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I’m a Polyglot, Get Me Out of Here: Culture Shock And How To Recover

If only culture shock was made of chocolate...

There is one method of learning languages which, so far, hasn’t been questioned or doubted. Incidentally, this is one of the oldest methods as well. It’s difficult even to find a name for it: the method involves simply going to another country, living there and acquiring the language.

There is, however, one downside to this full-contact method. This time it’s well-researched, documented and analysed. What exactly is culture shock, and how to deal with it?

Myth: “I’m too smart for culture shock.”

For some people, the very idea of finding it difficult to adjust to a new place sounds ridiculous. The world, after all, is becoming smaller and more wired every day: if you’ve done your homework and looked up stuff on the internet, you’ll be ready for anything, right?

This seems to be vindicated by the first phase of the culture shock (see below). “It’s going to be OK – now I’m sure.”

It’s not. And no, you’re not too smart for culture shock. It can get you, and depending on the country and the difference, it can get pretty nasty. However, when taken apart and broken down, the process is easier to understand – and prevent. Let’s dissect the culture shock then, shall we?


Phase 1: The Honeymoon

You arrive. Everything feels new, wonderful and so fresh. Every day, every mundane activity – is suddenly reinvented: going to get milk and eggs in the morning becomes an adventure!

It’s easy to feel good in the first phase. The hard thing is making this last. It usually doesn’t.


¡¡¡ Navidaaaaahhhggg !!!

Culture shock, phase 2: say hello to WTF.

Phase 2: Negotiation

It kicks in. Usually, it’s the little things. People’s attitude to feelings, logic, hygiene, celebrations, bureaucracy – everything becomes visible and irritating.

There are two reasons for frustration here. The first one is the difficulty you’re experiencing: “How am I ever going to deal with this?” is a feeling I’ve had all too often. The second, more sinister source of anxiety is other people’s effortless grasp on this complex culture which brings you down: “How easy it is for them!”


Phase 3: Adjustment

Good news: getting here means you’re on the right track. The system is still baffling, but patterns emerge. You find your way around. The things that used to baffle you begin to make sense. The frustrating procedures and rules are becoming a source of comfort and security as you find your place. You’re still not a local, but you’re definitely not a tourist anymore.


Phase 4: Mastery

You get this place. You move around almost without thinking, and the complex rules of behaviour are not a problem for you. You have truly arrived. There is little chance for you to blend in completely: you will probably retain your accent, beliefs and customs. But to an outsider, you definitely belong here.


Dealing with culture shock: 3 everyday techniques

It’s anybody’s guess whether you’re going to be able to avoid culture shock, and if it gets you – how long it’s going to last. But there are many things you can do to make it less painful, more productive – and even fun! Here are three of them:


1. Keep a (stoical) record. It’s a common instinct among travellers to keep a journal of the places they visit, and the honeymoon phase is a powerful stimulus to share all the amazing things that are happening around you. What’s ironic is that most people give up on recording their experience when they need it the most: their diaries, blogs and notebooks are brimming with excited entries during the honeymoon phase, but they turn bitter and far more sporadic then the negotiation phase kicks in.

Write a record for a purpose, and with an attitude. You’re doing yourself a favour here. Record all the amazing stuff, sure: but try also to write about things which confuse, baffle and irritate you. Take time every day to write at least a few sentences, as if you were an observer reporting on an unknown, mysterious culture. Because in a way, you are.

Happy Meals

Take me home, mighty burger, take me home...


2. Have a safe haven. There’s a Polish deli in a place where I live. On a good day, I couldn’t care less if it’s there or not: I go about my business, being awesome and happy and generally enjoying myself here.

But there are times when this doesn’t work so well; there are days when I feel out of place and unable to deal with something. On a day like that, the deli’s a godsend.

I’m grateful for being able to order coffee and have my favourite candy bar. Your safe place might be a McDonalds or a Starbucks. Go there and don’t be ashamed of doing so. Just don’t stay there: go, have a milkshake, regroup and resume the awesomeness.


3. Have it your way. Understand this: you’re never going to be 100% fluent in a foreign language, and you’re never going to become 100% assimilated in a foreign culture. Rather than a discouragement, treat this like an invitation to do things your way.

It’s OK to have an accent. It’s OK to be more emotional or more reserved than the rest. It’s fine to refuse to be bothered about a religious festival, and it’s legitimate to have your way of interpreting bureaucratic intricacies.

The “negotiation” and “adjustment” phases are hard because you feel that you must conform completely. It’s not like that. The culture and yourself will meet halfway.


Had culture shock? Still alive to tell the tale? Share your story in the comments!


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