“Culture shock” is what happens when you leave your own world behind and dive into a culture much different from your own.
Long-term travelers, exchange students, and expats tend to feel the effects of culture shock the hardest, but even if you’re traveling short-term, finding yourself in a drastically foreign land can be a jolt to the system.
You’ll wind up feeling alienated, confused, and discouraged. You’ll question why you made the move. You’ll miss your friends and family dearly.
How do I know this?
I’ve been there, because I moved to Berlin last year. And even though Germany is like Canada in many ways, sometimes it’s the smallest differences that hit the hardest. Germany’s super intense recycling program stressed me out for weeks until I finally figured it all out.
The festival of Holi in India is unlike anything you can experience in North America. But research shows that this type of culture shock is actually good for you.
The good news is that culture shock is usually short-term. The even better news is that it’s actually good for you.
Navigating Cultures Can Help You in the Career World
Many young travelers worry that taking a gap year will tarnish their resume and set them up for failure. But exposure to different cultures can actually improve your career life.
Dmitri Oster, a psychotherapist in New York, describes his experience with culture shock.
“When I was working in the United Kingdom, I had to get used to a completely different mentality, societal and civil structure, and flow of life to the one which I was accustomed to previously. There is an understandable tendency to gravitate back to the orbit of the familiar when one finds oneself in a foreign and different environment,” he said in an email interview.
But Oster fought this tendency, and with good results.
“I was able to rely on my experiences as being a foreigner to connect with others sharing this experience. So I was employed by a UK-based University, and found myself being one of the University’s main contact points with providing services and other outreach efforts to its large and multicultural international student body,” he said.
Immersing Yourself Will Make You a Better Traveler
Michael Brein, a psychologist specializing in travel, is an expert in the science behind culture shock. In his paper Intercultural Communication and the Adjustment of the Sojourner, Brein writes about how it’s the traveler’s responsibility to recognize the cultural differences around him/her, and to attempt intercultural adjustment.
He writes, “the sojourner in his role as a stranger to a foreign culture needs to become aware of its implicit rules.” He goes on to say,” The degree of social interact or contact between the host national and the sojourner has been found to be related to the latter’s adjustment.”
In other words, the quicker you make friends, the quicker you’ll get over culture shock.
The benefit to all this is that although the traveler may experience culture shock during future travels, it’ll be less severe and likely shorter. You’ll gain the ability to travel just about anywhere.
You’ll Gain a Strong Sense of Confidence
Personally, as a small-town Canadian expat living in Germany, my sense of confidence has grown ten-fold.
I grew up in a small town of 1200 people, where there was no such thing as public transit or even much traffic. When I traveled in the past, I avoided public transit because I just didn’t understand how it worked. Most people take this for granted, and I’d often get teased for my avoidance. But after living in Berlin for a year, I’m able to hop on any train, tram, or bus. It’s a small thing, but for me, it’s huge.
Once you overcome culture shock, the benefits are worth it. A stronger sense of self-confidence is just one of those benefits.
That’s just one example. Turning inward, you’ll likely find yourself changed without even knowing it. Your street smarts improve, your knowledge of the world improves, and your ability to socialize with foreign cultures improves. And these things stick around long-term.
You’ll Adapt a More Open Mind
There are few people who go out into the world and return home with disdain for their host cultures. And in a time when words like “terrorism” and “war” tend to pop up in headlines frequently, this increased cultural affection can only be a good thing.
Cheryl Howard is a friend of mine who moved to Germany from Canada, like me. She first moved to Berlin in June 2011, and then moved back to Canada. But then she found herself missing her expat life.
“My first months in the German capital involved a lot of culture shock such as facing the challenge of German bureaucracy to register my flat, finding a way to get beneath the seemingly cold exteriors of the locals, or having to bring my own cake to the office on my birthday. Never mind the ‘textile free’ concept when it comes to German saunas!” Cheryl said in an email interview.
“For personal reasons, I moved back to Canada in November 2012 and that’s when I experienced reverse culture shock. At first it was weird hearing so much English and at such loud decibels — I’d never realized that we North Americans tend to speak very loudly.
“The price of food and drink is considerably higher in Berlin and the notion of tipping is less than 10% in Germany, as in Canada tipping that low would been seen as in insult.
Culture shock will change you, and how you view the world too.
“I was home in Canada for two years and ultimately decided to move back to Berlin. My time abroad changed me and Toronto felt limiting. I missed Berlin’s more open and relaxed vibe, lower cost of living, efficient public transit, massive amounts of green space, food scene, and the endless amount of things to do. I happily returned to Berlin at the end of 2014 and have no immediate plans to go back to Canada. While expat life can be difficult at times, being able to do things like jet to Paris for the weekend, keep me here.”
Traveling beyond your home country allows you to understand how other cultures live. For some people, it means a better life.
You’ll Come to Understand Privilege, and You’ll Earn Gratitude
Mariellen Ward is a Canadian travel writer who runs the popular Breathe Dream Go website. She divides her time between Delhi and Canada – an impressive feat, considering the enormity of the cultural differences between both destinations.
She was pulled into India almost immediately during her first trip there 11 years ago.
“The thing that surprised me the most was how at home I felt. It was uncanny,” Mariellen said in an interview.
“I felt an instant affinity with India that completely surprised me. Sure, I experienced my share of culture shock. It took months to learn how to navigate the train system, negotiate with auto-rickshaw drivers, discover which foods I could eat and find a way to deal with child beggars.”
When a traveler is faced with a culture drastically different from his or her own, the traveler tends to learn gratitude.
But Mariellen came back to Canada a different person. “In a way, my journey really began when I got home and realized how much I had changed. For one thing, I had an entirely new awareness of myself as a middle class westerner. I saw things about my own culture I had never seen before, such as the amount of earth’s resources we consume and waste we create. I realized I had been living in a middle class ‘bubble’ in Canada, though I didn’t know it until I spent those six months in India. I guess you could say I gained a global perspective I never had before.”
You’ll Appreciate Your Home Country, But Also Question It
Nearing the end of my year in Berlin, I’m able to think more critically about my life in Canada and how it stacks up against Germany. There are so many things I miss about home – the food, the ocean, nature, the friendly people, friends and family, my country’s generous social system (to name a few).
But I’m more critical, too. Germany’s waste reduction program blows Canada’s out of the water. The country generates so much renewable energy that it recently had to pay consumers to use it. The rail and transit system is more affordable.
Everyone has different experiences. If I had chosen to fulfill my year in a much different country, my culture shock experiences would likely have been more impactful. But, either way, the benefits far outweigh those few months of self-doubt and worry.
What do you think?
Have you experienced culture shock while visiting or living in another country? Tell us about it in the comments below.
Candice Walsh is a freelance writer and travel blogger whose work has been featured in the BBC, AFAR magazine, Westjet’s up! Magazine, SOAR and more. When she’s not busy travelling the world, she calls St. John’s her home.