Some things to be aware of when you're heading abroad

  • 2009-10-08
  • By Ella Karapetyan

TALLINN - Living in a new culture can be exhilarating, personally rewarding, and intellectually stimulating. But not everything you encounter when abroad will be charming. The experience can also be frustrating.

It's one thing to visit a country, and then move on when you have seen enough, but quite another thing is to live there and function according to a different and, sometimes, mysterious set of rules. People usually experience many emotions while adapting to a foreign culture, experiences which change from excitement and interest in the new culture to depression and fear of the unknown.
The difficulties that one experiences integrating into a new society can be the result of what is called 'culture shock.' Most experts agree that culture shock, although often delayed, is inevitable in one form or another. But adjusting to a foreign culture, and living through the difficult times of change can be a satisfying experience, one worth the occasional discomfort and extra effort.

Tourists who only go abroad a few days or weeks have just a little to fear, but those who are abroad for months or years are certain to suffer from some form of shock. This condition has been extensively studied by many psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists and government organizations.
Some people are more susceptible to this phenomenon than others and much depends on which countries one is visiting.  However, there is also the opposite danger. Some foreigners are so heavily influenced by the local culture that in a sense, they go 'native.' This is not necessarily a good adaptation. If it reaches the point whereby you thoroughly reject your native culture and disparage your home country to the point where you don't want anything more to do with it or its people, then you are suffering from another form of culture shock. For lack of a better term, it can be called the 'rejection syndrome,' which is not a healthy sign at all.

According to psychologists, culture shock is a type of homesickness and they point out some symptoms of culture shock, such as frustration, mental fatigue, disorientation about how to work with and relate to others, boredom, lack of motivation, and sometimes physical discomfort. When you leave home and all the things that are familiar, you encounter many new and confusing situations. These situations naturally create stress; the reaction to this stress is called 'culture shock.'
Some define "culture shock" as something like "the result of being overwhelmed by major life changes to established patterns without usual support systems." This is what happens when you relocate overseas: most everything changes. There are generally five stages people go through. Some folks go through these rapidly; some take awhile and some people stop at one point without reaching the end.

Overcoming culture shock takes time and can't happen overnight. It is helpful to know that adjusting to a new culture occurs in stages and everybody, even the most seasoned traveler, has to go through them to varying degrees. Being aware of the different stages and what you might experience can help you to move through them more quickly and with less stress. Even though you might feel like you are on an emotional roller coaster at times, this can also be a valuable time for personal growth.
The anthropologist Kalervo Oberg identifies 'Cultural Shock' in four stages, such as the Honeymoon Stage, the Crisis or Cultural Shock Stage, the Adjustment or Recovery Stage and the Adaptation Stage.

Here are some general tips from psychologists for traveling and interacting with foreign cultures, which, if kept in mind, may help ease cultural adjustment:

Do not expect to find things as you have them at home, for you have left home to find things different;

Spend time reflecting on your daily experiences in order to deepen your understanding of your new experiences; Set short-term goals, establish priorities, share your experiences with other foreigners;    
Understand that there are and there will continue to be uncertainties and confusion. Imagine how a local resident might react to living in your country;

Observe how people in your new environment act in situations that are confusing to you. Try to understand what they believe and why they behave as they do. Avoid judging things as either right or wrong; regard them as being merely different;

Remember the ways you have been able to reduce stress in difficult situations in the past and apply those methods in your present circumstances. For example, you might take a long walk, go to a movie theater, or write a letter to a close friend or relative. Try to see the humor in confusing situations that you encounter; laughter is often the best "medicine."

Accept the difficult challenge of learning to study and live in a new cultural setting. Believe that you can learn the skills to make a satisfactory transition. Gradually try to apply some of the skills you are learning;

Recognize the advantages of having lived in two different cultures. Your life will be enriched by meeting people whose cultural backgrounds are not the same as yours. Share your time with many different people. Avoid having friends only from your country but maintain strong personal ties to your culture while you are away from home. Think about how you can help local residents learn how people from your country believe and act;

Acknowledge your progress in adjusting to the new culture. Think of all that you have learned since the day you arrived. Recognize that, like other people who have lived in an unfamiliar country, you can and will make a successful adjustment to the other culture.