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Three ways to manage culture shock

(From the "Global Living" newsletter -- a monthly e-zine full of great tips and information for expatriates, global nomads, and internationally-minded.  Please sign up at www.GlobalCoachCenter.com).

All of us at one time or another probably experienced the phenomenon that’s widely regarded as culture shock. Culture shock is usually defined as a rollercoaster of emotions we go through when entering and adjusting to a culture (or environment) that’s not our own. Most of the research  I read suggests that there are five stages to culture shock:

  • Stage I – everything in the new place seems exciting and interesting; 
  • Stage II – we begin to encounter daily struggles of living in the new environment and realize the great differences between the life we’ve known and the life we live now (culture shock); 
  • Stage III – things begin to look up, we start getting used to the new life, and problems no longer seem grandiose; 
  • Stage IV – the new place starts feeling like home, we make local friends, no longer fret a lot about bad things, and immensely enjoy good things.
  • Stage V – we come back to our own country, notice that things may have changed in our absence, and begin to miss old friends and experiences we’ve left behind

Yet are these really stages of culture shock or are they merely perspectives – the expression of a “being” condition, the state we are in?  And, if that’s the case, can we change them at will rather than wait around for the worst times to end?

I think so.  Let’s take these five stages and give them names.  This way we can see that they are merely examples of how we look at our relationship with another culture.  We can say that our relationship with the new place is:

  • wonderful (Stage I)
  • frustrating/painful (Stage II)
  • doable (Stage III)
  • enjoyable (Stage IV)
  • a longing (Stage V) 

These definitions by no means are the most perfect ones, but they illustrate at least five different points of view we can take on our relationship with another culture.  When we find ourselves in one of those perspectives, we may have an urge to argue the others are really true or false.  But that doesn’t matter.  There might be some truth to them just as there might be some truth to others.  We are not choosing the one that’s TRUE as if the others were FALSE.  What we are doing is expanding the number of ways we can look at the issue by creating a universe of possibilities that are also true. 

This variety keeps us from being locked into one and only perspective that may simply be our state of “being” at that particular time.  We open our vision, discover other states of “being” that may also be true and, thus, have a power of choice.  We can now choose which point of view suits us best at the moment -- which will make us happier and more fulfilled.  Because remember -- living in another culture will remain essentially the same no matter how we look at it, but our looking at the situation will have an enormous impact on us, our emotions, and our opportunities.

So the first way to manage culture shock – and your relationship with another culture – is to notice what state of being you are in.  What perspective do you hold now?  What other points of view are out there that also ring true for you?  Step out of your present perspective and step into another one – the one that is more inspiring and holds more creative power.

Another way – the second way – to manage culture shock is to treat your relationship with another culture as you would any relationship.  Increase positivity.  Just as with any relationship – be it with your partner, your child, your bank manager – you’ll have good times and bad times.  And, of course, you try your best to avoid the bad times.  It’s the same here.  Try to increase overall positivity in the relationship by increasing the number of positive interactions with the new culture and decreasing the number of negative ones.  You are aiming for about 5x1.  For instance, what makes your day?  Is it going to a museum, chatting with a friend, going to a theater, or shopping for souvenirs to send home?  Make sure you have five of those activities and only one of the ones that upset you (like ringing up your landlord) in any given period of time.

The third way is to decrease negativity in conflict.  Again, just like with any relationship, when we have a fight we often tend to judge, blame, and criticize.  Instead of that, try to use humor, or a sense of affection, or a sense of acceptance of whatever is bothering you.  Blaming, criticizing, and judging will only escalate your conflict with another culture – the development you don’t want.  If on the other hand you use humor, you’ll avoid spiraling out of control in your frustrations and anger.  In other words, don’t take life too seriously!
I'd like to acknowledge Dr. John Gottman and his research on relationships in marriages, for I've used some of his conclusions in this article on relating to another culture.  

About the Author:

Margarita Gokun Silver is a Life/Professional coach who helps individuals and organizations to succeed in this increasingly diverse world and to overcome the challenges of working and living in other countries/cultures.   If you mention LowCostLifeCoaching.com when you contact her, you will receive the special discounted rate of $50 a month for coaching services.  To contact Margarita, please go to www.GlobalCoachCenter.com.

Copyright Margarita Gokun Silver 2006