When You Are Under Culture Shock – Indecisiveness

“I can’t seem to make even simplest decisions.  I am also finding it hard to take any actions!”

When you are under cultural stress, decision making can become unusually difficult.  Even the simplest, easy choices under normal circumstances might be hard to make.

The cause for this can be isolation and not having someone around to connect with, which are common among expats whose spouses are working but who are staying at home.

Do you have someone to whom you can unload your worries and concerns?  Someone with whom you can share your thoughts and feelings?  If your answer is no to either one, you know what’s been missing in your new expat life and what’s causing your stress.

When you feel this way, you need to immediately find and meet someone who can be a soundboard for you.  If you had someone like that before moving, but haven’t found a new person yet, you can send your SOS signal to your old friend to chat over Voip. But that would be only a temporary solution. You will need to find some friends or a community where you can unload some of your burdens and seek some support.

Also, you could perhaps use some quiet time alone when you can reflect. You may want to reserve some time and space without any TV, internet, or interruptions. Sit and think through your current life, work, and future dreams and aspirations. Write down your thoughts and feelings. This reflection will help identify your problems and help you focus on a strategy to solve them.

When you are going through a culture shock, it’s difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel.  You might act or feel very differently from your usual self, and none of these are usually very constructive.  The good news is that there are ways to counter culture shock and prevent these negative, unproductive personal reactions.  Remember that you are not alone in this.  Most people who move into a new culture need time to adjust and find new ways to recharge and refresh themselves in the new environment.

When You Are Under Culture Shock – Irritation

Culture shock often causes negative behavioral reactions by those who are going through it.  It is a form of stress reaction to a life which is not meeting many of your normal expectations.  Thus it would be worthwhile to consider what might be the root of your negative behaviors and figure out to what kind of things you are not reacting kindly.

“I’ve been getting easily agitated and even aggressive with people.”

Is this a general description of your emotional state recently?  Perhaps you don’t feel you are receiving enough due respect from others.  Or maybe your new environment is making the line of command, authority, or your personal boundaries unclear.  Whatever the cause, being irritable is not a behavior that would be welcomed by those around you, whether a local or an expat.

Solutions for Culture Shock

If you are struggling with a feeling of frustration, here’s what I would suggest:

  1. Clarify and explain what’s going on with you to people around you.
  2. If you’ve behaved with irritation and even aggression, then be genuinely apologetic and tell them you are sorry.  That’s the right thing to do in any culture.
  3. If you are dealing with a colleague from the Global South or East, try to be more tactful and cautious, and perhaps even a bit indirect than you’d normally handle it in your native culture.  Invite the person to a meal or a coffee.  Make sure to have the person feel that you value the relationship, not just tasks and goals.
  4. You might want to read more on the local culture and etiquette so that you know whether you are making any cultural mistakes, which could cause the local people to mistreat or disrespect you.
  5. If there’s any cultural adaptation training being offered at work, make sure to attend it.
  6. Ask a national colleague whom you have a good rapport to help you understand his or her culture better.  A learner attitude with a dose of humility will unlock some very key relationships and thus a way out of your culture shock.

When You Are under Culture Shock – Restlessness

One of the symptoms of culture shock is restlessness.  Lacking a focus.  Feeling distracted.  Not being able to concentrate at the task at hand.  If you are in a culture shock, you might find yourself saying something like this:     

“I’m so distracted that I can’t seem to focus. I feel restless and don’t know why…”

The chances are that you are a person who has a high need for varied, interesting activities over mundane routines in order to stimulate and engage your mind.  It’s likely that your mind and perhaps even your body are being under-stimulated and under-utilized in the new environment you are in.

Get yourself engaged in constructive activities.

If that’s the case, then you will need to look for ways to do more varied, fun activities that you find enjoyable.  Depending on your personal interest and passion, you might want to register for an art or music class, sign up for a gymn and aerobics, or take tennis or golf lessons.  Think about scheduling them in your calendar and making them a part of your new routine.  Try to get yourself engaged in more productive and fun activities.

Otherwise, unproductive habits – such as endless surfing on the internet or watching movies – could very well take over.  And the restlessness you’ve been feeling will get worse.  You might be feeling that way because you are just not doing enough stimulating and fulfilling activities.

How to Recognize Whether You Are in a Culture Shock

It was around Christmas of 1995, a few months after I had arrived in Thailand on a new job assignment.  For some reason I was feeling quite depressed and down, but couldn’t pinpoint why.  I was living in an exotic country, had a challenging but good job with a good pay and perks, and was enjoying a nice career opportunity.  And yet, I couldn’t help but wish I could leave that place right away.  What was wrong?  I learned later that I was going through a culture shock.

A Culture Shock Is…

When you live in a culture and environment different from your own, you are likely to experience what’s often referred to as culture shock.  It’s really a type of stress that comes from continuing to be in an environment that doesn’t meet your normal expectations of life.

You Might Experience a Culture Shock if…

So, if you are an expat living in another country, how do you know that you are going through a culture shock?  If the following conditions or signs apply to you, you are a prime candidate for going through a culture shock:

1. You have been in a new culture for less than a year

Culture shock usually comes between your second month and 7th month, but it can come sooner or last longer.

2. Your spouse has a full time job, but you don’t

It’s always more difficult for stay-home spouses.  Your working spouse whose job brought you there in first place will be busy and occupied with work which will make it a bit easier, but not you unless you find some fulfilling things to do.

3. This is your first time living outside your own culture

Those who have experienced and adapted to other cultures before will have more personal resources to deal with the change.

4. You feel a sense of disconnect, disorientation, or confusion without any clear cause

This could be due to other issues such as health and climate, but often times culture shock is the culprit.

5. You don’t speak the local language

The more linguistically challenged you are, harder it is to communicate and establish a sense of belonging and come out of isolation.

6. The cultural difference between your home culture and your host culture is huge

For example, if you are from North America or Northern Europe and yet you are living in a country in the Global South or East, you will have a bigger cultural gap to overcome.

7. You don’t have any new friends in the host culture

Friendships always matter.  Period.

8. You haven’t found a good hobby or activity to engage yourself in

What would you do with all your free time if you don’t have hobby or regular activity to keep yourself engaged and fulfilled?  It can get depressing!

9. You don’t like the local food

Food can be a huge challenge and the cause for your culture shock.

This is not an exhaustive list, of course.  But if many of the above signs and conditions apply to you, you can expect to experience culture shock.  The level of culture shock may vary from person to person, but it will be inevitable for most people.  You can’t go over it or under it but have to go through it!  

But You Can Overcome It

There’s always hope for those who are willing to learn and adapt.  You can come out of a culture shock stronger than before as you reestablish your cross-cultural identity and life structures.  You don’t need to continue in culture shock forever.  With a positive attitude and willingness to try new things and even change some of the ways you do things in your life, you will not only survive a culture shock, but actually thrive in the new culture.  So… Bon chance!