Working in the sphere of higher education, I find myself consistently reflecting upon my own experiences as a college student in a new light. Global education is a constantly evolving realm but the concept of culture shock has been an unrelenting force. In layman’s terms, culture shock is the state of confusion/bewilderment/anxiety as an individual confronts the differences between his or her own culture and the one which he or she is experiencing. It’s a relatively simple notion but I think the discussion/education surrounding culture shock ultimately has resounding negative effects on travelers.
For as long as I can remember, I have been utterly fascinated with other cultures. The first trip abroad birthed in me a desire to never stop traveling, never stop devouring new experiences and never stop delving in to, sometimes uncomfortably, different environments. So it’s no surprise that I have always pushed myself to make international travel possible. My first international experience occurred in Mexico, a short vacation with family that introduced me to pan dulce from tiny tiendas and roosters crowing at the crack of dawn. After that I was, undeniably, hooked. From then on, I’ve been motivated by a passion for learning about unfamiliar cultures. This passion has pushed me to study abroad in Brussels, Belgium, back pack through Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy and Greece, spelunk in Budapest, abseil in Assisi, and spend countless hours inexhaustibly planning future excursions. Throughout my travels, one philosophy has been every present and ever abhorred—culture shock.
Travelers become acquainted with the concept of culture shock at the early stages of our journeys; for those of us pursuing lengthy sojourns, one of the first questions we are asked is “aren’t you worried about culture shock?” and one of the first assignments we seem tasked with is a game plan for how we’ll deal with the phenomena once we greet it. For students planning to study abroad, there are often whole pre-departure planning meetings focused on how to recognize culture shock, get over it and move on. Incontrovertibly, discussing how one will approach these differences in culture is an important part of preparing for any journey. While proper education about the nuanced (and not so nuanced!) differences in culture is an integral part of keeping travelers safe abroad, instilling such a consciousness of culture shock into our travelers is perhaps not the best way to do so.
There are so many lists floating around the internet advising travelers of what to do abroad, what not to do abroad, what to be wary of and situations into which they should never put themselves. These are wonderful resources for travelers. But when we consider that culture shock is a problem of adjusting to new/unfamiliar environments does it make sense to constantly point out, often with a negative air, all the differences that travelers MUST be aware or something bad might happen or they might never be accepted or *insert some possibility here*. Whether we intend to or not, our speech instills a sense of fear and while a healthy dose of fear is necessary, shoving travelers into this mindset is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we teach them to be anxious about culture because things could happen, we inevitably begin their spiral into “culture shock”.
There will always be some degree of anxiety over culture differences for travelers. Most experts agree that “culture shock” will occur in some capacity for travelers at SOME stage. But it’s a pretty ambiguous territory. There’s no golden rule for when it will happen, how it will manifest itself, how long, etc and in the end we seem to use the term “culture shock” to explain just about any emotional/psychological response to experiences in new cultures.
I so often hear things along the lines of “Wow, why do you eat at 10 o’clock at night? That’s so weird.” Or, on a similar note: “They take naps in the middle of the day. Are they lazy?” People are quick to slap the label of culture shock onto such statements, but should we really be excusing making rash conclusions about other ways/walks of life just because an individual is experiencing confusion over a new culture? Isn’t the point of travel to embrace our differences, not to excuse making a point of them?
I’ve never seen myself as a decidedly strong or weak person but through my experiences abroad I was able to learn more about the core of myself than I had ever before or have ever since. I learned how I deal with stress, what I’m capable of enduring and how well I react under pressure. While, all in all, I am proud of the trials and accomplishments of all my travels, I learned something about myself of which I was not at all familiar. When I face situational change, I am prone to clinical depression. Scientists would assert that I’m not alone in this; in fact, change is one of the most common influences in depression. According to WebMD “even positive changes — like getting married or starting a new job — can sometimes trigger depression.” I loved traveling abroad, I had always wanted the opportunity to do exactly what I was doing then, and I wasn’t disturbed by the differences in culture. I constantly repeated the mantra in my head “You wanted this, you’ve always wanted this.” But this was my first battle with a psychological disorder—one I didn’t understand and felt helpless to confront. Despite the constant reassurances from my study abroad advisor that it was just culture shock and I would get better, despite the pre-departure preparations that told me I just needed to throw myself into life in Belgium and it would get better….it didn’t—because I wasn’t experiencing “culture shock”. I was told to not call my family too often, I was told to not reach out to friends from back home because all of these things would lend to my inability to assimilate into the Belgian culture and would just aggravate my culture shock. So I suffered two months of grueling, heart breaking depression in a foreign country, without the support I desperately needed. All of which could have easily been avoided if we recognized that not every emotion or psychological response we experience when abroad can be attributed to culture shock.
I would learn that one of my roommates had experienced this exact same uncomfortable situation. When I returned to the United States, a friend would tell me that she too had suffered depression while studying abroad. The overwhelming majority of world travelers will be between the ages of 18-39 and 40-49. Coincidentally these are also the two largest majorities of individuals suffering from depression in the US and in the world. It may be easy to say “it’s okay, it’s just culture shock, and everyone feels this way at some point” but when we consider the masses of travelers who may be suffering from depression, is it really prudent to tell them not to call their parents, not to ask for help, because it’s just culture shock?
In higher education, our function is always first and foremost the safety and wellbeing of our students. So while I imagine we’ll never manage to strike culture shock from the dictionary, we owe it to the young travelers out there to stop writing things off as culture shock, stop excusing negative perceptions of foreign cultures and stop pushing our students into places of fear. We will all experience some reaction to being immersed in foreign cultures but when we consider the negative repercussions of lumping all that into the “culture shock” bin, maybe it’s time to adjust our talking points. Instead of culture shock, let’s educate our students on HOW to assimilate into culture AND how to be safe, let’s teach them how to embrace culture without talking about the differences, and, lastly, let’s teach them that it’s okay to ask for help—no matter where you are in the world.