April 10, 2012

Tuesday Travel Tip: Avoiding Culture Shock

Dog, sold at the market in Hanoi, Vietnam
Culture Shock is an affliction that affects all travelers to varying degrees; it is a form of anxiety that occurs when we lose the familiar social cues and norms with which we daily orient ourselves. Dr. Lalero Oberg, cultural anthropologist, explains: “These cues, which may be words, gestures, facial expressions, customs, or norms are acquired by all of us in the course of growing up and are as much a part of our culture as the language we speak or the beliefs we accept. All of us depend for our peace of mind and our efficiency on hundreds of these cues…” But when we travel to a different country, all of these bearings are stripped away and we lose the most essential method of orienting ourselves. This makes traveling to a country with different traditions, languages and social norms a stressful and even traumatic experience. Struggling to communicate and function within an unfamiliar place can make even the most basic tasks (e.g. buying food, crossing the street, shaking hands) seem as daunting as Herculean labors.

The idea of culture originates with the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder and his concept of Volksgeist, which means “the spirit of the people.” Cultures are a complex network of social identity, which includes symbolism, language, religion, social rules, fashion, art, &c. They are developed over time through particular historical circumstances and traditions and shape the way we identify ourselves and conduct ourselves within the social community. But when we leave the comfort of our familiar culture and step into an alien one, it is easy to become frustrated by different customs, because they don’t make sense to us.

At its essence, culture shock is a lack of understanding. And a common reaction to a culture we don’t readily understand is to belittle and stereotype its country and its people. Unfortunately this type of response is an easy trap to fall into; this attitude not only prevents one from integrating and participating in a new culture, but also perpetuates the sense of alienation and discomfort that goes along with being an “outsider.”

So how do we visit and participate in a new culture without falling into the negative cycle of culture shock?

Bagan, Myanmar
Completely avoiding culture shock is impossible. Relearning a new understanding and approach to life is difficult and you are guaranteed to make mistakes and feel homesick. That’s natural. But what you can control is your attitude and mindset. Culture shock is lessened when you gain knowledge of the new language and the culture and accept the customs of the place you are visiting. So here are a few tips to help mediate the effects of culture shock and make sure you get the most out of your experience abroad:

·       Learn about the culture before you leave. Doing some research about the place you are visiting and making an effort to familiarize yourself with the new language, history and traditions will help to smooth the transition. Of course there’s no way to truly experience and understand a place until you’ve been there, but at least this way you won’t be taken completely off guard by the unfamiliar.

·       Keep an open mind and be flexible. As I have discussed earlier, this is a new place with different norms. But just because something is different, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Don’t judge immediately; remember your culture is just as bizarre to the people you are visiting as theirs is to you.

·       Laugh it off. Humor is the best approach to frustrating situations. Laughing at yourself and your own difficulties will prevent you from getting hung up on what’s different and will allow you to enjoy every step of your adventure.

Bagan, Myanmar
·       Try to speak in the local language. Even if you only know a few words and your pronunciation is horrible, just making the effort to communicate with locals in their own language will make a HUGE difference. It shows that you respect their culture by making an effort to participate on their terms.

·       Be a participant observer. Join in local activities, talk to local people and try to learn about their history and perspective. This will help you familiarize yourself with the new culture and will help you to re-orient yourself within the terms of new social norms.

Overcoming culture shock isn’t about rejecting your culture for the acceptance of another; as Dr. Oberg explains, it’s about developing “two patterns of behavior,” so that you can accept multiple ways of life and participate within more than one “spirit of the people.” 


  1. It is informative post. This is one of the best idea for culture originates with the German philosopher Johann gottfried herder. It gives knowledge of the new language and informative for me.

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  2. "At its essence, culture shock is a lack of understanding."

    That's actually the best way of describing it. In my opinion, culture shock is not some huge monster that'll shred anyone who dares to move abroad. It's just a combination of things that are unfamiliar to you. And unfamiliar doesn't always mean that you're not going to like it. You might love one such difference. Others you might dislike. Some might confuse you. Some might even frighten you.

    One thing I'd remember is that if you've gone through the rigmarole of moving overseas, if you've braved all the procedure and bureaucracy with visas, permits, overseas medical insurance, there must have been something you loved about the country, something that was different from the country you were born in. And emigrating isn't like a holiday. A holiday is a brief suspension of your reality, a break from real life. But emigrating is a new reality, a new life. Consider the things you disliked about the country in which you were born, because there will be plenty of them. There will be plenty of things you dislike about the place you've moved to. That, as they say, is life. But then consider the things you love about the country too.

    No country gets everything right and no country gets everything wrong either.