Culture shock: how to deal with it while travelling.
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Culture shock

Culture shock – why you have it and how you can overcome it.

Culture shock can be disorientating.

Culture shock is overwhelming. There’s nothing quite like coming face-to-face with a new culture for the first time. It creates a sense of dis-ease and disorientation. For instance, if you – as a South African with a very liberal constitution – visit Saudi Arabia, you would be understandably shocked. We are so used to women having exactly the same rights as men here. There, a woman is treated quite differently. Until recently, women weren’t allowed to drive. Some (misinformed) men might say, their road accident rates must be much lower. Truth be told, some insurers give much better premiums to women as they’re statistically less likely to have accidents than men.

In any case, going from a “free society” to a very closed one – where voicing your opinion can get you into trouble – can cause feelings of claustrophobia.

Culture shock can lead to misunderstandings.

Or in the case of Thailand, you’ll find that in the “land of smiles”, the Thai are known for smiling and laughing at almost anything. Which could be very discomforting or even annoying to a South African. Especially when one has had an embarrassing accident. But this is the way the Thai deal with awkward situations. It’s intended to protect the dignity of the person whose misfortune has tripped them up. While for us, it is insulting and degrading.

Then there’s the overwhelming feeling of the true metropolitan cities, like London or New York. Regarded, in their own rights, as centres of commerce and trade for the world, these cities seem extreme in many respects. So much is going on, that we might experience information overload. There’s just too much to take in at any one moment. Our brains find it impossible to filter out information, and become overstimulated, leading the body to respond in a state of heightened anxiety. It is made worse because we don’t intuitively know why we’re experiencing what we’re experiencing. There’s also a need to “escape” from the “situation”. But where to go? Home is very far away.

Etiquette and culture shock.

Then there’s the case of etiquette. In Japan, men will always walk out of an elevator first. This conflicts with our tradition of gentlemanly behaviour – of giving way to a woman, whether we’re going out the same door, or walking towards each other on the same path. Or in China, it is perfectly acceptable to spit in public. This might seem very rude to a South Africa – or worse, alarming, and offensive.

There are countless other examples. Germans and Israelis may seem very rude because they tend to be very direct in their speech and in the latter case, will happily skip the queue at an ATM ahead of you if you dither slightly to long. You’re expected to be pushy too, it becomes an ‘every man for himself’ situation.

Whatever the specifics of a culture’s customs and behaviour, you need to learn how to deal with it. The best way to handle mentally difficult situations is with preparation. There are so many books out there that (probably) deal with the specific culture you’re going to be visiting. And of course, there’s Wikipedia and Google too. Read read read. The more you know, the better you’ll understand the reasons a people act the way they do. Or, alternatively, you’ll be able to brace yourself for a feeling of culture clash. And don’t forget youTUBE. It’ll visually prepare you for the cultural customs, sights, and sounds you’ll experience.

Dealing with culture shock.

And don’t be afraid to give yourself some time to ‘climatize’ by going to your hotel room when needed. Just don’t spend too much time there; you’ll miss out on the adventure you’re on.

When it comes to etiquette, it helps to remember you’re a guest in a country very different from your own. Just as when you visited your friend’s house when you were a child, and the way the parents ran the home was very different to how yours did, host countries have their own way of doing things that work for them. Generally speaking, and that’s not to say we’re endorsing the rules and regulations that stifle any citizens in a country.

Because a sense of injustice is unhelpful in these situations. You can’t be expected to change an entire culture, nor should you try.

Whereas with customs involving, say, spitting in public, try to have a sense of humour about it. Our sense of humour is a built-in defence system that helps us cope with stressful or painful situations. Make use of it. It’ll keep you feeling comfortable in an uncomfortable situation.

Lastly, and above all, the best way to deal with culture shock is to remember: you’re on this journey to experience new things, cultures, places, and peoples. This is about the adventure. This is about the stories you’ll get to share when you’re home again.

And if you allow yourself to relax, and have fun, you may just fall in love with the country, and its people, you’re in.

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