What is it?
Culture Shock is the mental, physical and emotional adjustment to living in a new environment. It is the coming to terms with different ways of approaching everyday living - everything from fundamental philosophical assumptions (one's worldview) to daily chores.
Anyone living in a new environment long enough cannot ignore the differences. They become frustrating and possibly infuriating until recognizable patterns emerge and an understanding of why things are done differently develops.
Culture shock can be charted on a U-shaped curve that encompasses five separate phases: fun, fright, flight, fight and fun. When you first arrive in Russia, everything is wonderful. You are excited that you have arrived, finally seeing all those places that previously were just one-dimensional pictures. This is the 'fun' stage.
After a while, all those wonderful cute customs become aggravating. There is no point to them. You think your own culture's way is much better, more efficient and more sensible. While Russian people seem friendly at first, it is just superficial warmth, not a real interest in establishing a friendship. You begin to miss your family and friends. This is the fright stage.
Then it gets worse. You are really homesick. You cannot find anything good about Russia. Everything is awful. You are convinced that nothing beats your home country and you remember how good you had it at home. You may even come to believe that all your problems will go away if you can just pack up and go home. This is the flight stage. It is serious but usually temporary.
You give yourself a pep talk and decide to stick it out for a while longer. This experience deserves a fair chance. You make more of an effort to get to know the people you are living with, you work and or study with. You decide to be less furious with those stupid policies (like kiosks that won't let you purchase things because you don't have the right change and the fact you always have to carry identification with you). Now you are into the 'fight' stage.
Know what? You begin to like the people you are living, working and / or studying with. In fact those acquaintances are more like friends. They tell you why the stupid policies are the way they are. In fact those policies make sense and don't seem too stupid. You are no longer inconvenienced by them and have trouble understanding why they bothered you so much. You suddenly realize you like it in Russia and you want to stay forever. You've arrived at the fifth and final stage - and have made it through the emotional roller coaster ride of culture shock.
Possible symptoms of Culture Shock
Sometimes people do not realize when they are suffering from culture shock. This confusion can be the result of looking at several symptoms as isolated problems rather than as related components of a single affliction. Some signs you may notice that could indicate culture shock are:
- Withdrawal (spending too much time in your room, only seeing other ex-pats, etc)
- Negative feelings and stereotyping of nationals
- Inability to concentrate
- Excessive sleep or insomnia
- Compulsive eating or drinking
- Lack of appetite
- Crying uncontrollably or outbursts of anger
- Physical ailments such as frequent headaches or stomachaches
Dealing with culture shock
There are ways to prepare for and thereby lessen the extremes of culture shock.
First, know that you will experience some degree of culture shock (even if you don't believe it now).
Everyone does. Carefully read the process outlined so that you'll recognize the symptoms and feelings. Most importantly, understand those feelings will pass.
Second, expect things to be different. Some differences will be quite obvious, others less so. You are probably prepared for the major cultural differences - religious and socio - economic differences and of course the fact the majority of people around you will be speaking a language other than English. It is the apparently trivial differences that will become most grating. Try not to allow yourself to blow them out of proportion.
Third, do not label differences as being 'good' or 'bad'. Because the 'way' in your country is the predominant, if not only way you know, you will inevitably compare everything in Russia with the ways and approaches you know in your own country. Realize that you are not looking objectively at your new culture. Rather you are seeing (and judging) it from the perspective of your own country. Instead of judging what you see as better as or worse than what you know at home, try and focus on the differences and ask why they exist.
Fourth, maintain the ability to laugh at your mistakes. It will take some time to adapt to the point where you can maneuver without making cultural missteps.
After all, it took quite a bit of training by your parents and effort on your own part to be comfortable in your own culture!
Finally you do not have to "do as the Romans do" and accept all the differences. You will like some of the Russian ways and incorporate them into your daily routine. Other ways will not fit your values or outlook and you will decide that they are not appropriate for you. You are free to make choices and doing so is perfectly acceptable.
Taking the sting out
Culture shock occurs because unconsciously, we expect everyone to be like us. Inevitably something will occur in a new culture that will not fit your frame of reference and therefore won't be fully comprehended. This sort of ambiguity is threatening and frequently causes fear, anger, repulsion or some strong emotion.
The key to coping is to become aware of these reactions as they arise. Instead of allowing extreme emotional reaction to control, try to determine the cause of your reaction. By focusing on the cause instead of the reaction you can frequently cause the emotion to abate. Then you can experience the situation more objectively, without presumptions you made, based on your own culture, which caused the emotional reaction in the first place.
Careful observation not clouded or skewed by your own cultural presumptions and expectations will help you develop an understanding of the new culture and will facilitate your inclusion in that culture.
Your country's culture patterns
Culture shapes everything, the ways in which you think and analyze, what you value, how you do things, what's considered proper behavior. It's difficult to assess all the defects of a culture while you are enmeshed in it. When you are abroad, you will discover important aspects of your own culture that you were unaware of before you left home. Since you will be viewing your new culture from the perspective of your own culture it is helpful to have a good grasp of this perspective and how it shapes you.
Being aware of your own cultural biases and presumptions will enable you to understand your reactions to ambiguous events that occur while you are abroad. While you will not escape culture shock, you can be well - prepared to face it and dilute its effects.
You are not alone
Remember that everyone else on your program will experience similar feeling to yours. Do not hesitate to look to them for moral and emotional support. In addition staff at Language Link can help if you are feeling particularly stressed.