One of the main sources of culture shock – or, as we like to call it, cultural annoyance – is mis-perception. Even though I may think that I know and understand a lot about the culture I’m living in, when something goes wrong, I find myself caught off-guard. I feel disoriented, helpless, out of place.
In fact, I don’t really understand much of anything. My expectations of life no longer seem to apply; what should be routine becomes unpredictable. The kinds of things that I don’t even have to think about at home now seem bewildering to me.
And this is the key: when I’m at home, I don’t have to think about them! So here I am, trying to manage without remembering to be conscious of my attitudes and my responses. That’s why I don’t even know when I’m in a jam until it seems too late.
How can I help others who may be going through the same thing?
Ask questions! Like you, the other person who is going through culture shock usually doesn’t have a clue what’s going on. Like you, he’s not seeing the problem. You can try to help with clear questions that try to bring his situation into the light and show him that things that used to seem “normal” – things that he used to take in stride – aren’t so normal anymore.
- What happened? What’s different now than it was before?
- How do you feel about what happened? Do your feelings correspond to the facts? If not, what’s matching up and what’s not?
- People, neighbors, work colleagues really do react differently from how we might expect. What was different about their behavior? How would you have interpreted a similar situation in your home culture? Why does this interpretation not seem to apply here?
- What do you know about the culture of the country here? Based on that you’ve read or heard, in what ways should you expect things to be different?
It’s possible that you may not get much of a reaction to these questions. Your friend is annoyed, upset even, and doesn’t know how to respond to your attempt to help. If so, be patient. It’s very possible that he’ll eventually open up, although it may take a while – even two or three weeks or more.
Let’s face it: culture shock is inevitable. People who react best to culture shock, people who recover most quickly, typically have had some advance training – a course or seminar, say, designed to help prepare them for living in a new culture. Even so, the nature of culture shock is such that, until you’re actually going through it yourself, it’s difficult to know how you need to prepare. Frequently culture shock creeps up on us almost insidiously; we often don’t recognize when we’re in the midst of a situation identical to one we consciously prepared for.
What do we do if our questions don’t help?
If your questions don’t seem to help or if you don’t have time or opportunity for a deeper conversation, then a more direct approach may be called for. If you know the local culture fairly well, or at least a bit better than your friend, you can ask more pointed questions.
For example, if your friend is frustrated with local bureaucracy, you might ask him, “Don’t you have to register vehicles in your country? When you sell your car back home, don’t you need proof from the bank that it’s fully paid for?”
Or if manners and ways of relating to others seem frustrating, you might ask, “When you speak with elderly people in your home country, isn’t it true that you generally agree with them regardless, out of respect?”
The idea is to point out ways that bewildering and frustrating customs and practices in the new culture in fact serve the same purpose as customs and practices in his home culture. The main difference is that at home, those customs and practices are familiar to us; here, they’re not. They’re strange.
What else may help?
Tell stories from your own experience, even if there’s a danger that your story isn’t perfectly analogous, or that your friend may not see himself in what you’re relating to him. Most of the time, you can still manage to make your friend think. And often you can offer ideas, sort out doubts, suggest possible analyses. That can really be helpful.
So, what principles do you need to keep in mind so that your “help” is truly helpful?
What can make you help be more effective?
You need to take time. These things are never resolved quickly.
You need to tread carefully. People undergoing culture shock may be more sensitive than usual. Very often they are easily offended, perhaps much more so than they normally would be.
If you’re speaking to your friend in a language that’s not your own mother tongue, you have to be even more careful. There’s a real danger of saying something that’s imprudent or using phrases that are inappropriate. That can needlessly add to the offense your friend is already feeling.
You should find common ground and try emphasize that. Common background, common life experiences – anything that you share with your friend puts you in a better position to relate to him.
Be patient, listen more than speak, but know that sometimes it may be necessary to repeat what you’re saying, or to say the same thing in a different way.
One more point. If your attempts to communicate just fall flat, if things remain tense and you end up being just as perplexed as your friend, then try this: keep quiet, listen and give him a hug.
Last but not least: stay positive!