Arriving in a new country or environment can be an exciting experience, but it can also be accompanied by a wave of culture shock. Culture shock is a psychological and emotional reaction that occurs when individuals move to a significantly different environment. Whether it’s understanding new customs, behaviors, or the local language, it can leave you feeling frustrated and lonely. With the right strategies, it is possible to navigate a new place. These five steps will equip you with the necessary tools to thrive in a foreign environment. (Estimated reading time: 10 minutes)
“Understanding languages and other cultures builds bridges. It is the fastest way to bring the world closer together and to Truth”– Suzy Kassem
In the early 16th century, the Aztec Empire stood as a powerful force in Mesoamerica, ruling over a vast empire that stretched from modern-day Mexico to Central America. But one man changed the course of its history: Hernán Cortés, a famous Spanish conquistador.
Cortés arrived on Mexican soil in 1519, determined to fulfill his ambitions. With a small band of conquistadors, Cortés set foot in the New World, eager to explore and exploit the riches beyond the horizon.
As Cortés ventured deeper into Aztec territory, he met the emperor Moctezuma and his court. The initial encounters were filled with curiosity and fascination as the Aztecs were intrigued by the strange appearance; they had never seen white skin before.
The Spanish conquistadors’ advanced weaponry, such as firearms, were unimaginable to the Aztecs. When the Spanish first fired their weapons, they were startled by the blast and smoke. Their horses were unknown to the Aztecs as they were not animals native to Mesoamerica.
Likewise, Cortés and his men were in awe of the grandeur and sophistication of the Aztec civilization. After he rode his horse onto the causeway, the Aztec Nobles conducted a ceremonial salute in courtly Nahuatl language before bowing low to touch and kiss the ground.
Later, they were joined by Moctezuma himself, who came out under a magnificent canopy of green feathers decorated with jewels and gold. The shimmering feathers and green jade were part of his lustrous display of wealth, and the regally-clad high lords surrounding him signified his importance. Thousands of Aztecs watched this ceremonial encounter from rooftops and canoes, hoping to catch a glimpse of the strange visitors.
The initial ceremonies dragged on for around an hour, and Cortés endured them patiently, waiting for the right time to make his move. He did not let the experience of being in a completely new land make him lose focus on his mission. Unlike the Moctezuma and the Aztecs, who were shocked and unprepared for the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, Cortés immediately sought to take advantage of the tensions within the Aztec empire.
Cortés forged alliances with rival indigenous tribes who were eager to overthrow Moctezuma. These alliances would prove crucial in his quest for supremacy, as he gathered intel on the Aztec Empire and built a formidable force to challenge their dominance. With the help of his newfound allies, Cortés engaged in months of intense fighting until the Aztec Empire finally crumbled.
Cortés’ victory over the Aztec Empire was not solely due to superior weaponry and military tactics but his diplomatic and political ability. While he and his men undoubtedly faced culture shock when they arrived in the new land, they were able to assimilate. Sadly, they used their alliances and knowledge of the culture to exploit the people rather than benefit them.
The conquest of the Aztec Empire by Hernán Cortés is a pivotal event in world history because it vividly represents a clash of cultures and the complicated consequences. While it brought about immense suffering and loss for the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica, it also ushered in an era of exploration, trade, and cultural exchange.
That fateful encounter between Hernán Cortés and Moctezuma reminds us of the power of cultural exchange and how it can be used as a force for good or harm. Getting over culture shock is the first step to developing empathy that will facilitate beneficial relationships with other cultures.
What is culture shock?
Culture shock is a psychological and emotional reaction that occurs when individuals move to a new country or environment significantly different from their own. It is a natural response to the unfamiliarity and disorientation of adapting to a new culture. Just like our body clocks need to adjust to new time zones, our minds need to get used to new cultural zones.
Common examples of culture shock include adapting to a different climate, a new language, an unfamiliar transportation system, bureaucracy, and different foods.
Less obvious examples of culture shock include acclimatizing to:
- Being offended by the perceived rudeness of a culture.
- Understanding different gestures and facial expressions.
- Not knowing how to greet one another (handshake, hug, single kiss, kiss on both cheeks).
- Understanding business and workplace norms and practices.
- Whether to wait in lines or not.
- Not knowing if small talk with strangers is welcomed or not.
I’ve experienced culture shock several times during my travels, but one that stands out is when I was in China, visiting a wet market where the locals were selling snails, scorpions, and other kinds of creepy critters. Even the thought of consuming them left me nauseous, so instead, I focused on what I enjoyed during my trip, which included visiting the Great Wall of China, shopping for jade jewelry and attending a Chinese tea ceremony.
By keeping my judgmental tendencies in check, I could accept rather than be repulsed by what I perceived to be strange dietary preferences. Whenever we encounter different belief systems, mannerisms, and lifestyle choices, it helps to be a neutral observer even if we don’t relate to what we witness.
Common symptoms of culture shock
Culture shock can show up differently in everyone, but there are similar symptoms that many people experience when adjusting to a new culture or place, like feelings of confusion and disorientation, irritability, loneliness, and a longing for familiarity.
You may find yourself constantly comparing your new environment to your home country, state, or neighborhood, feeling frustrated by the different ways of doing things, or struggling to communicate effectively due to language barriers. Functioning and getting things done can seem like an uphill climb.
When you’re in the middle of this, remember that experiencing culture shock is normal and temporary. By acknowledging and accepting these symptoms, you can better cope with the challenges of adapting to a new environment and begin to open up to all the novel and enriching experiences it can offer.
Understanding the stages of culture shock
Culture shock typically follows a pattern of four stages. Knowing the stages of culture shock can better prepare you for the potential challenges that lie ahead and how you can adjust.
1. The honeymoon stage: This occurs when you first arrive in a new place, and everything seems exciting and novel. Feelings of euphoria and fascination with the new culture characterize this stage. Differences can appear unique and exotic, providing a nice break from what you’re used to.
2. The frustration stage: As time passes, the frustration stage sets in. This is when the initial excitement wears off, and the differences and challenges of the new culture become more apparent. What used to be charming may frustrate you, and you may start feeling homesick and longing for the familiar.
3. The adjustment stage: In this next phase, you adapt to the new culture and develop coping mechanisms. You start to understand the local customs, language, and social norms, which helps you navigate through daily life more easily. You begin to carve out your own place of comfort that may include elements from your new surroundings.
4. The acceptance stage: At this final stage, you fully integrate into the new culture and feel a sense of belonging. You partake in the customs and befriend people easily, no longer feeling like an outsider.
It is essential to recognize that everyone progresses through these stages of culture shock at their own pace, and you will experience setbacks along the way. Be kind to yourself as you gradually adapt and find a sense of home away from home.
Five ways to overcome culture shock
Arriving in a new country or environment can be an exciting experience, but it can also be accompanied by a wave of culture shock. With the right strategies, it is possible to navigate a new place with ease and embrace the unique experiences it offers. These five steps will equip you with the necessary tools to thrive in a foreign environment.
1. Do your research and educate yourself
One of the most effective ways to ease the transition into a new place is to thoroughly research and educate yourself about the culture beforehand. This can involve learning about local customs, traditions, and etiquette.
By gaining knowledge about a new culture, you will be better equipped to navigate social situations and communicate effectively with locals. Understanding cultural nuances can also help you avoid unintentionally offending or disrespecting others.
Take the time to read books, watch documentaries and videos, and talk to people who have already experienced living or visiting the area. This will give you valuable insight and prepare you for what to expect.
2. Have realistic expectations of your experience
Another critical aspect of preparation is to have realistic expectations. Understand that things may not always go as planned, especially in unfamiliar surroundings. There will be challenges along the way. Being mentally prepared for obstacles can help you approach them with a positive mindset and more easily find solutions.
Embrace the mindset of a lifelong learner and approach every situation as an opportunity for growth. Be patient with the transition process and allow yourself to make mistakes. Remember that making cultural faux pas is part of the learning curve, and locals will often appreciate your efforts to understand and adapt to their world.
3. Learn or familiarize yourself with the local language, transportation, and laws
Once you arrive in a new place, several practical tips can help you navigate the differences you encounter. Firstly, make an effort to learn the local language. Even if you can only grasp the basics, most locals will respond favorably to the attempt, making your daily interactions smoother. Language learning apps, online courses, and language exchange programs are great resources to help you improve those skills.
Additionally, familiarize yourself with the local transportation system. Knowing how to navigate public transport or understanding the rules of the road will save you time and frustration. It is also important to be aware of the local laws and regulations to avoid legal complications. Take the time to research a country’s customs regulations, visa requirements, and any other legal obligations you need to fulfill in advance.
4. Embracing the local culture: customs, traditions, and etiquette
To truly thrive in a new country or region, it is essential to embrace the local culture. This involves learning and respecting the customs, traditions, and etiquette of the community.
Observing and understanding how locals behave in different social situations can help you adapt and integrate. Pay attention to how people dress, greet each other, and interact in various settings. Respect local customs and traditions by following their lead and avoid behaviors that may be considered offensive or inappropriate.
Engaging with the local community is also a great way to immerse yourself in the culture. Attend local events, festivals, and gatherings to experience those traditions firsthand. Participating in cultural activities will deepen your understanding of the people and provide opportunities to build connections.
5. Make self-care a priority
Taking care of your physical and mental wellbeing during this transition is an essential piece of surviving the stress of adapting to a new culture. Maintain a healthy lifestyle by eating nutritious meals, staying active, and getting enough rest. Engage in activities that help you relax and relieve stress, such as practicing mindfulness or pursuing hobbies you enjoy.
Establishing a routine can provide a sense of stability and familiarity in a new environment. This can include activities such as exercise, exploring your surroundings, or engaging in hobbies. By incorporating familiar activities into your daily life, you can create a sense of normalcy and reduce the impact of culture shock.
Seek support from friends, family, or professionals if you feel overwhelmed. If you find yourself experiencing significant emotional distress, seek professional help from counselors or therapists who specialize in working with expats and individuals experiencing culture shock.
In addition to professional help, some resources can help you connect with others going through similar experiences and offer practical tips for adjusting to a new place. Online communities, expat support groups, and cultural integration programs can provide valuable information, advice and a sense of camaraderie.
There is a smorgasbord of cultures around the world. Each community celebrates its customs, traditions, and festivals in various ways. When we remove our self-imposed barriers and choose to be an open witness to societies and communities outside our own, the perspective of our place in the world changes. We see ourselves as part of, not separate, from the global family.
All my best on your journey,
Questions for you: Have you ever experienced culture shock? If yes, how did you navigate your feelings and adjust to your new environment?
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