Culture shock can feel a bit like an abstract concept, can’t it? Yet those of us who have braved unknown places for longer stints of time know that it’s very real and can be extremely emotionally and physically draining. There’s a ton of literature out there about the cycles of culture shock but less on how to combat it from the perspective of someone who’s been there.
I’m living in my 5th country that’s not my own, and have travelled to over 15 others. And it’s only this last year that I’ve really learned how important certain things are in terms of combatting culture shock. So I hope you’ll find them useful and helpful in your own journey! Here are my 8 steps to help you fight culture shock…
1. Acknowledge that you will have culture shock
Look, it happens to us all. It may come in varying degrees and even forms, but it’s a part of anyone’s life who plans to live abroad (or even travel for an extensive period of time). The first step to combatting it is recognizing it, and then planning accordingly.
2. Prepare before going abroad
Think about one or two things that make you feel like YOU. What are they? Reading in a park? Sipping delicious coffee as you watch the sunrise? Doing yoga in the nude before bed? Bring along a couple of things to help you achieve those vital moments in your daily life, whether it be a yoga mat, your favourite to-go mug, or that one book you read time and again.
Also pack something that can help you navigate the inevitable bouts of frustration and loneliness that are inescapable truths of culture shock. Know you’re not going to have solid internet but hate the idea of missing out on Seinfeld reruns? Pack a memory drive with all the seasons.
For me, it’s Gilmore Girls (I’ve watched the entire series more times than I can count!) and the movie Chocolat. I need them on those days when I’m not sure I like who or what or where I am. Maybe for you it’s just an old journal you like to flip through or a small photo album, although beware that too many photos and nostalgic things from home can actually start to counteract your efforts to feel stable in a new place.
A few of these items, well selected, won’t take up much space and will save you in terms of sanity and happiness time and again. Get honest with yourself and get prepared before you go.
3. Develop a daily routine as quickly as possible
Routines help us feel stabilized in an otherwise crazy world. That is doubly true when you’re out of your comfort zone and reeling from a million tiny (and not so tiny) differences.
Don’t wait until you start to feel off-kilter before establishing routines. It helps if a few of these routines are things you identified above, but they don’t have to be and you’re certainly not limited to those. Have a sweet new apartment by the water? Make it your morning routine to go for a walk and soak it all in before starting your day.
Exercise in any form is an essential part of a balanced routine, so why not make it a way to connect with your new surroundings as well?
4. Start looking for new friends as soon as you arrive
Sure, this part can be intimidating and even downright difficult. But there are lots of ways to go about it with just a touch of courage and ok, maybe a bit of social media help.
If while out and about you see someone that looks to be about your age or interesting in some way or doing something you like to do, gather up the courage and go say hello! It’s not as weird as you think it is to introduce yourself and let someone know you’re new to the area and trying to meet people. Honestly! We are all looking to connect and we all feel that timidity in approaching strangers. It’d be a real weirdo who would make you feel bad for it (and if that happens, shake it off and chalk it up to them).
This works especially well with other expats who may be in the exact same position as you, or who at least know what it feels like to be the new guy in a different place. But try it out on the locals too! Most places I’ve been the locals are super interested in getting to know other cultures and willing to help you learn their language. Plus, by focusing on an exchange of cultures (or languages), you can maintain a tie to your own while learning a ton of stuff about the one you’re in.
And yes, use social media. There’s an expat page on Facebook for every nook and cranny of this beautiful world, I assure you. Plus there are other neat apps popping up all the time such as Ventoura for connecting with other travellers or even hiring them as guides for unique trips. And though I’m not a personal fan, tons of people are successfully using Tinder to meet locals as well.
And finally, find a public place or two to hang out and people will start recognizing you and come over to chat. A coffee shop or a walk around a favourite park are good options, but even just stopping in at the same convenience store time and again can create relationships. Plus, some of these things can help with the above mentioned step of creating routines. You’ll feel like you belong when that barista learns your coffee order by heart and starts to greet you by name.
5. Find a reason to be positive every day
It can be hard to find a smile sometimes, especially when you’ve been repeatedly misunderstood and have no friends and are missing your family back home and just want something – anything – that feels familiar and ahhhhhhhh! I get it. But force yourself to do it anyway.
One of my personal favourite coping mechanisms in the past was tweeting something positive, something newly positive every day until it becomes a habit. I pick this routine up as I need it and it always helps put me back on the right track.
Tweeting not your thing? Get a little journal or make a new note in your iPhone and be sure to write down one new thing every day. It might sound cheesy at first, but believe me when I tell you it works. It will get your mind looking around all day to spot that “one” new thing you can write down for the day. Lately I’ve been adding gratitude into my bullet journal.
You’ll be drinking in much more of the awesomeness of your new life change in no time, and probably taking a few extra photos of all those great things as well! See ya later, crumby parts of culture shock!
6. Read books by local authors
This is a newly integrated “must” for me but I cannot stress it enough. And I really mean read books by local authors. While it can be awesome to read books about a country as written from an outsiders’ view, they will not give you the same sense of a new country as reading about it directly from those who knoooow. I mean, you’d go right to the expert for anything else, wouldn’t you?
The way people write and emote about their own country is a huge indicator of what you might find if you look for it, what you could hope to experience, where you should explore, and even what foods and drinks are common! Poetry will give you a sense of the values of a nation over time. And pretty well any book written by a native is going to at least paint you a vivid picture of your new home.
A quick google search will yield results and if it doesn’t, ask around as soon as you arrive. You can pick them up (guaranteed) in the local language and use it as additional practice OR you can likely find them in English. E-readers are a great option for travel for this reason primarily, in my opinion. You can hop online and find most translations for under $20 and have your new, local culture expert in your hands in minutes. I’ve also used this old blog a number of times and it’s an amazing resource (oh and here’s another with a very similar basis).
7. Learn (at least a bit of) the language
A lot of people who are Native English speakers tend to fore-go this one. I understand the reality that most of the world speaks at least some English. But really? For one, it’s a bit arrogant to assume that everyone in your new country should cater to YOU specifically, isn’t it? You’re off the hook if you’re just travelling through, but stay more than a month and you’re included!
Secondly, and more importantly to this list, the language of a nation is the single best way to learn about their culture, history, and the importance they put on certain things. It’s also a wonderful, amazing way to show the citizens of the country that you respect them and their culture by trying to share in it on their terms.
And finally, think about how easily frustrated you will get when trying to order a coffee if the person you’re speaking to can’t (or simply chooses not to) speak English. Wouldn’t life just be so much sweeter if you could order in their language?
It’s easy to get overwhelmed when faced with learning a new language. But start with the alphabet and a few words, and I PROMISE you, you’ll feel more connected immediately. Many places will even offer free or very cheap classes either through local organizations or even the government. Research your options!
Plus there are a ton of options to be found elsewhere. I love the Pimsleur series for learning some basic conversational phrases and building as you go, and of course DuoLingo is an amazing resource for gaining vocabulary and very simple grammar structures. But you can always Google or Youtube a TON of other options. Don’t be shy. Just get out there and try!
8. Be kind to yourself
You’re in a totally new and foreign place with a lot going on. Culture shock is a very real and at times unnerving part of that experience. You will have bad days. You will snap at the market lady and then want to sink into the ground for being *that* person. You will cry. You will feel sad, lonely and probably even afraid.
But don’t get down on yourself. We’re all human and if you can keep it all in perspective you’re going to have a ton more good days and amazing experiences than those bad days. Chin up, smile, and let yourself off the hook if you falter a time or two (or eight).
I hope this post is helpful to those of you embarking on a new journey, or even those who have done it before! I mean, it did take me five times to realize how important these things are sooooo…revert back to number 8 if you also don’t quite have it figured out yet 🙂 We’ll get there together!
Is there anything you would add or change on this list? Let me know in the comments!