Today, I’m finally on my way to Salvador, Brazil!
I couldn’t be more excited to travel and spend time with my husband and some of the most amazing people I know, CISV volunteers (read more about them here).
And now that the planning is over, it’s time to take a deep breath, relax, and enjoy myself. Traveling to Brazil is the fulfillment of lifelong goal and I couldn’t be happier to experience the people and the culture.
But like all the trips that have come before this one, the weeks leading up to it were filled with both anxiety and excitement. Typically this starts with a mental “To Do” list that eventually becomes a series of post-its, until I go through my official pack list and board the plane.
It is always hard to balance the enthusiasm with the uncertainty of travel. Swirling through my mind is:
- Do I have enough money?
- Where should we go? And stay?
- How do I know if our hotel is a reputable hotel?
- Should I convert some dollars into Real before I go?
- Is the dog and cat going to be okay?
- Damn Asiana flight!
And the list goes on.
But it isn’t only the pre-travel anxiety, but also the reality of actually being in Brazil. I’ve never been to Brazil and my Portuguese, well let’s just say it’s silly to even say “my Portuguese”.
- How am I going to find the Mercado to buy boat tickets?
- What if the hotel doesn’t pick us up?
- Will the taxi driver understand where we need to go?
- Are we going to get ripped off for being tourists?
All of this uncertainty and ambiguity are typical causes of culture shock! Most people think culture shock is the experience of being “surprised” or “shocked” by something you encounter when traveling.
They are wrong!
On countless occasions, I’ve heard people say things like, “I had to eat goat! I had such culture shock!” or “Women don’t wear tops on the beach, their bare. It was such a culture shock!”
Let me be clear: culture shock IS NOT the recognition of something different, but rather the accumulation of various stresses like trying to find a restaurant, or the process eating food that is unfamiliar, then negotiating the cultural rules of eating out that you may or may not know.
Culture shock is the result of going through a series of these “stress inducing” experiences that conflict with what you are used.
One exact definition of culture shock is:
The natural contradiction between our accustomed patterns of behavior and the psychological conflict of attempting to maintain them in a new cultural environment.
When we try to do what we know best in a place where what we know isn’t what they know, it’s tough (understatement of the day).
There is so much to navigate when we are living or traveling in a new culture. The potential causes are vast, but fall into these general categories:
- Daily dilemmas (ambiguous situations)
- Stress of the unfamiliar
- Difficulty letting go of old ways (or what you know)
- Old behaviors do not produce same results (when what works at home doesn’t in the new context)
- Excitement and anxiety combined
- Being stereotyped or judged
- New relationships
Which is why understanding cultural differences and developing the competence to be adaptive is essential for travelers and globetrotters.
So how do you know if you have culture shock?
The first signs are typically:
- Emotional outbursts (irrational sadness or anger)
On longer trips, when you are experiencing culture shock you may find you develop:
- A desire to withdrawal
- Hostility toward local people
- Excessive sleeping, eating, and/or drinking
So here is what you need to know if you are going through culture shock:
Culture shock is real. Its common. And there are ways to minimize the effects.
What do you do?
Accept that it is a real problem
Don’t down play the impact. Even the most experienced travelers experience culture shock. It is not a reflection of your traveler savvy or cultural competence. Avoiding it and allowing the symptoms to escalate are more indicative of a need for more intercultural training.
Learn to recognize its signs
If you are a frequent traveler or live abroad, you can learn to better recognize your own individual signs. Each of us experience and have different symptoms. The more self aware you are, the easier it will be to catch it early and take action.
Understand it can be serious
After working in the international and intercultural world for so long, I can tell you some stories of culture shock gone un-checked. It can get bad. Remember we are talking about stress and anxiety; both are serious factors in our physical and mental well being.
Once you are aware you are experience culture shock, there are several things you can do:
1. Re-charge your battery!
Do something so you can relax, re-focus, and get back some of the energy that has been drained away by your experience. This is different for everyone; it could be as simple as exercise, journaling, a phone call home, or a trip to the spa.
2. Take a “time out”
Take an hour or an entire day to retreat from interacting with the locals. There is a lot of pressure to maximize your intercultural experience by getting out there and living it. But the fact is that it can be extremely overwhelming! So give yourself permission to take a “time out” when needed, a short break from the daily dealings of life in a different culture can make a big difference.
Take this opportunity to learn more about yourself, your culture, and the host culture. Culture shock is about dealing with cultural contradictions! Exploring the causes of those contradictions will reveal great insights into both sets of cultural norms and values. Then you can more accurately interpret the different cultural behavior of others. Situations will become less ambiguous, and more clear. The unfamiliar will become more familiar, and you can let go of “your way of doing things” and try to do things in a “new way”. This doesn’t make one way right or wrong, it just empowers you to get the results you want. When you know more you can do more. When you increase your intercultural competence, you will be more effective in your intercultural interactions.
Like anything, culture shock comes in all shapes and sizes. What is most important is to understand how it effects you and to act when it does.
Here is more on cultural adjustment and intercultural competence: