Even after traveling to more than 60 countries, I still experience culture shock when I travel. Oftentimes, it’s something you feel when you step off a plane.
I still shudder when I recall landing at a tiny airport on a layover in the South Pacific, some 20 years ago. It was an eerie setting, with no music, no climate control, no internet, and few people. The only thing to keep me company was the droning sound of a fan in the boarding area and a few scorpions and spiders at my feet.
Sometimes, though, culture shock is subtler. You may feel lonely or out of place—months after arriving in a new country, struggle with learning a new language, or unintentionally insult someone on a date or in a business meeting.
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So, how do you overcome culture shock? Can you avoid it altogether? Here are seven of my top tips:
1. Remember that some degree of culture shock is normal (and unavoidable)—and that’s ok! A big part of the reason you travel is to immerse yourself in foreign cultures and get out of your comfort zone. And while that sounds great in theory, the reality of being out of your comfort zone can be, well, uncomfortable. That’s what culture shock is—a feeling of discomfort that comes from a sudden change of environment. Whether you feel a subtle sense of unease or a more extreme form of resistance, both classify as types of culture shock. Depending on how long you stay or live in a foreign place, your experience with culture shock will change with time.
2. Learn as much as you can. An effective way to quell culture shock and adapt to your new surroundings is to understand why things are they way they are. When I arrived in Ireland, I was perplexed by the lack of electrical outlets in the bathrooms. It wasn’t until I Googled it that I realized it was for my own safety. With 220V electricity, it’s more dangerous to have electrical appliances near water, so there are regulations in place to prevent the risk of shock. If there’s something you don’t understand, ask a local, sign up for cultural awareness classes, or compare your home and destination countries on the Hofstede Index, which highlights the most stark differences between two nations.
3. Join a Community. Sharing your experiences with others will help you feel connected and more at home. Talking to locals helps you glean more about their culture, customs, and everyday life, whereas connecting with expats will help you find common ground (and maybe even vent a few frustrations). You can meet people online through Facebook groups and forums, or in person at events listed on Meetup.com or Internations.org.
4. Be Patient. As eager as you are to fit in, living like a local takes time. Although you may never feel 100% acclimated in a foreign country or be fully accepted by native citizens, you’ll continue to expand your new comfort zone with time. According to the curve of culture adjustment, created by Norwegian sociologist Sverre Lysgaard in 1955, it can take months or years to arrive at the acceptance stage of the cultural integration process. Then, you may experience reverse culture shock when or if you return home. Everything comes full circle, as the saying goes.
5. Remain open-minded. Rather than resisting cultural differences, stay curious and flexible to change. There are multiple ways to do anything, from cooking an egg to complimenting someone or starting a new business. Who’s to say which way is the right way? Is it better to drive on the left or right side of the road? The answer is subjective. Be flexible about how things “should” be done, and you might discover a better way.
6. Remember where you came from. To ease homesickness, bring a piece of home on the road with you, whether it’s a keychain, picture frame, or pillow. Also consider bringing trinkets, treats, or memorabilia from your home country to share pieces of your culture with your new friends. Be proud of where you’re from! If you’re feeling lonely, call a friend or family member to talk, but be confident that such feelings will ebb, flow, and ultimately pass.
7. Express yourself. Whether you publish a blog article, post on social media, or keep a travel journal, reflecting on your experience or sharing your story will help you process what you’re going through. If you’re traveling light, you can also jot down your thoughts in a notes app. Give it a try, then come back to your notes a week, month, or year later. You may be surprised at what bothered you in the past. And realize how far you’ve come.
Editor’s Note: For 20 years, Kristin Wilson has lived, worked, and traveled abroad in 60 countries. She’s used her unique expertise and on-the-ground insights to help thousands settle into a new, better life overseas.
Now she’s joined our IL team to provide personalized guidance that will help you find your own just-right place on the planet and get there with ease and confidence.
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