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The Heavy Toll Of Culture Shock

Ilya Adler

Is culture shock, as experienced by many ex-pats and their families, a psychological or a cultural issue? I was recently involved in a discussion group where this issue was debated. All of us agreed that being a foreigner, at first, is usually associated with a variety of strong emotions, often reflected in significantly depressive moods. This is what is known as "culture shock," which usually starts several months after arrival and can last, depending on the individual, for a year or two. In some cases, it is never overcome.

The experience is explained by various factors, but mainly it is the effect of being immersed in a culture unfamiliar to us. We are bothered by the fact that (a) others do not understand us, and (b) we do not understand them. Because we need to make sense of what surrounds us, we interpret the unknown, often incorrectly. Eventually, we find ourselves somewhat socially isolated and begin to be critical of the host society (and with it, we begin to romanticize our home culture).

Great Expectations

For some psychologists, the issue is much more personal and individualistic than social or cultural. The argument goes as follows: The move an ex-pat makes is part of a significant professional move, a move that often brings with it new professional challenges and new expectations. In order to make the move attractive, employees are generally promised or given significant raises, housing and tuition for their kids' education and a rosy professional picture for the future.

In the corporate world, "moving out" is often viewed as a necessary step to "moving up." However, after ex-pats begin their new life, they discover the money was not so great, their families are miserable and that back in headquarters their bosses seem to be completely oblivious to their work.

Soon the rosy picture that was in the ex-pat's head turns into a nightmare, in which low self-esteem is coupled negatively with a pessimistic view of the future. Thus, according to this psychological view, what people then need is therapy that focuses on how to handle those difficult changes.

It's Not a Personal Thing

On the other hand, those who adopt a proper cultural or social perspective realize that the phenomenon is not unique to one person, but rather a common experience for anyone, under any circumstances, moving into a new cultural environment. According to Mary Ellen Colon, a cross-cultural specialist, who has worked with many people going through culture shock both in Mexico and the U.S., culture shock is something that is often painfully felt. "We feel culture shock, before we can intellectualize about it," she told me recently.

Furthermore, she and other anthropologists will tell you the fact that we feel it as an internal pain does not mean it is not a social phenomenon. In my opinion, if it were so unique, why do so many who enter a new culture go through this process? Why is it that even those who are truly fulfilling their wildest job expectations in terms of money and career advancement are still hit with culture shock?

The difference is significant because culturalists will argue the way to reduce it is to learn and become comfortable with the new culture, so that you can understand those who live there and they can understand you. In other words, go to the causes that created the psychological pain in the first place.

Complaining to a therapist about the "natives" who can't figure you out, or about how you cannot figure them out, will not make this reality disappear. You might get a sympathetic ear, which is also important, but until you make the effort of really learning about the new culture, be prepared to sit in front of a therapist for a long time.

Published or Updated on: January 1, 2002 by Ilya Adler © 2008
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