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Culture Shock - Emotional Roller-coaster

Every immigrant or tourist experiences "Culture shock" when they are removed from their familiar surroundings.

Until 1960, culture shock was assumed to be a consistently negative experience, much like an illness or disease. The Canadian anthropologist, Kalervo Oberg, who popularised the term, described it in very simple terms as the “anxiety that results from losing all of your familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse”.

What are your familiar signs or cues?

They could include a thousand and one different ways in which we orientate ourselves to the situations of daily life, without thinking about it, such as:

  • · Familiar places

You know street names, friends’ addresses, the school drive, where your bank is, where you get the freshest vegetables and the best bread in town. You know your pharmacist by name or your GP has known you since you were born.

  • · Familiar cues

You know how and when to shake hands, how to accept or refuse invitations or when to take a statement seriously or not. It also includes cues concerning customs and norms, for example introducing your life partner as your husband. You know how to interpret hand gestures and body language and you know who to avoid, like the town gossips or toxic people.

  • · Personal values

Values that you have considered to be good, desirable, beautiful and valuable are no longer respected by the hosts in the new country. Or what you considered to be your strong personality traits might all of a sudden be your weakest traits.

The above-mentioned familiar cues and values are part of our daily unconscious awareness or our comfort zone. You don’t think about these things, they just happen automatically. In psychology, the four stages of competence, or the “conscious competence” learning model, relate to the psychological states involved in the process of progressing from incompetence to competence in a skill.

When you enter a strange or new culture, all of your unconscious or familiar cues are removed. You are like a fish out of water. No matter how open-minded and prepared you are, you will have feelings of frustration and anxiety. Culture shock is a very individual process and is dependent on intrapersonal factors such as age, previous travel experiences, language skills, resourcefulness, independence, resilience, health and a support network.

Oberg further identified culture shock consisting of at least one of four distinct stages: honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment and adaptation. Emotions go up and down during these stages and are commonly referred to as the “W-curve” or “Roller-coaster ride” of culture shock.

The honeymoon stage (unconscious incompetence)

During the honeymoon stage the differences between the old and the new culture are seen in a romantic light. This stage may last from a few days or weeks to several months. Most newly arrived migrants are in awe of the new freedom they have, how easy it is to connect utilities, the phenomenon of safe public transport, the cleanliness of the suburbs and how polite motorists are.

You may feel euphoric and be pleased with all the new things you encounter. This stage is also called “blissful ignorance”. At this stage, you are unaware of cultural differences. It does not occur to you that you may be making cultural mistakes or that you may be misinterpreting much of the behaviour going on around you. Your fascination with the new culture will make you more open to engaging with other migrants and friendly Australians. However, like any honeymoon, this stage eventually ends.

The anxiety or negotiation stage (conscious incompetence)

After about three to six months, depending on the individual, differences between the old and new culture become apparent and may create anxiety, confusion and irritation. The excitement eventually gives way to frustration and anger as you continue to experience unfavourable events that may be perceived as strange and offensive to your cultural attitude.

According to Oberg, a sure sign of culture shock is when foreigners in another country get together to grumble and groan about their new country and its people. You now realize that differences do exist between the way you and the local people behave, though you understand very little about what these differences are, how numerous they might be, or how deep they might go. You know there’s a problem here, but you’re not sure about the size of it. You’re not so sure of your instincts anymore, and you realize that there are some things you don’t understand. You may start to worry about how hard it’s going to be to figure these people out.

The adjustment or recovery stage (conscious competence)

During this stage, usually between six to twelve months, individuals accept an objective view of their experience. They choose to become “explorers” of the new culture and attractions in the new country. They have an increased ability and a balanced perspective to see the bad and good elements in both the previous home and the new host culture.

You finally reach the stage where you realise that you need to re-evaluate your high expectations and that it is going to take more time than you anticipated. You realize cultural differences exist, you know what some of these differences are, and you try to adjust your own behaviour accordingly. It doesn’t come naturally yet — you have to make a conscious effort to behave in culturally appropriate ways — but you are much more aware of how your behaviour is coming across to the local people. You are in the process of replacing old instincts with new ones. You know now that you will be able to figure these people out if you can remain objective.

The adaptation stage (unconscious competence)

As you become more confident in your ability to function in two different cultures, you will develop a sense of belonging and will start to feel part of the community. The adaptation stage is also called the “mastery stage”. You are more comfortable in the new country and you even start calling it “home”. You operate more confidently in your new milieu without feeling the anxiety, for example, you don’t think where to drive anymore.

This doesn’t mean total mastery or fluidity every day, but it is getting better with only several moments of stress. Culturally appropriate behaviour is now second nature to you and you can trust your instincts because they have been reconditioned by the new culture. It takes little effort now for you to be culturally sensitive. Most migrants do keep traits from their earlier culture, such as accents and language.

There is no magic formula to prevent culture shock, as any individual in any society is affected differently on a personal level by cultural contrasts.

Author : Hendrika Jooste, Bloom Seminars and Author of Your D.I.Y Move Guide for Australia.

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