Mission briefing: culture shock

By Howard Culbertson
Friday, November 10, 2017

Image

People often think the feelings arising in encounters with strange foods or customs constitute “culture shock.” In reality, those brief moments of discomfort are not what anthropologists mean by culture shock.

Anthropologists and psychologists use “culture shock” to describe the confusion, doubt and nervousness common to people who have recently begun living cross-culturally and who are also experiencing one or more of the following:

  • Exaggerated homesickness
  • Excessive sleeping
  • Loss of sense of humor
  • Avoiding contact with local people by spending hours on email, the Internet and social media
  • Suffering psychosomatic illnesses
  • Frequent feelings of boredom or apathy
  • Inexplicable bouts of weeping
  • Eating compulsively
  • Diminished ability to work effectively
  • High level of irritability
  • Hostility towards people of host culture
  • Jingoism or super patriotism
  • Stereotyping of people of host culture
  • Exaggerated attention to cleanliness

 

Real culture shock is thus more deep-seated than the momentary discomfort felt when confronting strange things to eat or unfamiliar social norms. What anthropologists call culture shock grows out of a long period of coping with unfamiliar ways of doing, organizing, perceiving and valuing things. Indeed, because people experience culture shock symptoms over a period of time rather than in one isolated event, some anthropologists say “cycle of adjustment” rather than “culture shock.”

Culture shock symptoms appear quite prominent in some people and less so in others. Nonetheless, the cycle of adjustment (or culture shock) – honeymoon, frustration, adjustment, and acceptance – is inevitable.  Though culture shock is not a medical condition, the psychological disorientation, the withdrawal and excessive sleeping can be compared to organisms going into physical shock after a trauma.

Culture shock symptoms may come and go over a period of time. Describing her experiences in Senegal, missionary Linda Louw said, “I thought culture shock was something that you got through and it was done, but it just keeps coming.”

The sense of unease and heightened irritability common in the frustration stage can be triggered by small things. The adjustment stage usually does not kick in until a person has become familiar with and increasingly comfortable in a new culture.  

Fortunately, the effects of culture shock can be somewhat mitigated. Here are half a dozen coping suggestions:

Realize what is happening to you and why.

Remind yourself that this happens to every expatriate to one degree or another and that people do regularly survive it.

Refuse to succumb to the desire to withdraw from people. Choose instead to engage with those of your host culture.

Image

Get involved in a hobby that involves in some way the place where you serve.

Image

Be bold about reaching out to people in your host culture to build a support network of confidants, including enlisting individuals to help in improving your language and cultural acquisition.

Image

Consciously cultivate your curiosity about the wildlife, geography, plant life, history, literature, foods, social norms, folk tales, children’s stories, proverbs, legends and fables of the place where you serve.

Have you lived for an extended period in another culture? What strategies helped you cope and adjust? Send us a message at facebook.com/engagemissions

Photo credit: Brian and Julie Woolery, missionaries in Japan.