I previously touched on culture shock in my post about pre-immigration syndrome, but I’d like to explore it here in a bit in more detail.
Most people have heard of culture shock and quite naturally associate the term with the challenges involved with adapting to a new culture, whether during travel, living as an expat or as a result of immigration. We generally think of differences in language, food, religion, tradition and interpersonal behavior as triggers of feelings of discomfort and frustration when living away from home.
But what exactly happens in culture shock, when does it happen, and why does it happen?
Obviously, culture shock affects people in different ways, but there is a widely accepted pattern of ‘symptoms’ that tends to present itself in a predictable order.
Essentially, one can expect culture shock to mimic the typical progression of a romantic relationship:
Stage One: In the beginning, the newcomer is mesmerized by EVERYTHING!
The sights, sounds, tastes, and energy of the new location produce a high of note by providing constant stimulation and appealing to our human need for new experience and variety. Much like the rush of emotion one feels in a ‘love at first sight’ moment, the intense excitement, fascination, and need for MORE make Stage One an incredibly positive time in one’s life. New surroundings bring out latent aspects of one’s personality, and the newcomer feels like she/he is undergoing a personal/spiritual growth spurt. Family and friends can expect to be bombarded by emails and postcards full of adventures, Facebook pages full of new photo albums, and probably a stream of never-ending blog posts about how this new home is the most incredible place EVER. New friendships are forged, very often with other people who are experiencing the same thing, and there is a sense of urgency as one wants to do, see and try everything the country has to offer.
Stage Two: After the shine rubs off and the endorphins leave one’s system, the newcomer quickly realizes that his/her initial impressions may not have been all that accurate, and the ‘uglies’ of the place start revealing themselves.
A degree of embarrassment/shame usually accompanies this discovery, given the landslide of glowing emails, Facebook photos and blog posts they had just been spamming their people with back home. The niggling feeling that one might have been WRONG about their first impressions is too difficult for some to accept, so Stage Two may be temporarily avoided as the newcomer frantically attempts to maintain the fantasy of Stage One. Inevitably, the illusion does slip away, and the frustration and anger of Stage Two rears its ugly head.
In Stage Two, newcomers may feel disillusioned, disappointed, disgusted and/or disapproving of their new culture. The inner critic takes over, projecting one’s personal struggle with change onto the new culture, turning their new home into enemy number one. What was initially ‘cool’ and ‘exotic’ becomes ridiculous, sub-standard and irritating. The food is too spicy, the people are rude, nothing works properly, the shopping is crappy, etc. Just as a man might initially fall in love with a woman’s voice but after a few months of daily nagging that once beautiful voice becomes the cackle of an evil shrew, the novelties of the new culture can suddenly become burdensome and annoying beyond measure. People in Stage Two are awful to be around – they moan, complain, compare, demand and generally act like self-entitled brats
Stage Three: If a newcomer survives Stage Two, he/she can expect to be faced with Stage Three, which I prefer to call the ‘paralysis stage’.
After the anger passes, one is left with a feeling of emptiness or despondency. There is a sense of being stuck or unable to affect any change in one’s life. Homesickness may really set in at this point, and a feeling of lethargy underlies everything one undertakes. I suspect that this downtime is part of the integration process whereby your previous identity (ego) stops fighting the new influences and becomes more receptive to the unconscious changes that are taking place deep in one’s psyche. Like any long-term relationship in which the partners have periods of withdrawal, depression and apathy, newcomers can also feel helplessly lost and alone during this phase of integration.
Right now, I think I’m transitioning out of Stage Three. I’ve been in an incubator for the last number of months, waiting for a new, integrated identity to hatch so I can re-engage the world. It’s been a difficult time particularly because I’m also an introvert, but I see the light at the end of the tunnel and feel optimistic that I will land smoothly in Stage Four when the time is right.
Stage Four: Although many people will never understand their new culture on a deeper level, hopefully they will be able to reconcile the differences, work through the internal changes that the move has triggered, and finally accept their new home and new identity with an air of grace and wisdom.
Stage Four is about truly ‘living’ in one’s new home, participating as a member of society and becoming part of the local social fabric. Of course there will always be frustrations, but a person who reaches Stage Four is able to make them livable, the same way he/she lived with frustrations in the country of origin. Internally, people in Stage Four have managed to incorporate aspects of their new culture into their identity, which results in a new sense of self and an expanded way of perceiving the world. Like a couple who have been married for a number of years and who have grown comfortable with each other’s differences and quirks, people in Stage Four are settled and feel very much at home in their new world.
I will give some tips on how to move gracefully through the four stages of culture shock in the follow-up post. Maybe by then I will officially be in Stage Four