What does it mean to experience culture shock? Commonly said to have originated in 1958 to describe the “anxiety produced when a person moves to a completely new environment,” the term has become a glib statement rolling off our tongues without little thought. We all think we know what it means, whether we’ve been a short-term traveler, a year-long student on a study abroad program, or an expat.
And then there is “reverse” culture shock, a term pinned to the disorientation people feel about re-immersion into life back home. The disorientation doesn’t start when you get off the airplane and suddenly feel as though you are in a foreign land rather than your home country. As many of my high school students can tell you, it begins earlier – sometimes much earlier. Even now, just over halfway through the exchange year, my students are sharing confusion (“I tried to say something in Norwegian when I was Skyping with my parents, and the words wouldn’t come….I don’t want to forget who I am!”) and fears (“I’m already not the person I was when I came to this country. I’m more American, more independent, and I like different things. Will my friends back home still like me?”)
And it can continue for a long time afterwards, as well:
“I was an exchange student for a semester in 2012 in Australia. … I have looked for everything connected to exchange experiences in the last two years, out of melancholy for my own. I just wanted to say everything you write is so true and reminds me so much of my exchange… thank you for this wonderful website, because it’s helpful to me even though I am not an exchange student anymore! Do you think it’s normal that I keep thinking about my experience and miss it all the time?“
In her succinct 2014 easy-to-read e-book, Helene Rybol has managed to tie some of these loose ends together. She comes to the issue with a focus that is practical yet comforting, on an issue that calls for practical “tips” at the same time it calls for hugs and sharing of emotions. She covers both ends of this spectrum, as can be seen by chapter headings:
- Craving comfort
- Processing new information
- Coping without autopilot
- Dealing with difficult situations
- Dealing with alienation
- Bringing it all together
Rybol encourages readers to remember that changing one’s behavior – adapting to the host country’s customs – will change your perspective of what is comfortable and what is not. As she says, “your own behavior can be a source of comfort.” She urges travelers to “[l]et go of preconceived notions” by focusing your attention on what is around you, not on yourself. She reminds readers to pursue the experience by exploring the new environment – embracing it rather than shrinking from the unfamiliar.
In describing what she means by “coping without autopilot,” Rybol reminds all of us that in our normal, everyday comfortable lives we are living on autopilot. We don’t have to think about what we are doing, or even when we are doing it. We’ve done it so often it’s gone beyond “normal.” When we are living in a new world – or when we return to our “old” world after a long experience elsewhere – our autopilot no longer functions. We don’t know how the appliances work, or upon return we hesitate because for a moment we’ve forgotten. Returning home, our minds grasp for the right word in our native language after months of not having spoken it on a daily basis. The solution? Develop new “autopilots”: new routines such as taking the same roads to school or work each day until they become familiar, going to the same coffeehouse or grocery store.
We are often advising our students that we recognize it’s difficult to live in a foreign country and that part of the process is learning how to deal with difficult situations – “find the strength inside yourself, I know it’s there” is something I urge my teens. Rybol makes this advice concrete: don’t assume something won’t work, or that an outcome will be negative; don’t make value judgments; and, importantly, push yourself: “[s]ometimes being kind to yourself also means kicking your own butt out the door.”
Rybol makes a couple of points that resonate with me, as I use the same points in my professional life as an environmental legal consultant in the world of energy conservation and climate change mitigation:
• Thinking of the cultural transition process in terms of stories:
We love stories. We read them, watch them, tell them. If you look at difficult or embarrassing situations as stories, does it change your attitude? Imagine yourself telling the story to your family, friends or children. Difficult or awkward moments make great stories!
• Emphasizing the usefulness of speaking up and the need to ask questions:
If you put your foot in your mouth and aren’t sure what was wrong or why it was wrong, ask! Always ask. People will most likely be happy to explain their perspective. Then you can explain what it’s like in your culture. A great way to start a conversation and diffuse the tension.
Rybol calls culture shock a roller coaster, a blunt yet descriptive term. She refers to it as “raw but exhilarating.” Perhaps that’s the nutshell take-away. The experience is more “culture transition” than “culture shock,” whether we’re talking about landing in a foreign place for the first time or returning home feeling like a stranger. It’s not intrinsically “bad” any more than it’s automatically “good” – it just is. It’s the process of adjusting, learning, adapting, and changing. As Helene Rybol says, “experiencing culture shock is a gift that helps us find our story within a world of stories and understand how all are connected.”