Culture shock results when a person finds it challenging to adapt to a new culture. If not managed, culture shock can lead to low productivity among staff and even health complications and stress. Globalization has enhanced international trade and increased the frequency of employee movements around the world and having to adjust to the local culture. This calls for such workers to recognize ways by which they can cope with culture shock.
Strategies of coping with culture shock include admitting that feelings arising from culture shock are normal, making friends with the locals, learning some elements of the local culture, maintaining close contact with family members and friends back home, participating in recreational and physical exercises, and looking all the positives of living in a new culture. All of these strategies all focus on embracing and understanding the local culture.
Culture shock is a form of homesickness felt when a person moves into a foreign country or society that has a markedly different culture from his own. These differences are normally in the form of language, climate, social norms, sanitation, food, climate, and so on.
Culture shock causes a difficulty in adjusting into the new culture characterized by nostalgia, loneliness, depression, mental fatigue, confusion as to how to proceed with work, boredom, and a lack of enthusiasm. In extreme instances, culture shock may lead to physical discomfort, withdrawal from social activities, eating disorders, stereotyping of and hostility towards locals, and irritability.
Behavioral scientists have shown that culture shock occurs in various stages, each stage characterized by a set of symptoms mentioned above. The first stage is known as ‘honeymoon’ phase, followed by negotiation phase, then adjustment phase and finally the mastery phase.
Today, the number of corporations with operations in various regions of the world continues to rise, thanks to globalization that has immensely promoted international business (Ferraro, 2010).
As a result, employees are forced to move from country to country, meeting different cultures that are different from their own cultures by a large margin. For this reason, cross-cultural solutions to international business that aim at alleviating culture shock have been devised to help employees that have difficulties adjusting to other cultures, thereby increasing their productivity.
Coping with Culture Shock
Due to the adverse effects of culture shock on an employee working in a culture that is significantly different from his culture, it is vital that such employees are introduced to ways by which they can alleviate the effects of culture shock. The increasing number of employees working in foreign countries (expatriates) stresses the importance of training employees on how to cope with culture shock.
Admit that Culture Shock is Normal
The first and easiest way by which an employee can cope with culture shock is to admit frankly that culture shock is a normal feeling. There will always continue to be confusion when a person moves into a new culture. Indeed, culture shock is not an admission of weakness that an employee feels uncomfortable, tense, or confused in a new land.
Having admitted this feeling, it is important that such an employee talks about the feelings with other people. This strategy can help employees narrate their own experience of culture shock, and how they coped with the feelings. This can help an employee that feelings of culture shock are normal and can be felt by anybody. Besides, such stories can help an employee to learn from friends about how they overcame culture shock (Harris, 1998).
A second way of coping with culture shock is to make friends with other people. Although it will be easier to make friends with people from your country, it is important that a person makes friends with the locals and with people from other countries. Making friends from diverse cultures can help an employee learn about other cultures, and will always have something to talk about when around friends.
A second reason why it is important to make friends from the local population is that they can help a person in learning various aspects of the local culture. These strategies will help a person to adjust to the new culture, and reduce feelings of hostility towards locals. Making friends with the locals will help in overcoming cultural barriers and increase an understanding of the culture and country. It will also teach an expatriate how to be sensitive to cultural practices and beliefs.
Learn some Element of the Local Culture
A very effective way of adjusting to the new culture is to learn some aspect of the local culture. For instance, a person can learn about the national cuisine, and especially the main food of the inhabitants of the region in which the person is staying.
By developing interest in the local cuisine, the person can learn more about the local culture and even appreciate cultural diversity. With time, a person will (hopefully) begin to enjoy these local dishes and delicacies and this will make the person feel like a part of the culture, rather than a stranger (Gudykunst, 2005).
It also pays to travel around the country during the weekends or any free time and learn of historic and amazing sights within the country. If travel is restricted by work commitments or other reasons, then perhaps watching a television show or movies about the host country can be helpful.
Apart from cuisine, a person can get to know the national and local political landscape. He can begin by learning of the national politics and how the locals perceive of national and local leaders. Other issues include topics that are presently generating heated debates in the public domain and in the press (Gudykunst, 2005).
A basic comprehension of these issues will lighten feelings of estrangement, and even provide a topic of conversation with other local members. It will also make participation in a conversations touching on these topics easier, rather than remaining quiet in such discussions of related topics, which can only increase feeling of culture shock.
Perhaps an even important way to adapt easily to the local culture is to learn the local language. The benefits of this tact are very obvious; it will improve interpersonal communication with the locals (Wong& Wong, 2006). Nothing heightens feelings of culture shock and homesickness as the incapacity to communicate.
It always helps a great deal to have a basic understanding of what people are saying, and attempt to speak their language. In fact, they will often appreciate your efforts to speak in their language, even it is just a few phrases, and it will improve an expatriate’s experience with the new culture.
To facilitate learning of the new language, it is advisable to always carry a small notebook that contains commonly used phrases, and to write new words that are learnt each day (Gudykunst, 2005). Besides, an expatriate could also purchase a printed phrase book to learn more of the language and to cope with real-life situations. An expatriate should never associate his/her intelligence with the ability (or inability) to speak the local language. Learning a new language is a challenging process and can be very tiring.
Maintain Contact with Friends and Family Back Home
As in most cases, workers in foreign countries leave their families behind. In order to reduce homesickness, it is important to keep close contacts with family and friends back at home (Mavrides, 2009). The expatriate can write home about his experiences, challenges, and how he is coping with them.
However, this should not amount to spending endless hours talking, sending emails, and chatting with friends and family (Wong& Wong, 2006). This will only worsen the effects of culture shock, and may lead to withdrawal. Additionally, an expatriate can read home newspapers from websites and find hotels and restaurants that sell home delicacies.
Engage in Recreational and Physical Exercises
Exercise is a proven stress reliever and can help a person forget about feelings of nostalgia which often lead to stress. During free time, one can go for a light race, take a long walk, swim, or play a favorite sport, among other activities. These activities will help in keeping fit, meeting new friends, and forget about the challenges of adapting to a new culture.
It does no harm in learning a new local sport, as it will increase an understanding of the local culture, and also have more friends. Recreational activities such as shopping, mountain climbing, cycling, going out with friends, or going to a movie theater can be of great help (Wong& Wong, 2006).
Again, it does not harm to participate in new recreational activities as it will only improve a persons acceptance by the locals, and appreciation of the local culture. Finding humor in every confusing situation or challenge is even better, as they say, ‘laughter is the best medicine’. It is advisable to take good care of the body by having enough exercise, eat well, limit alcohol intake, and have enough rest and sleep.
Instead of wimping at the prospect of having to live in another culture, one can look at the positives, and there are numerous, for instance, he/she can look at all the advantages of having lived in two or more different cultures. Meeting people from different cultures enriches a person’s life (Harris, 1998). Consequently, the expatriate should make as many friends as possible from cultures different from his/her own and spend a lot of time with them. This can also be the opportunity to teach the locals and other people about his own culture.
Coping with cultural shock is not a simple process as it may seem on paper. However, having a positive attitude towards the whole situation helps. Acknowledging one’s progress in adjusting to the new culture is the first step to achieving success. An expatriate can think of all the progress that he has made since he arrived into the new environment.
However, he must recognize that like all people who have lived in different cultures, he can successfully adjust to the new culture, and that one day, he will join his family and friends and family back at home. In short, an expatriate can cope with culture shock by embracing and understanding it, and above all, enjoying all the privileges of living in a new culture.
Ferraro, G. P. (2010). The Cultural Dimension of International Business, 6th Ed. NJ: Prentice Hall
Gudykunst, W. B. (2005). Theorizing about intercultural communication. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications.
Harris, P. R. (1998).New work culture: HRD transformational management strategies. Amherst, MA: HRD Press.
Mavrides, G. (2009). Culture Shock and Clinical Depression: Foreign Teachers Guide to Living and Working in China. Middle Kingdom Life, 2009.
Wong, P. T. P., and Wong, L. C. J. (2006). Handbook of multicultural perspectives on stress and coping. NY: Springer Science, Inc.