October 24, 2010

What is Culture Shock?

One of the main points that we always touch when considering the pros and cons of working or volunteering abroad is the idea of culture shock (link relates to Eastern Europe issues). Imagine that you are in a new country where you:

  • Don’t speak the language
  • Don’t have access to a network of friends or family
  • Can’t get home to see your family frequently

This means, you are likely going to run into some odd situations. For example, in Chile (and other South American countries) you have to weigh and pay for your food and bread at different sections around the supermarket, before you checkout. This might seem like a minor detail, but imagine that you are new in town and just want to get some groceries, and when you go to pay, everyone is yelling and pointing…this can be disheartening to say the least. This is culture shock.

Often it is the little norms that you might not know, or the nuances of everyday life that can keep people from adjusting fully to a new culture or country, rather than the bigger things that one might expect. You might get used to being the tallest or blondest person in the room before you get used to how taxis work, or what proper subway etiquette is…all of these things take a lot of negotiation, and most of all, a willingness to make mistakes.

To avoid culture shock, you need to have an open-ness about looking silly, or sounding silly from the beginning. Focus on learning how to perform daily tasks, or get from point A to point B before you try to master these things. Learn how to ask questions, and how to really listen to the answers. Culture shock can be just as good as it is challenging, as long as you keep an open mind.

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