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While You're Away: Culture Shock

Culture shock is not a problem for the traveller on a one week vacation to the Caribbean. It may be a problem for the longer term traveller. Culture shock is brought on by the anxiety that results from losing all of our familiar signs of social intercourse. These may include how we greet people, the language we speak, the adequacy of the toilets, the quality of the food, the facial expressions, the local customs, , the currency, what is on television, and much more.

Everything that we have become accustomed to over the years is subject to change.
Imagine how you might feel if you emigrated to Canada from tropical Africa. Cold weather, reasonable drivers, English, hot water, hockey. Enough to make you feel a bit like fish out of water. A bit anxious or irritable. And then to top it off, everyone is biting at their coffee cup in Tim Horton’s and you don’t know why!

Tim Horton's!Upon arrival in a foreign country, we usually experience a "honeymoon" phase for several weeks or even a few months. Everything is new and exciting. But after a while, reality, along with frustration and anxiety may set in. We may develop a hostile and aggressive attitude towards the host country and its people. There are problems with the food, the telephone, the transportation, the language, the mail, the electricity, and everything else.

This stage gradually passes as one gains a greater understanding of and interest in the people and their ways. Adaptation to a new job may also help. It is after this period of adjustment and acceptance that the real enjoyment of living in a different culture takes place. Realizing that culture shock is a normal part of the adjustment process helps.

Several steps may be taken to lessen the impact of culture shock and stress while abroad:

  • Take time to acclimatize - to the jet lag, the weather, the food, the living conditions, the language...
  • Develop a social life (often more difficult for a spouse without a full-time job)
  • Commit yourself to learning the local language
  • Keep in touch with family, friends and events back home (isn’t E-mail wonderful!) Remember, Maple Leaf, Blue Jay and Raptor scores may further depress you!)
  • Remember your personal goals
  • Make the most of your work - be realistic, tolerate what you cannot change, have small realistic goals
  • Make use of, and offer, peer support
  • Deal with stress as it arises... ask for help
  • Consider cross-cultural training before you leave
  • Take along some special things from home – your favourite photos, chocolates, teas, music, magazines – which you can enjoy when you’re feeling lonely or blue
  • Be proactive about your health – both mental and physical – get lots of exercise, rest, and a good diet
Content (c) Mark Wise
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