How to Handle Culture Shock Like a Boss

If you think the world revolves around you and your culture you probably can't handle culture shock, but traveling to new exotic places may be worth the effort to break out of your delusion.

I used to be an egocentric American. You know, from the country that's the best thing since sliced bread. Because of this mentality, culture shock may be more acutely felt by Americans than any other nationality. There I go again thinking we're somehow special.

In reality everyone adopts the culture they grow up around and being thrown into an entirely new setting can have a psychological effect on any of us no matter where we are from.

As an American family who has been traveling outside the United States for nearly seven years, we are now more prone to experience reverse culture shock on return visits to the US than in some chaotic third-world setting.

During one trip back to the US, the change in language was noticeable. First, everyone had inside jokes referring to popular TV commercials that we simply didn't get. Admittedly, we haven't had a culture box (TV) for some years prior to this trip, so we're the weird ones, right?

Next, we kept hearing people say they were "boss" at this or that. We quickly realized that this meant "cool" or "good". In the 70's it was "far out", in the 80's it was "rad" short for radical, in the 90's it was "awesome", and now it's "boss". I can dig it even if we are no longer "boss" in the US.

Language is just one of the small challenges while traveling abroad that contributes to culture shock. Combine the language barrier with information overload from a new environment and completely alien foods, climates, clothes and social values, and add in a bit of homesickness and it's easy to suffer from culture shock.

Culture shock, in short, is the psychological disorientation we feel while in an unfamiliar setting.

The Center for European Studies list the symptoms of culture shock as follows:
  • Homesickness
  • Boredom
  • Withdrawal
  • Excessive sleep
  • Compulsive eating/drinking
  • Irritability
  • Stereotyping host nationals
  • Hostility towards host nationals
Even though culture shock is quite common and normal because of our ingrained belief systems, it seems to more severely affect people who don't want to be in their new setting -- like people who travel for work, reluctant students, or disgruntled expats escaping negativity instead of pursuing something new.

Yet it can just as easily affect the casual traveler or hardcore explorer. Luckily, there are a few proven ways to soften the impact of culture shock, but it starts with understanding what to expect from culture shock.

There are generally five stages people experience while living or traveling abroad. According to the UK Council For International Student Affairs these stages are the following:

1. The “honeymoon” stage When you first arrive in a new culture, differences are intriguing and you may feel excited, stimulated and curious. At this stage you are still protected by the close memory of your home culture.
2. The “distress” stage A little later, differences create an impact and you may feel confused, isolated or inadequate as cultural differences intrude and familiar supports (eg family or friends) are not immediately available. 
3. “Re-integration” stage Next you may reject the differences you encounter. You may feel angry or frustrated, or hostile to the new culture. At this stage you may be conscious mainly of how much you dislike it compared to home. Don’t worry, as this is quite a healthy reaction. You are reconnecting with what you value about yourself and your own culture.
4. “Autonomy” stage Differences and similarities are accepted. You may feel relaxed, confident, more like an old hand as you become more familiar with situations and feel well able to cope with new situations based on your growing experience.
5. “Independence” stage Differences and similarities are valued and important. You may feel full of potential and able to trust yourself in all kinds of situations. Most situations become enjoyable and you are able to make choices according to your preferences and values.

Most casual or perpetual travelers only stay fixed in one area long enough to experience the "honeymoon" stage. After all, that is the thrill of traveling. However, if you're a bit of a nomad or slow traveler, like us, the honeymoon stage can end rather quickly.

Having lived as expats in Central America for five years before exploring Southeast Asia, we can attest to the validity of these various stages and symptoms. The goal for us as frequent travelers, therefore, is to reach stages 4 and 5 as quickly as possible.

Now we handle culture shock like a boss (am I hip now for using that word?). Here are some tips we've acquired to help you handle culture shock like a boss:

Research Before Your Trip: Research the places you plan to visit, and I don't mean just finding out factoids about your destination. Read travel bloggers who have visited the area and have experienced the differences first hand. Have an idea of what to expect before you land in a new culture.

Get a Good Map or GPS: Nothing is more stressful in a new environment than not knowing where you're going. Get a good map or download a GPS map to your smart phone for your new setting. Study it before you leave on your journey and keep it handy until you become familiar with it.

Be Patient & Stay Busy: Once the honeymoon stage is over and homesickness sets in, be patient. The feeling is only temporary. Keep yourself busy. Boredom allows you to dwell on missing friends and family and to over think your current circumstances. Get out of the house and explore.

Find Familiarity: Find food and restaurants that you're familiar with. This will bring new meaning to "comfort food".  Go see a movie, or do familiar activities.

Make Friends: Join local expat or travel groups. Mingle with locals that share the same passions as you.  Get out there and find a clan to hang out with. Nothing is better for relieving homesickness than meeting new interesting people.

Don't Try to Change Things: There was a term for when expats in Costa Rica flipped out at the bank or anywhere else where they disagreed with a policy, it was called a "Gringo hissy fit". Our instinct, especially as Americans, is to try to change things that we don't like or fix something that doesn't work the way we think it should. Don't even waste the energy trying. Take the good with the bad in stride.

Enjoy the Differences: This happens naturally in the honeymoon stage but somehow gets lost when we become overwhelmed by our new environment. Except the differences as quickly as possible and embrace the experience.

Travel More: Finally, the more you travel the less attachment you have to your ingrained belief system, therefore, little differences will have less of an impact. In fact, we've discovered that the more we travel the more we realize how everyone is similar to one another despite differences in cultures. Everyone wants joy, love, peace, comfort and happiness - just like you do.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

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  1. Great tips Mary! I've found culture shock definitely an issue when transplanting Reuben into South East Asia for the first time. After living/travelling abroad for almost three years I returned to NZ and really suffered from reverse culture shock too. Everyone sounded SO strange, almost crass, as I'd been living in lah-dee-dah London most of the time. I couldn't understand what people were saying to me half the time, I didn't get the culture references and jokes and I wasn't interested in anything the local population was doing. The only cure seems to be to go abroad again and then when you return home the culture shock worsens again!

    1. I agree. For us the reverse culture shock is a lot harder to deal with. Last time I went "home" I was miserable, totally overwhelmed, and have never felt so lost! It is a strange thing to feel that way in your home country but thats one of the tradeoffs I suppose.