with these issues? The idea is to develop a clear vision of the life you ideally want to create for yourself at the new location. This goal creates a protective shield around your immune system allowing you to focus on achieving the vision you have in your mind rather than succumbing to the early signs of flu.

The second bottle of vitamins is labelled ‘Expectations’. You will experience a severe and sudden bout of flu if the place you find yourself in does not meet your expectations. The more you know about your new or future ‘home’ and the more realistic your understanding is, the more prepared your immune system will be to deal with the differences you encounter. Taking these vitamins will stimulate you to ask: what are the conditions in my location really like? How do I know? What do I do if my expectations are not met? Can I still create a life that looks somewhat like the one I want?

Of course there are aspects of your new life that will be more difficult to establish than you anticipated and there will be moments of disappointments. Everyone experiences the strain of adjusting to massive change of living in a new country. Adjusting to a situation where almost everything in your life is different from before is necessarily a hard thing to do. The main point here is that a mind shift is required from a passive feeling that culture shock happens to you, to an understanding that you have the tools in hand to help yourself through the process of adjustment.


5 Responses to “The Cure for Culture Shock”

  1. Naomi says:

    I love the concept of likening this to your immunity and a ‘bug’ … I’ll take an extra dose of Expectations please!

  2. Louise says:

    Great article, the difference between a reactive and proactive approach to dealing with change, makes all the difference I think. Love the analogy too!

  3. stacy feldmann says:

    Really interesting article and concept. It is so important to identify that change has physical,mental and emotional impacts on you. We are a product of our surroundings so we need to go about understanding how these affect us and give ourselves time to adjust. I have found flu symptoms are not the only change symptoms. Personally, when I relocated as a teenager, I developed all sorts of extreme physical and emotional symptoms from unexplained weight gain to a change in personality. I find around the four year mark for me, is when the fog lifts, my body adjusts to the physical and my emotional state becomes resilient again..but that has been with no conscious adaptation support to handle the change. That being said, willingness for change goes a long way to help things along..if you can keep reminding yourself of that!! It is so true that depending on how different the environment etc, the bigger the effects.

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