What Is Culture Shock?

Date Created: 18.08.2014

Most people think of culture shock in psychological terms, which allows them to view it as a mental inadequacy.  This explains why some people claim that culture shock never affects them.  Actually, culture shock is the exhaustion resulting from the extra effort, mostly mental and emotional, needed to live ordinary daily life in an environment that is full of novelty.

By "full of novelty," I refer to the hundreds of small differences between the way they lived life back home and they way they must live it abroad.  No one of these "trivial" differences, in itself, would throw anyone off stride.  But hundreds of small differences, occurring repeatedly during one's daily routine, day after day, week after week. . .well, that's another matter.

For example, there are subtle differences in nonverbal behavior, including not only gestures and use of voice and eyes but also how people dress and groom, that need to be interpreted.  There are matters of etiquette and business practice to be noticed and adopted.  There are subtle differences in values and sensibilities that need to be inferred from personal interactions.  There's the need to build personal relationships with local nationals – but  exactly how?  There's the need to hold yourself in check while trying to figure out if you've been insulted.  There are new foods to become familiar with, new transportation options to master, new expectations in relation to bosses, subordinates, neighbors, children, shopkeepers, civil servants…

The mental and emotional effort required to notice, figure out, and respond to myriad minor differences, morning till night day after day, has a cumulative physiological effect over time (as does any kind of long-term stressful situation).  The result is a gradual increase in exhaustion, which in turn is debilitating to one's immune system.  It is known, for example, that one's white blood cell count lowers, and it is white blood cells that defend against disease.  Many expatriates become ill four to eight weeks after arriving in an unfamiliar culture, and many do not get well soon.  Their body is too tired out to recover quickly from whatever illness has felled them.

The remedy?  Since culture shock is, above all, cumulative physiological exhaustion, the single best way to counteract its effects is simply to get more rest.  That means not only sleep but also relaxing "down time" and enjoyable activities with friends -- friends, by the way, from your own home culture because being with them involves much that's familiar and little that's novel.

Cornelius N. Grove, Grovewell LLC

Grovewell has been in continuous operation since 1990 under the leadership of interculturalist Dr. Cornelius N. Grove, and anthropologist and Certified Integral Coach Willa Zakin Hallowell.

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