Culture Shock: the Sliding Bell Curve

This post is aimed at potential long-term travelers, among whom may be language teachers or other illegals, wanderers or adventurers and the point of my thoughts is to illuminate a mysterious and powerful (and potentially plan-killing) phenomenon: culture shock. The affliction hasn’t gone unstudied and there’s no shortage of professional advice to be found on the Internet or at the library. I’d like to add to the heap, though, with a couple tips that have helped me acclimate to a foreign culture.

On the Malaise, Briefly

Culture Shock

What isn’t really explored here is something I was told in my teacher training, which is that culture shock is adaptable: the longer you perceive your stay to be, the more gradual will be the transitions up and down the emotional bell curve (Citation needed! I’m calling myself out for you.) For example: if you’re two weeks in Honduras, your psychological movement through the four stages of the emotional state will hasten to accommodate that period of time. If you’re a year in Russia, your personal parabola will look considerably flatter than that of the former scenario.

I suffered the mal-effects of culture shock only mildly, and sporadically. I’ve seen it emotionally cripple friends of mine and even sent one packing back to her home country. Perhaps I respected it as a force or perhaps I was better-prepared for its eventuality (given a day of training in Denver spent reflecting on this subject), but I think I have some believable strategies that could ease another person’s transition into a foreign culture and I’d like to share them now.

1.) Your identity and its tie to “place”; reflect on this. If you tend to classify yourself as a “city person” or a “country person” or a “New Yorker” or “hillbilly”, you may find that this self-identification could obstruct your integration into a new society. What masochism to take in parts of your past and parts of your local environment and affix them to your self-image! These extraneous baubles may be defined by all of your gentle, defensive adjectives but on the chopping-room floor, you will find that those things which are not inherently part of you can be severed not without pain, but severed surely and handily with concerted effort. Maybe it’s facile to think that once you compartmentalize those parts of your self-image which aren’t of you, they (the modifiers) ought to be tossed out and/or pushed away; not so fast! You can keep them around as remembrances (ex. In X place, I was X. ). Trying to hold on to those things which aren’t structural facets of your character will cause you misery as they slide away from you as your foreign tenure grows by days. Before you step on the plane, sketch out your identity on a piece of notebook paper and try to separate acquired qualities (city person, nationality, political leaning) from those nearer to you (shy, thoughtful, easygoing, etc.).

2. Burn away the shadows of your new territory. In your mind is set a map of your local environment. You know the streets, the way the morning and afternoon shadows fall on the various surfaces, and the likelihood of seeing a certain person or group of people at a certain time of day. Subconsciously, you know enough about your local, familiar environment to keep you out of danger. The aforementioned qualities and more represent gaps in your knowledge of your new environment. Where there is ignorance, there likely is fear and fear, affirms Yoda, leads to the dark side. Some stages of culture shock (notably the second (Negotiation)) will see you tending more and more to keep to your quarters as you reject your new surroundings as inferior or otherwise flawed as compared to your old familiar territory. This tendency is your enemy, and it lives in your head. If there is a time of day, for example, in which you haven’t experienced the clientele of a given cafe, you must strip yourself of any justification you may have for feeling jaded. If you don’t know the route of the postman in a given part of town, you aren’t doing your job. My advice is this: simply go outside.

Walk and make a point of remaining conscious of your immediate environment. The new map you’re illustrating in your mind won’t suffer for becoming finer in detail. The more information you feed into its conception the less you’ll feel a stranger to its intricacies. The story you’re telling yourself won’t have a choice but to change a little. Your old definitions will be modified. The verbal mistakes you make will become part of the day’s lesson, and perhaps you won’t make them again. This information has no price, so collect it as you would gems from a sea wreck.

3. Nourish integral parts of your character. If you normally read books, keep reading books. If you normally grab a drink in the evenings, keep at it. If you sustain a measure of artistic output, keep at it in your new environment. Everyone has some basic emotional needs and there are no two sets of these the world over that match. A useful exercise may be to list these hobbies or needs that you have found yourself to have needed and think of ways to satisfy them in your new environment. This is another excellent opportunity to be honest with yourself about what you like and don’t like.

4. Embrace ignorance.  Unless you have some deep history with the language and customs of your host culture, you will come into it as a baby would: unintelligibly, awkwardly, and resting in a state of constant threat of exposure. The good news is that you are not a baby, and thus won’t be in danger of being eaten by street animals. The hard-to-ingest news is that you must undertake with your crusty old mind the work a supple infant mind excels at: adapting to your environment (a second time). Everything you don’t understand about your host culture represents an opportunity to add to your collective understanding of the world at large. If you don’t know how to speak properly in your second (or third or fourth, etc) tongue, illuminating that ignorant corner of your knowledge-base could potentially multiply the number of people within range of your communications by millions. Try a new dish. Try making a new dish. Do you see where this is going? The opportunity to pursue your native desires lives in foreign places.


That’s all for now. There’s a mountain of things that could be added to these advices, but I can’t spend my whole day listing them. If you are having trouble adjusting to a new culture, comment on this post and I’ll respond in a helpful way.