Culture Shock

May 15, 2012

Short-Term Mission

When I lead a mission trip I prepare people for culture shock. Typically, on a short term trip, culture shock consists of the shock of experiencing, and possibly living amongst, extreme poverty, and then experiencing the shock of returning to what feels like undeserved luxury in the states. This type of shock is often referred to as re-entry, return or reverse culture shock. Sometimes people cry themselves to sleep the first few nights that they’re home, have difficulty getting dressed, completely shut down emotionally, feel anger and/or resentment, experience guilt, or find it difficult to do basic things like shopping for groceries.

I recall some of my own experiences. My first trip to Nicaragua, I had difficulty sleeping the first few nights I was home. One time after a trip to Haiti I “went off” on a woman in the grocery store for acting “privileged,” or so I believed. Another time I realized I was experiencing culture shock when I started to cry, being overwhelmed by the tea and coffee aisle in a Super Stop & Shop.

I’ve heard many stories over the years about culture shock. After two weeks back in the states post mission trip, a friend told me of having to pull her car over on the side of the highway, because she just needed to cry. One time, when I was discussing culture shock in a mission presentation, a young woman stood and shared that after returning from Central America she couldn’t wear anything but her jeans and t-shirt. She would sit on the end of her bed and stare at her closet, which had more clothing than she had seen in the entire village where she had traveled. I’ve also received calls from people to whom it was “suggested by a friend” that they call. One woman shared that she had been on a mission trip to Haiti a few weeks past. Her son was on the same trip. After sharing what she was experiencing … in particular, that neither she nor her son had said a word about their trip to Haiti and weren’t talking with each other … it was clear that they were both experiencing some form of culture shock.

Long-Term Mission

Again, the preceding paragraphs are about culture shock in a short-term mission context. Culture shock for people who live in another country for longer periods of time takes on different forms. Most people talk about it in reference to four stages. The UK website for Kwintessential Ltd identifies four stages: Excitement, Withdrawal, Adjustment and Enthusiasm. The standard opinion is that we progress through these stages over the course of 6 to 12 months.

In the excitement stage people experience positive feelings about their new culture. They can be overwhelmed by new impressions and find their new culture to be exotic and fascinating. When they enter the withdrawal stage, they can experience people’s behavior as unusual and unpredictable, react negatively to behaviors they aren’t used to, feel anxious, and begin to withdraw as a kind of self-preservation. In extreme cases, people begin to be critical of their new environment and the people they encounter and may even fail to make the transition to adjusting to their new surroundings. In the Adjustment stage, people begin to understand and accept new behaviors, feel less isolated and alone, and begin to develop a newfound sense of humor about life. In the fourth stage, enthusiasm, people settle in to life in their new culture and begin to function like everyone else around them. They integrate certain cultural traits and adopt some of the behaviors exhibited in their new environment.

Some of the types of experiences people talk about when they discuss culture shock are extreme frustration with language limitations, feelings of isolation, lack of support systems, finding it frustrating to shop in a grocery store when you can’t find the kinds of products you’re used to purchasing, opening a bank account, dealing with governmental services, accessing medical care, and so forth. Culture shock can manifest itself as emotional volatility, not wanting to talk with others, not accepting invitations to interact with others, spending most of your time at home, and getting angry easily with people for insignificant things.

Extenuating Circumstances

A major challenge for people experiencing any kind of cultural transition is extenuating circumstances. We can know a great deal about culture shock, and do our best to prepare ourselves along with give ourselves space and time to work our way through the various stages. But while we’re doing that, life continues to go on around us. We may experience a death locally that inadvertently triggers something from our past while we’re also experiencing culture shock. A family member or close friend from home may die. In my case, I recently experienced the loss of a family pet that we’ve had for over 14 years. While experiencing culture shock, we may not understand why we’re reacting differently to a given situation than we have in the past. We may say things like, “I don’t recall ever having those kinds of feelings losing a family pet.” We may feel particularly vulnerable or alone … more so than we’ve been feeling. We may act out in strange ways, becoming angry, edgy, or withdrawn. All of these reflect the fact that culture shock may be playing a role in how we’re processing the extenuating circumstance.

Change in Context

Having shared my understanding of culture shock, I wonder if we need to rethink it a bit for today’s context. The typical stages of culture shock make a few assumptions. One basic assumption is that when we’re in a new culture, we’re cut off from our support systems. Another is that our experience of a new culture is entirely “new.” It’s my opinion that these assumptions aren’t really accurate any more, and as such, the stages, or the way we think about culture shock, need revision.

For example, in my case, I’ve had a great deal of experience of other cultures. Thanks to transportation technologies and today’s lifestyles, I have traveled a great deal … and travel for me isn’t a two-day romp through all of the museums in a particular international city. I have experienced cultures in many different locations in Latin America along with the Caribbean, Europe, East Africa, and the Middle East. I’ve lived in homes with families, worked on job sites with the local community, studied and lectured. Yes, I’ve done the tourist thing, but as a sociologist, I’ve also made sure I sampled the local “flavor,” so to speak, everywhere I’ve traveled.

I’ll also point out that today all of us have access to some of our support systems through the use of communication technologies. We can use Skype and VOP (voice over IP) to easily connect with friends and family. Computer to computer calls are free and computer to phone calls are $.02 a minute. In other writings, I’ve noted that in some cases our access to support systems back home may actually limit our engagement in a new culture. Students studying abroad have often noted that they don’t believe they fully experienced their host culture, because they spent the majority of their time online with friends and family. This isn’t just their own doing, either, as their family and friends often assert their own social expectations with regard to electronic communication, not realizing they are limiting the individual’s opportunity for engagement in their host country.

A possible manifestation of culture shock is frustration, anxiety and anger over access to healthcare. But, today, in many parts of the world, the same medicines we use in the states are universally accessible, and medical care is provided in many languages. For those of us from the US, we can often find medical care providers who not only speak English, but may be from the U.S. and were trained in universities in the U.S.

Some of what’s unique for me is the fact that I’ve done a great deal of international travel through my global mission work in the Diocese of Massachusetts as well as having lived as an exchange student in Paraguay and having been involved with Witness for Peace in Central America. In addition, before settling here in Colombia, I lived in Cochabamba, Bolivia for 10 weeks. Transportation has also made it easy for me to attend meetings and conferences in the U.S., like the GEMN conference I just attended in Connecticut, enabling me to cross paths with family like I’ll be doing in July when I travel to General Convention in Indiana where my mother lives.

My point is not to deny that I experience culture shock, because I know I do. Rather, I think my experience is different from the classic stages noted by scholars … and I don’t believe I’m unique in that. I’ve had moments where I felt stressed and a bit more emotionally volatile than I would be otherwise. For example, I’ve gotten emotional watching movies that wouldn’t have been emotion inducing in other circumstances. I also appreciate that as an academic I’m used to being able to express myself fairly articulately. Not being able to do so in Spanish has been, and still is, quite frustrating and, occasionally, anger inducing. On a few occasions, I have reacted more strongly than the situation warranted. I’ve also had moments when I wondered if maybe I was in denial or stuck in a stage of culture shock, because I wasn’t feeling anything. I can look through the stages and their various manifestations and recognize things I’m currently experiencing, and things I’ve experienced in the past. So, again, I’m not trying to say that people with similar experiences to mine don’t experience culture shock … just that we experience it differently.

Thankfully, I believe I’m self-aware enough to know when something isn’t quite right, so that the red flags go up and I take the time to do some processing. And, of course, having an active prayer life doesn’t hurt. As I’ve noted in other blog entries, missionaries discover quickly that they are quite dependent on their faith. An active prayer life serves to strengthen that faith, and provides one avenue for dealing with the kinds of things that can arise with culture shock. I find it comforting to believe that God will assist me in dealing with whatever I’m facing and forgive me for those culture shock induced moments when I may be out of line.

[I felt inspired to write this particular post, aware that it wouldn’t lend itself to photos. I look forward to sharing photos of my life in Colombia in future posts.]

One Response to “Culture Shock”

  1. Karen Says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Ted, it’s extremely insightful. Culture shock can be just below the surface in a lot of situations, and it’s good to be aware of the different forms that it can take.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: