Cultural Adaptation

Culture Shock & The Problem Of Adjustment To New Cultural Environments

(An editorial by Dr. Lalervo Oberg; Anthropologist; Health, Welfare and Housing Division; United States Operations Mission to Brazil)

I would like to make a few remarks about culture shock, a malady which afflicts most of us to some degree. We might almost call culture shock an occupational disease of many people who have been suddenly transplanted abroad.

Customs, Cues, Norms.

Culture shock is precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse. These signs are the thousand and one ways in which we orient ourselves to the situations of daily life: when to shake hands and what to say when we meet people, when and how to give tips, how to give orders to servants, how to make purchases, when to accept and when to refuse invitations, when to take statements seriously and when not. These cues, which may be words, gestures, facial expressions, customs, or norms are acquired by all of us in the course of growing up and are as much a part of our culture as the language we speak or the beliefs we accept. All of us depend for our peace of mind and our efficiency on hundreds of these cues, most of which are unconsciously learned. When an individual enters a strange culture, all or most of these familiar cues are removed. He or she is like a fish out of water. No matter how broad-minded or full of good will he may be, a series of props have been knocked from under him. This is followed by a feeling of frustration and anxiety. People react to the frustration in much the same way. First they reject the environment which causes the discomfort: "the ways of the host country are bad because they make us feel bad." For example Americans who are in a strange land get together to grouse about the host country and its people, you can be sure they are suffering from culture shock. Another phase of culture shock is regression. The home environment suddenly assumes a tremendous importance, everything becomes irrationally glorified. All difficulties and problems are forgotten and only the good things back home are remembered. It usually takes a trip home to bring one back to reality.

Symptoms

Some of the symptoms of culture shock are: excessive concern over cleanliness and the feeling that what is new and strange is "dirty." This could be in relation to drinking water, food, dishes, and bedding; fear of physical contact with attendants or servants; a feeling of helplessness and a desire for dependence on long-term residents of one's own nationality; irritation over delays and other minor frustrations out of proportion to their causes; delay and outright refusal to learn the language of the host country; excessive fear of being cheated, robbed, or injured; great concern over minor pains and irruptions of the skin; and finally, that terrible longing to be back home, to be in familiar surroundings, to visit one's relatives, and, in general, to talk to people who really "make sense."

Individuals differ greatly in the degree in which culture shock affects them. Although not common, there are individuals who cannot live in foreign countries. Those who have seen people go through a serious case of culture shock and on to a satisfactory adjustment can discern steps in the process.

Your attitude

Another important point worth considering is the attitude of others to a person suffering from culture shock. If you are frustrated and have an aggressive attitude to the people of the host country, they will sense this hostility and in many cases respond in either a hostile manner or try to avoid you. In other words, their response moves from a preliminary phase of ingratiation to aggressive ridicule and on to avoidance. To your own countrymen who are well adjusted you become somewhat of a problem. As you feel weak in the face of the host country people you tend to wish to increase your dependence on your fellow countrymen much more than is normal. Some will try to help you, others will try to avoid you. The better your fellow countryman understands your condition the better he is able to help you. But the difficulty is that culture shock has not been studied carefully enough for people to help you in an organized manner and you continue to be considered a bit queer - until you adjust yourself to the new situation. Although I am not certain, I think culture shock affects wives more than husbands. The husband has his professional duties to occupy him and his activities may not differ too much from what he has been accustomed to. The wife, on the other hand, has to operate in an environment which differs much more from the milieu in which she grew up. www.worldwide.edu.

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