You should probably already know what culture means. At least, from your basic knowledge in primary school, you know that culture is the way of life of a people. It doesn’t just cover the dressing, language and beliefs of a people, it also concerns the feelings, behaviours, attitudes and ideas of people and how they vary from place to place. There are many aspects of culture which are not really spelt out, but by virtue of growing up or living in a certain culture for a very long time, we pick up on these things and inadvertently, they become an integral part of our worldview and belief systems. Like we said, culture transcends the binding values and beliefs of a people, and even reflects in things such as dinners and picnics. For instance, the norms expected at an executive dinner will differ greatly from what you’d expect at a school picnic in an amusement park. These are not rules spelt out in a book but we got to pick up on them simply by being around for a decade or two.
This is a feeling usually experienced by all kinds of people when they come face to face with certain ways of life that are foreign or alien to theirs. It might not necessarily be altogether unpleasant, but just the very idea that you are somewhat forced to go out of your comfort zone and do something that you would normally not have done can be quite uncomfortable. Let’s repeat that again, culture shock needs not always connote an idea of negativity or unpleasantness. It’s simply the feeling one gets when coming face-to-face with a strange way of life they hitherto had never known.
Culture shock occurs in four different stages and hopefully, by explaining these stages to you, we will be able to sort of prepare you for whatever you might come across in whatever country you hope to further in. These stages are universal and regardless of the culture you come in contact with, even if it’s with another way of life within Nigeria, (those going for the National Youth Service Corps programme, for example), you’d be able to prepare yourself for whatever is coming.
This is the first stage of the culture shock. In fact, it doesn’t quite appear like culture shock yet cos what you’re really doing is simply taking in your environment and savouring it. You’re probably still excited at the thought of setting out on your own, especially if this is your first time. And for the frequent travelers, the idea of going somewhere new again comes with its euphoria. At this stage, there’s more of a comparison between the new culture and the one you’re used to. So, you might tend to see more of similarities than differences. The differences, when you see them, might come off to you as exciting and fascinating.
Here comes the bummer… In this stage, students become more critical. All the initial excitement is gone, and instead the excitement is replaced by irritation. This irritation is fueled by an overwhelming feeling, and all the changes and differences now appear too much to take in all at once. There’s the tendency for the student to now focus on the differences rather than the similarities as they did in the initial stage. This is the stage where students begin to feel homesick. You might start to call home more frequently, Skype with your friends back at home a lot, and things like that. Some attitudes of students going through this stage are sleeping a lot, crying a lot too, isolating themselves from others, resentment, a bit of depression, and other related symptoms. Because of the fierce need to go back to something they are more familiar with, the student might tend to congregate with people of his own culture who speak the same language as his.
At this stage, the student is now more accepting. Whether it’s the understanding that one won’t be getting out of the new culture anytime soon, or it’s a better understanding of the norms and values of the new environment he is in, students in this stage, typically are more welcoming. They feel more comfortable, and relaxed. Some of the positive energy from stage one that got lost in stage 2 appears to bounce back. In fact, students go beyond accepting the new things they cannot change to inquiring about them for a better understanding, and for curiosity and interest’s sake.
At this stage, as the name suggests, students have gained some form of mastery of the new culture and find that those aspects they used to struggle with now come out of them naturally without having to think through it too long. The former routines that seemed strange to them are now somewhat enjoyable and students now have more friends from the other culture as against the congregationalism we saw in stage 2. It’s not like they have totally jettisoned the idea of their former cultures, in fact, they still miss some aspects of it. However, now that they have stayed in this new culture for a while, they even find that there are certain aspects of their new culture that they find more appealing than the old one.
Having seen all these, bear in mind that culture shock is very normal and in fact, expected. According to this report from the University of North Carolina, culture shock isn’t triggered by a singular occurrence, quite on the contrary, it is brought about “by encountering different ways of doing things, being cut off from cultural cues, having your own cultural values brought into question, feeling that rules are not adequately explained, and being expected to perform with maximum skill without adequate knowledge of the rules”. The good thing though, as the stages show, is that culture shock eventually comes to an end. The time it will take, however, depends on the student. It has no specific time period. While others might waltz through it in as soon as two weeks or a month, others might need up to a whole semester to get over the shock. Don’t be ashamed to ask for help and talk about it, should you ever feel like you need to.
Now, let’s run over some tips that could come in handy as you transition into a new culture:
Find out all you can about your host country before you travel:
When planning to study abroad, make sure you go online and find out all you can about your host country. Find about their etiquettes, the common phrases they use in conversation, their slang, their mode of dressing, etc. You could also ask friends or family who have been there before for some tips and advice. Find about the things that surprised them on their first visit, and don’t forget to inquire about the different weather conditions in the new place. You should also find about similarities between the new culture and yours and endeavour to ask for “survival tips”: that is some tips that could help you adjust more quickly to the new culture.
And this isn’t just limited to the country or state; schools also have cultures that are unique and specific to them. So, ensure you find out, beforehand, the norms of the exact school you’re applying to. Find out where exactly your school is located, as this will help you in your choice of accommodation. Plus, knowing your school’s culture gives you an idea of classroom behaviour, dorm life, classes you’ll be taking and the teachers that take them, the administration of the school, etc. All these things help you to get mentally prepared for your new school.
It’s easy to see the difference in your new culture as wrong or bad, but try not to. If you’d be really honest with yourself, there are certain aspects of your own culture that other non-indigenes find appalling but because you’ve grown up in it, you’re more understanding of these norms; that’s the same way it is for the other culture you’re going into. Instead of criticizing the differences negatively, try to be more objective. There are always reasons for certain norms and customs, and patience to find out always yields benefits.
Get a routine
It’s the overwhelming changes that cause culture shock and a sure to way to manage the overwhelming feeling is to develop a routine. With a routine, you feel more in charge and less overwhelmed and you’ll be more capable to deal with the culture shock.
Contrary to instincts, don’t isolate yourself and yes, don’t flock around those of the same culture more than those of your host country. So, get up, dress up, make friends, engage in a hobby or a sport, or join a club. Try to connect with other students of similar interests instead of those of similar cultural backgrounds. By taking part in social activities, you find that you acculturise more quickly than if you isolate yourself. Even if you’re naturally introverted, ensure that you at least make a friend. Your roommate could be a good place to start.
It’s only natural to want to hang around people from your home country and that’s fine, so far, you’re not doing that to the neglect of other potentially great associations you could make with people from your host country and other countries too. When hanging around people of your own country, ensure that your friends aren’t critical of your new culture. If they are, change your friends, cos those ones will keep you from adjusting to the new culture.
Try to get a hang of the new language
There’s hardly anything that gets you out of culture shock faster than learning the language of your host country. Try to show some enthusiasm about your host country’s language. Learning it is not only fun, it helps you to acculturise faster. Don’t worry if you fumble on your first few words, remember that they would also do the same if they were learning yours. In fact, most of your hosts won’t embarrass you when you stumble, they will be more appreciative than critical of your efforts to even learn the language.
Don’t lose touch with home
As much as it is fun and great to get yourself engaged in your new culture, even that can get overwhelming, and keeping in touch with your family is a great outlet for all that overwhelming feeling. Keep them filled in on your progress, different happenings, how you’re coping, and so on, and do that regularly too. thanks to technology, this is now quote easily possible.
Don’t bottle up your feelings
Feelings, if bottled in, can hold you back from overcoming culture shock, so what you want to do is to share them. Be sure to talk to others about how you feel, bearing in mind that a problem shared is a problem half-solved. When you share with others, especially with international students like you who have stayed for a while, you could even get insights that could help you get over your own struggle.
Talk about your own culture too
You can get creative and come up with ways to share about your own culture with your friends and teachers. You can organize a small meet-up were you dress up culturally, teach a few phrases in your language, cook your friends a native meal or something, and have a good time. By sharing with others about your culture, you come to terms with the differences in both cultures and adjusting becomes easier.
Don’t take things too seriously
Learn to laugh at yourself. As it is said, and it hasn’t changed, laughter is the best medicine. So, when you commit a faux pas sincerely, simply laugh at yourself. Don’t worry, you won’t be laughed at, others will actually laugh with you!
Finally, try not to lose yourself in all of your acculturation. Make sure you maintain who you are and be true to yourself. No one likes a fake, and if you’re original, sooner or later, you’ll meet people that love you for you and the phase will someday be all over.
We’re sure this helped. Why not share? Toodles!