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Definition Sources Characteristics Coping

We have all heard the term, but what does it mean? One definition is:

A period of adjustment to new geographical, personal and / or socioeconomic circumstances that differ from one’s pre-existing and routine norms.

All will go through a period of adjustment but the degree of adjustment will vary person to person. It is important to recognize the symptoms. It can be characterized by a series of stages - an emotional curve, if you will. These stages may take place over the course of several months, or there may even be days where one cycles through the high's and low's associated with it.

Sources of Culture Shock

Culture shock may arise from any of the following:

  • Communication challenges - In many cases you will be in countries where English is not the native tongue. This may prove quite challenging and you will have to learn to speak in the simplest of English sentences, often repeating yourself. Have patience. It will take time to communicate ideas. Be clear. Repeat statements and questions. Clarify frequently and probe with questions to make sure both parties in the conversation understand what is required of them. And try to learn the rudiments of the host country's language; even if you are not fluent, it does show an effort to communicate and this will help bridge the gap considerably. A solid foundation is better than no foundation on which to build an understanding of a foreign language.
  • Gender Relationships - Wherever you travel, expect differences in gender relations. In some cultures, men may more aggressively seek the affections of the opposite sex than you are used too. In some cultures, women are more often the pursuers. To you this may seem harassing but in that culture it is the status quo. North American women are perceived as “liberated” and sometimes friendliness can be misinterpreted. Gender relations are evidenced through body language, eye contact, standing and sitting positions, clothing, etc. It is best pay careful attention to the details of gender relationships in the countries to which you are travelling.
  • Religious sensitivities and local values - religious and local values may be vastly different in the destination countries. It is safest not to talk about religion and politics and to be aware of the various religions and manners of dress of spiritual services.
  • Access to services - the services that you are used to accessing at your convenience (banks, stores, restaurants, etc.) may all operate quite differently internationally. Be prepared to have to change your routine and be flexible when and where services - as you are used to them - do and do not exist.

Characteristics of Culture Shock (

  • anger, discomfort, confusion, frustration or irritability and loss of a sense of humour;
  • withdrawal, spending excessive amounts of time alone, spending time only with Canadians or other foreigners and avoiding contact with locals;
  • negative feelings about the people and culture of the host country;
  • compulsive eating and drinking or a need for excessive amounts of sleep; and
  • boredom, fatigue and an inability to concentrate or work effectively.

culture shock

International travel is often likened to an emotional roller-coaster – there are extreme highs when setting foot on foreign soil, seeing vastly different buildings, landscapes, people and cultures. But there can be equally dramatic lows when missing family and friends back home, having difficulty communicating or lacking the creature comforts that were part of your daily life back home. The diagram above plots a typical experience of mood fluctuations over time.
This curve, however, does not describe everyone's experience, and some people may face fluctuations in mood daily, or face several peaks and valleys throughout the duration of their experience. The important thing is to a) recognize that your mood may fluctuate greatly and b) seek supports and appropriate outlets when it does.

Essentially, culture shock arises from our difficulty in understanding our new context from the perspective of our North American lives. We have grown up in a culture where each action, gesture, word or phrase has been defined and shaped by our environment; the place where we learned to survive and thrive. By coming to this new environment, those time-tested ways of communicating and living are no longer as relevant. We must relearn a social and cultural competence that took years to foster in a relatively short amount of time. This friction contributes to and defines our experience of culture shock.

What you can do

Finding ways to deal with culture shock is critically important:

  • Keep a journal of your thoughts and experiences, making sure to write extensively in your first few weeks while all the experiences are fresh and new (you will be less inclined to write when the new experiences become part of your day-to-day life and hence, less novel). A more modern adaptation of the travelogue would be via blogging our creating audiologues. Most digital cameras have the ability to record voice memos, which can be quite convenient and interesting when the time or conditions are not conducive the physically writing.
  • Keep items that you can later scrapbook (ticket stubs, pictures, etc.) that will remind you of elements of your experience.
  • When you physically cannot capture a moment, take time to make “mental movies”. Sit and stare for several minutes, or even hours at a time, breathing deeply and take notes of elements of your surroundings.
  • Speak with your classmates – these experiences are (for the most part) new to them as well. Share your thoughts and ideas about the experience with them.
  • Take mementoes of home - a small photo album; movies / photos of home loaded onto your iPod, etc.
  • Develop a routine in your host country
  • Eat well and exercise
  • travel, explore the host country

Sources and Additional Reading:

  1. Coping with Culture Shock,
  2. “Overcoming culture shock” by: Susan Ernenwein and Alice Hoover
  3. “Adjustments and Culture Shock.” -


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