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Intercultural Communication - A WITI Series: Culture Shock

Kiani Laigo

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Imagine that you have just moved to a new country for a new job. You have a mixture of emotions: you are excited to meet new people and learn new things, but scared because it is completely unknown territory. You get there and things are not easy. You make mistakes often, you are unfamiliar with the language, and even the smells are different from home. This new culture you have entered makes you feel lonely, depressed, unmotivated, and perhaps extremely homesick. This phenomenon is referred to as culture shock. It is the transitional period when you move into an unfamiliar environment.

According to Simon Fraser University, culture shock has four stages that can occur in any order, depending on the person.

The Honeymoon Stage: You feel very positive feelings toward the culture you have entered. Everything is exciting and cool and you may even consider that this culture is better than your own.

Irritability/ Frustration Stage: You start to develop negative feelings. You are confused about the new culture and things don't make sense. It is in this stage where most people feel the fatigue of constantly having to be alert and observant of their environment.

Gradual Adjustment Stage: Once you have reached this stage you have slowly become more competent. Things have become familiar and you do not need to be on constant alert, or fearful of making a mistake. Usually when you have reached this stage you have also made friends / acquaintances.

Re-entry Shock Stage: Should you return home for the holidays or just to see family and friends, you may go through this stage. It's a time when returning to your home culture causes culture shock. This is due to your having adjusted to living in a new culture, making your home culture unfamiliar.

Culture shock is a very important element of intercultural communication. Often in our workplaces, we meet people from different places who may be experiencing culture shock, or you yourself may be experiencing it. What makes things more complicated is that no one experiences culture shock the same way. Some people might first be excited to be in a new place and very interested in the new environment, then over time become depressed at the mistakes they keep making and miss home. Others are miserable as soon as they are in a new place and feel overwhelmed by the unfamiliarity. It is important to address culture shock because it is during this period where our communication skills can make or break us. If you keep making mistakes you might withdraw and cause others to view you negatively or, if you have a new co-worker who is constantly messing up, you might be angry without realizing how much they are going through. Whatever it looks like, as someone who strives to be better at communicating, awareness of this natural phenomenon will help you be more understanding.

Tips from ISEP Study Abroad for dealing with culture shock:
Accept that you are going to make mistakes: It is unrealistic to expect yourself to know everything. If you are an expert in the environment you are currently in, when you enter a new one, consider yourself at square one. It's going to be awkward, you might do something wrong, but see every opportunity as a learning opportunity.

Learn as much as you can: Before you start that new job or travel to that new vacation destination, take the time and effort to study the place you are going to. Things like mannerisms, pop culture, and general information can help you adjust quickly and avoid making some mistakes. And don't stop learning once you arrive. Speak with your new co-workers, ask questions when you are confused, or study by researching through various platforms (books, internet, or movies). Having some knowledge beforehand will help lower the stress of being in the unknown.

Keep an open mind: You are going to be uncomfortable. It might be the way they eat food or how their hierarchy works, but there are bound to be times when you find yourself judging the culture. Always keep in mind that we are all human, and that just as you think they are weird for doing certain things, they probably view your way of life as strange as well. It is okay to be weirded out, for that means you are learning new things, but always keep in mind that you should be respectful at all times.

Reach out to those in a similar situation: Oftentimes if you are studying abroad or have started a new job somewhere, there are others in the same shoes. Reaching out and just having someone to relate to can relieve some of the stress for you and them. Remembering that you are not alone can help you feel more confident and more open to the new environment you are in.

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