Navigating Culture Shock

Image courtesy of USC

Culture shock happens to the best of us. Here’s how to handle adjusting to a new culture like a champ…

First of all, it is going to happen to you. No matter how seasoned a traveller you are, no matter how ready you felt to dive into life in your new country, you will experience culture shock at some point. Culture shock doesn’t mean you aren’t cut out for life abroad. It doesn’t even mean you and your host country are a bad match. What it does mean is that you’re experiencing growing pains. And that’s cool because growing means you’re still alive. Growing means you’re learning. Growing means you’re doing more with your life than if you’d stayed at home watching TV behind the white picket fence. Growing is awesome, okay?

What is Culture Shock?

The dictionary definition of culture shock is: “The feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.”

In reality, culture shock is rarely so easy to define. It can can manifest itself in your life in a myriad of unexpected ways. Are you suddenly experiencing anxiety over things you normally have no problem with? Are you avoiding performing simple tasks because it means going out in public and trying to communicate in a language you’re far from proficient in? Are you depressed? Exhausted? Just downright bored? Is everything and everyone suddenly unbearably annoying? Do you have the overwhelming urge to strangle every well meaning co-worker who asks you how you’re, “settling in”?

Culture shock, baby.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, what do you do when culture shock comes for you?

Understand That It’s A Pattern

You aren’t unique, you emo bastard. Other people have gone through what you’re going through. In fact, it’s so predictable that people who have more degrees than I do have graphed it! It starts with a honeymoon phase in your new country, around the first 1-3 months when everything is shiny and new. Then some kind of monkey wrench gets thrown in there around months 3-6 that makes you question just how perfect your new home is. You struggle a bit, then struggle some more, then adjust yo your new normal. The good news is that the bell curve ends with you being almost as insanely happy as you were when you first arrived in your home away from home.


Image courtesy of Global Ed E-Blast

The bad news is… it’s more complicated than that. In reality, expat life can look more like a wave than a bell curve. That means you’ll be experiencing some ups and downs and you’ll need to develop some strategies for surfing.

Find Activities That Ground You

Self care is key to preserving your sanity, especially when you hit those first bumps. Maybe you enjoy taking long walks in the woods with your headphones on. Maybe you practice yoga and meditation. Journal, make art, write music, dance in your underpants under the full moon, rock on with your bad self. Make time to do what makes you you no matter where you happen to be on the planet. It’s harder to feel disconnected if you’re a part of something bigger than yourself, so join a group or two. As I’ve mentioned before, the internet is a great resource for finding activity partners.

Check out my guide to meeting people and making friends abroad here!

Seek To Understand Cultural Differences

Culture shock can make you feel like you’re going sane in a crazy world. Instead of getting hung up on an aspect of local life that frustrates or confuses you, seek to understand why it makes sense in context. It used to drive me crazy how everything is so expensive in Switzerland. Once I realized that part of the reason why the cost of living is so high here is because the minimum wage is 20 CHF an hour, thus contributing to a society with less poverty overall, I got a lot cooler with it. I also got cooler with stores being shut on Sundays once somebody explained to me that the Swiss believe that the working poor deserve to have a day off to spend with their families just as much as the middle and upper classes do. I’m still working on being cool with the whole, “no vacuuming on a Sunday”, thing.

As for cultural differences between people, I’ve found the Peach and Cocconut Metaphor extremely useful in helping me understand the differences between the Swiss and Americans.


Distinguish Between First World Problems and Real World Problems

Expats. We’re a privileged bunch. Chances are were were highly educated and well employed in our home countries. We ended up abroad for the most part because we’re tops in our fields and completely unsatisfied with what ordinary life has to offer for us. We have high expectations of everyone and everything. With the bar set so high it’s only natural that we’re going to be disappointed from time to time. It’s okay not to be 100% satisfied with life 100% of the time. Most of us wouldn’t expect 100% satisfaction with life at home so why do we expect this of living abroad? Instead of setting yourself up to fail, make room for mixed emotions.

It’s a fact, sometimes you’re gonna hate it in your host country. You aren’t alone, read all about how to deal here.

Learn to Love Your New Normal

You are more adaptable than you think. Make sure you create room to be pleasantly surprised by cultural differences. You may even discover that there are plenty of things about your host country that you like better than your native land. If you aren’t open minded you’ll never discover them!

Read all about how expat life has changed me here.


What are your top tips for learning how to roll with a new culture?

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