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Understanding Culture Shock

Preparing for an overseas assignment is never easy. For one must prepare to handle the stress of a new assignment, something known as culture shock

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Even people who speak the same language, but come from different cultures often misunderstand each other. This was illustrated in the following story.

 A man walking down the street noticed a sign in the window of a restaurant that said, SPECIAL TODAY–RABBIT STEW. He said to himself, “That’s a favorite of mine,” and went to order the stew. After he had taken three or four bites, which did not taste right, he asked the waiter to call over the proprietor. “By any chance is there any horsemeat in this rabbit stew?” the customer asked. “Well, now that you ask, there is some,” replied the owner. “What is the proportion?” asked the man. “Fifty-fifty,” came the reply. Now, most people would have felt that no further questioning was needed, that there was a clear understanding. But this man pursued the issue. “What do you mean by fifty-fifty?” he asked, and the proprietor replied, “One horse to one rabbit.”

There was a famous story told by Winston Churchill about an argument between American and British military officers during WWII about the planning of what came to be known as D-day. The British wanted to “table it.” To the Americans that meant to delay the matter until later. To the British, it meant to deal with it now.

What is Culture Shock?

Have you ever been in a strange situation? All of us will, of course, say yes.

Have you ever been in a strange situation causing immense anxiety? And again most of us will say yes.

Ever been in a strange situation where you felt helpless and didn’t have the ability to cope? To this, most of us would say no.

Even if we sometimes find ourselves in an unfamiliar situation, we can always retreat into the world of the familiar. But when you’re overseas on a new assignment, surrounded by strange people in a strange city with the loss of your normal social support, there is no retreat to the familiar.

In essence, culture shock is extreme difficulty in adapting toa new environment. If one goes to a dictionary you find it is, “

You feel you don’t have many options, insomnia is causing you to lose sleep, and you wonder whether you have the ability or not to succeed, you’d be experiencing symptoms related to culture shock

Age Affects

Children of course, have this wonderful ability to adapt any new environment— they typically more quickly adapt to a strange culture. But many adults, have lost that sense of wonder and curiosity associated with a completely new environment. Instead, the older geneerations prefer the routine; and any major disruptions in the routine produces anxiety.

You may have noticed, this people get older, they tend to develop fix patterns of behavior or habits that they don’t vary from. They watch the same TV shows, eat the same type of food, go to the same type or restaurants, socialize with the same group of friends, and so on.

But as an expat on an overseas assignment, familiar the normal routine will be gone. In fact, the normal assumptions one makes about business, the ones learned in college and through years of practical experience are not likely to apply.

Symptoms of Culture Shock

The Familiar Becomes Strange

Normally I consider myself to be a pretty adaptable person. But sometimes when I’m overseas, you feel those moments where you really wonder what you should do next. In my case, one of those moments occurred in us all supermarket known as HyperMarket. It was very modern but was also very strange. The first thing is that the cards were all locked up so how do you get one? Fortunately, in my case, someone happens to walk up and get a card next to me so I was able to observe how one had to use it to get the car to unlock. It was the case of monkey see — monkey do.

Even the common ritual of eating a meal is strange when you are away from your home culture.

Then, of course, the difficult thing began one would think it would be not that difficult to choose food. However when you haven’t seen 80% of the fruits and vegetables you really not quite sure what to buy. And worse when looking at something, you are not exactly sure how to eat it let alone how to cook it. Sufferers using the normal familiar things like an apple and banana you move on into the aisles and then you find that so while some things are in English most are not, and almost everything, do not package the same way it was in your home country. Remember spending over 10 min. and I’ll try and figure out whether I had laundry detergent or something that would be used in the dishwasher. It’s not as easy as you think actually.

And of course one gets to the checkout and one has to when you cash. But then, I didn’t realize that plastic bags are a purchasable item so the cashier kept asking how many I would want. In desperation, I held up three fingers and that was what I received. Okay, so this is just a very small adventure but indicates how every day for a period of time the normal assumptions that you make will continually be challenged. And whether you think these are wonderful or threatening will depend on your mindset and worldview.

The disturbing thing about stress is that people will experience it in many different ways. In fact, you may find your cultural shock stress symptoms are going to be much different than your spouses. In fact, these differences make the symptoms hard to identify.

Symptoms of Culture Schook

There are likely to be four categories that can indicate the high-stress levels seen in culture shock. These categories are: behavioral, physical, mental (cognitive), and emotional (affective).

Physiological Symptoms

Starting with the physical, stress causes certain changes built into the human nervous system that we cannot consciously control, or many may consider an unusual environment wonderful (I hope that’s the way you experience it) others will experience it as threatening.

If you consider them to be threatening, your stress levels are going to go up, you going to go into the fight or flight response and you may actually become sick since stress suppresses the immune system.

Cognitive Symptoms

Cognitively, you often find that your mental functioning declines. Under conditions of culture shock, it would not be unusual to experience a decreased ability to concentrate, a tendency to become more defensive, failure pay attention to detail, reduce likelihood of responding to a problem created creatively, and the corresponding belief that you may not have control the situation. In some cases, this often occurs with a corresponding projection of future catastrophe.

Emotional Symptoms

Emotionally, you like to see people swing into different directions. And this gets into the paradoxical nature of culture shock and stress. Some will experience the stress and become more visibly anxious, behaviorally nervous, frequently irritated and more likely to display negative emotions such as anger. But others rather than being agitated, become apathetic. It’s almost like they withdraw and rather than being up there mostly down. In some this intense level of stress can actually trigger depression. In case someone who is and the apathetic and is likely to be fatigued and not able to engage in a normal workload compared to their home country.

The Withdrawl Response

Rather than going into the new society people, some withdraw from the new culture. So rather than going out and experiencing and meeting people, they withdraw to a small group possibly their family, or possibly a small number of ex-pats who can give them a feel for what it was like when they were home.

You see this in many large ex-pat communities that exist in Shanghai. There is a British school for an American school for the kids. Clubs segregate the spouses away from the members of the local population. Chauffeur, that puts you in the bubble so you don’t have to do with taxi drivers.

One of the more insidious aspects of stress occurs within the family itself. While sometimes children do have difficulties adapting, they tend to be rather resilient. However, you may not find the same thing occurring with your spouse. Remember that they have withdrawn from the normal support network, their normal work environment, and their normal routine. It will be very difficult for them to adapt and they will or could take out the stress in the form of acting out which ultimately boils down to arguments and fights. Usually fights over the small stuff.

The following video clip from the BBC provides some further cultural context and interesting examples of how the concept of time varies between and within cultures:

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