Culture Shock Demystified

By Daniel Harbecke

GlobalVillageCulture shock is a really uncomfortable, nervous feeling.  Here we have someone from another part of the world, and something is going wrong in terms of understanding and we don’t know how to fix it.  We start to feel self-conscious because we can’t figure out how to communicate with this other person.  We can’t even figure out where it’s going wrong.

If we’re in our home country, we may start thinking how foolish we look.  If we’re abroad, we may start thinking we’re not cut out for this travel thing after all.  Perhaps we quietly blame the other person for how we feel.  Perhaps we begin to harbor some resentment for them, or the country we’re visiting.  These are all normal reactions, which tend to result in abandoning attempts at communication.  What happens, though, if this is your job?

The problem is not so rare.  For example, according to culture shock expert Craig Storti:

-          More than one-third of all Americans who take up residence in foreign countries return prematurely because they are unable to adapt to day-to-day life.

-          On average, 68% of Americans in Saudi Arabia with no cultural training fail to complete their contracts.

-          In Western Europe, 37% of Americans working on an F-16 project for General Dynamics resigned early and went home.

-          In England, 18% of untrained American expatriates regularly return home prematurely.

-          An organization that recruited and placed hospital administrators in a Middle Eastern country reported an attrition rate of virtually 100%.

-          “The success rate of overseas adjustment… is not nearly as high as it might be.  If left to luck, your chances of having a satisfying experience living abroad would be about one in seven.”

-          According to Going International, “The premature return of an overseas employee, a spouse and two children can cost a company more than $210,000.”  (That’s a pretty big number, but it’s not correct: this figure is about 25 years old. If we adjust to current rates, the price tag comes to more than $420,000.)

Culture shock is a complex phenomenon, with some rather involved ideas that tie into it, like globalization, tradition, technology, and patriotism.  But if you’re an employer, all these facts and figures are going to add up to another big idea: your bottom line.  If humans have been traveling for thousands of years, why are we still having problems with culture shock?

Culture shock has been with us for millennia, but it’s only in the past century that travel and communication have increased exponentially.  We may be safely within the Information Age, but this doesn’t mean we’re able to communicate – and, with all the knowledge available to us, we’re creating resources that will only carry us further into more distant and exotic areas.  Not too long ago, we reached a point where we could be anywhere on the planet in less than a day (depending on how you like your landing). Again, this has had a profound effect on communication – once you’ve arrived someplace, you need to know how to make contact.  Unless we address it, culture shock is an issue that will undoubtedly worsen.

Culture Shock

In his book The Art of Crossing Cultures, Craig Storti illustrates the problem and how to cope with it.  Storti begins with a model of culture shock incidents – we:

1)     Expect others to be like us, but they aren’t.

2)     As a result, a cultural incident occurs, which

3)     Causes a negative reaction on our part.

4)     Wishing to avoid these feelings, we withdraw.

But what if we could change something in this model to create a choice of options?  We can’t always change our expectations, but when something happens we CAN change our reaction.  Instead of automatically withdrawing, take a moment to become aware of what we’re feeling.

Instead of simply reacting emotionally, we break into the cycle before we withdraw.  By pausing for a moment to assess the situation, we can reflect, allow our emotion to pass, and analyze for better predictions.  First, we:

Culture Shock Redux

1)     Expect others to be like us, but they aren’t.

2)     As a result, a cultural incident occurs, which

3)     Causes a negative reaction on our part.

4)     Wishing to avoid these feelings, we become aware of them.

5)     We reflect on what it was that bothered us, and

6)     Let the reaction subside.

7)     We then analyze the situation with a level head, and once we understand the situation better we can

8)     Form better expectations.

What we’re doing is breaking the cycle of knee-jerk withdrawal and replacing it with reasoned insight and analysis.  Awareness is the key to this process; without it, we revert back to instinct and withdraw, closing off the potential for growth. However, when we become aware of what we’re feeling and experiencing, the gate opens: we can reflect, allow our emotion to pass, and analyze for better predictions.

This “thinking out of the box” can help prevent the common pitfalls of culture shock, but a few words of caution should be added: Cultural competence is not the same as cultural understanding.  Truly empathizing with a people takes more than just knowing the customs. Definitive guides do not exist because culture is not definitive.  Cultural understanding takes a great deal of time and energy.

Storti’s model of improved interaction takes some practice, but it’s worth it to begin the practice of self-observing behavior – even in our non-culture shock interactions.  We are a global village now, and if we are truly to consider managing our home to be our responsibility, we must begin to change our attitudes about where the walls of our home end.  Surely we can learn to welcome new ideas and refreshing attitudes without closing the door on the foreign or the unknown.  Surely we can rise to the occasion before us: of meeting tomorrow’s world with friendly competition rather than ignorant prejudice.

Works Cited:

Storti, Craig (2001). The art of crossing cultures. 2nd ed. Boston, MA: Intercultural Press.

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One Response to Culture Shock Demystified

  1. Great post! As a MAHPI grad living in Mexico I can relate!!! Language can be a HUGE barrier in feeling isolated and confused. But sometimes the simple things can get to you before anything else. I suppose I am lucky because I was not afraid to ask those around me their opinions about why certain sociological phenomenon occur- at work and in social situations.

    For example- I find that it takes much longer for folks here to reply to emails. My initial reaction was that I was not important enough for the other person to reply. I found out through conversations with my friends that the intention is to focus on a detailed email that is both respectful and thorough. That takes time and most are used to getting replies in 2-3 days. If you want information fast you have to call. If I did not take the time to find out why this happened I might get fed up.

    If anyone out there works abroad or works with international clients it helps to recognize these emotions early and then research why it happens. Either connect with a peer or just search the internet. Once you understand the “why” you will not harbor anger/frustration. You will add it to your understanding of the culture and make you WAY more effective. This is a competency that is in demand as the world is getting smaller and smaller and folks that can live/work outside their own cultural comfort zone are in HUGE demand.

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