How to deal with ‘Culture Shock’

Aug 26, 2022

How new cultural environments can affect you, and how to prepare to recognize the signs of Culture Shock

When I was 17, I was selected to move to Japan and study at a Japanese high school for a whole term. My childhood dream was to visit Japan, and it was finally happening. Everything was new and exciting and it looked just how I imagined it, if not better. 

The neon signs, the politeness of people, the clean streets and silent trains - the amazing food! It was the ultimate theme park experience for me. For the first month or so, my attention was wholly devoted to taking it all in, and to remembering names and directions so I could get around.

 

 

Once I got used to my everyday routine, the next thing I wanted to do is get to know the people around me better. Interacting with people turned out to be exhausting, often frustrating and not as rewarding as I was hoping. I soon realized that I knew very little about Japanese culture.

I spent a lot of time trying to understand why others were doing what they were doing while also studying hard to learn the language better. Whenever I asked the reason behind a particular habit or behavior, the answer I would get the most was: “This is the Japanese way of doing things”. Not very useful, is it? These were the times I missed home the most, and I second-guessed my choice to leave for Japan in the first place.

I finally managed to get the hang of how Japanese culture worked around me, but by the time that happened my 6 months in Japan were coming to an end. As much as I consider my experience a positive and formative one overall, I still think about all the time and opportunities wasted second-guessing people’s actions because I did not have the right tools to approach Japanese culture.

Being taken by surprise by differences in your new cultural environment can make you feel isolated. In these cases, it can take a long time before you adjust and feel as though you can give your 100%. Not to mention, not being able to orient yourself might worsen underlying mental health problems like anxiety and depression.

In psychological literature, this roller-coaster of emotions is called “Culture Shock”. It comes from the sense of disorientation, and it is said to have four stages (Honeymoon, Negotiation, Adjustment and Adaptation) that all cultural travelers go through before they fully get accustomed to a new culture. 

 

How to Deal with Culture Shock

At CulturaGo, we take Culture Shock very seriously, and when it comes to it, we have two mottos:

We recognize that diving head first into a new culture is likely to cause travelers to experience Culture Shock. However, we believe that being prepared for the culture can give you the right reference points so that you can find your place quicker and focus on doing amazing things.

Getting to know the culture of your destination beforehand allows you to be taken less by surprise by everyday tasks like: how to eat, how big you should expect your living space to be or how to dress for work. Knowing about the university or office culture in the country of your destination means that you will spend less time working out how to do things and what is appropriate, and spend more time achieving your goals.

Of course, even if you do your research or take one of our cultural preparation courses, there will still be things that surprise you (just as there would be back home). What we want for you is to avoid the destabilizing effect of those emotional ups and downs that come with Culture Shock.

We all have different upbringings and experiences. This is no news. Wouldn’t it be a stretch then, to think that everyone goes through the same stages, or even has to experience Culture Shock at all when moving to a new country?

When I moved from Italy to London, for example, I did not experience a honeymoon phase, but moved on to adjusting without any particular shock even though the culture, food, climate and my support network drastically changed with my move.

Maybe it is your first time being away from home, maybe it is your tenth. Whatever your journey, rather than telling you what stages you will go through (and potentially missing the point), we want to provide you with different case scenarios that you may or may not encounter at some point during your experience. That way, as soon as you recognize the signs you can recenter and get back into the swing of things.

Whether you are feeling nostalgic, ecstatic, frustrated or just at home, know that what you are feeling is absolutely normal and, more importantly, that you are not alone in this. There are plenty of other people who may have gone through something similar, and there is a great wealth of wisdom to gain from their experience that you can apply to yours. Join the CulturaGo community and learn how to overcome Culture Shock from a global network of experts, locals and expats.

 


About the Author: 

Marcello Francioni

Marcello is CulturaGo's Head of Education, whose expertise lies in intercultural awareness. Marcello has played a fundamental role in creating CulturaGo's Introduction to Italian, Japanese and UK Cultures, given his wide range of experience within exchange cultural context. Their work aims at creating learning content that raises Cultural Intelligence (CQ) and helps make cultural encounters an enriching and eye-opening experience for learners all over the world. Marcello is a qualified Anthropologist with a Ph.D. from SOAS University in London. Their research explored how gender, race, ethnicity, desire, and sexuality connect in various contexts of social life in contemporary Japan.