Coping with culture shock

Many people who travel or live overseas experience what is commonly referred to as “culture shock.”

During the first stage, often described as the "honeymoon," everything you see and do in the country you are visiting is exciting and positive. But in the second stage, known as "culture shock," you can feel a sense of dislocation and general unease. To cope with culture shock, learn to recognize its symptoms:

  • You feel angry, uncomfortable, confused, frustrated or irritable and lose your sense of humour.
  • You withdraw and spend excessive amounts of time alone, only with Canadians or other foreigners, and avoid contact with the local people.
  • You develop negative feelings about the people and culture of the host country.
  • You eat and drink compulsively or need an excessive amount of sleep.
  • You are bored, fatigued and unable to concentrate or work effectively.

During the third and final "adjustment" stage, you start to accept your new surroundings and make a compromise between the honeymoon and culture shock phases.

You might also experience “reverse culture shock” after living abroad. Be prepared for a period of readjustment when you return to Canada.

Coping strategies

Probably the best strategy for coping with the various impacts of culture shock is to make a conscious effort to adjust to the new culture. Here are some suggestions on how to make yourself feel more at home in your new surroundings:

  • Admit frankly that these impacts exist. It is not a sign of weakness to admit that you feel uncomfortable, tense or confused.
  • Learn the rules of living in your host country. Try to understand how and why the local people act the way they do. Their behaviour and customs, although they may be different from your own, are neither better nor worse than what you are used to.
  • Get involved in some aspect of the new culture. Whether you study art or music, or learn a new sport or martial art, being an interested student will make a world of difference.
  • Take time to learn the language. It always helps to understand as much as possible of what people are saying. They will appreciate your effort to communicate with them in their language, even if it is just a few simple phrases, and it will make your daily life much easier.
  • Take care of yourself. Eat well, exercise and take the time to sleep. Limit your alcohol consumption to moderate amounts.
  • Travel. Take the time to be a tourist and explore the country’s sights.
  • Make friends and develop relationships. Getting to know local people will help you overcome cultural differences and understand the country. It will also show you how to be more sensitive to cultural norms and expectations.
  • Maintain contact with friends and family back home. Writing home about your experiences and problems can help you sort through them. It is also a good idea to keep a journal of your feelings and thoughts.
  • Do something that reminds you of home. Listening to your favourite music or practising a familiar hobby can boost your spirits when you are feeling homesick.
  • Avoid idealizing life back home. Try to make the most of your stay and consciously adopt an open mind.
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