Preparing For An Experience Abroad: Culture Shock

December 9, 2014
Year On TeamGap Years

Original post by Morgan Ostrowsky

experiencing culture shock

Culture shock can leave travelers feeling misunderstood, exhausted, disoriented and altogether unsatisfied with their trip. Instead of enjoying their time abroad, they end up feeling lonely, sometimes isolating themselves because there’s too much stress from being in new surroundings with new cultural rules.

In order to adequately prepare for your trip and to make the most of your time abroad, you should take a few basic measures against culture shock before it happens. The best way to combat culture shock is to:

Educate Yourself.

If you learn about and understand culture shock before your time abroad, you will have a much more meaningful experience during your trip. You’ll be able to better handle the pressure of being in a new place, and you will learn from your experiences more effectively.

Here are three things to study before you jump on that plane, train or automobile to your next destination.

1. The Language

There’s nothing that is more frustrating than being in a position where you can’t communicate. Take the time to learn some essential words and phrases to help you interact with others.

Use free resources like Duolingo, Foreign Service Institute, and Babble if you don't feel like spending a hefty amount of money on software like Rosetta Stone or Pimsleur. Buying a pocket phrasebook to take with you to your destination is also a great help when you know what you need to say, but not how to say it.

Remember, you don’t have to be fluent before you go, but for your own sake and the people you will be interacting with, try to learn as much as you can. The people you meet will appreciate it, and it will help you acclimate to the culture more than you know.

2. The Culture

Pick up a guidebook or two and spend some time getting to know the place you’re going to be arriving in soon. The internet has tons of information for people traveling abroad in any capacity; utilize it. A few good websites are Lonely PlanetRough Guides, and Frommer’s (all of which sell physical guidebooks as well). You can also find free country profiles and culture guides to help you learn about cross-cultural differences. The more you know about the physical location and culture of your destination, the better you will adapt.

You should also do specific research on things like political history, dangerous areas to avoid, important figures and common idioms. While you’re doing this, try to get a general sense of how most people in this country feel about people from your country, and try to remember that while going abroad is an adventure, you’re also having that adventure in someone’s home. You’re a guest there – try to be a well-informed and respectful one.

3. Culture Shock

In the same vein of educating yourself on the country and the language, you should know the signs of culture shock.

First, know that culture shock doesn’t hit you all at once. At first, people often feel very euphoric. In the scheme of cultural adjustment, this is often referred to as the “honeymoon” phase. This when the traveler is captivated by how new and cool everything is.

When people are in this phase, they think they will be immune to culture shock, but that is rarely the case.

The second stage of cultural adjustment is what we commonly refer to as culture shock. The effects of culture shock can be small things, like feeling tired or annoyed more than usual to big things like feeling lonely, isolated, developing chronic fatigue, lethargy, insomnia, and a loss in appetite. There are many psychological and physical symptoms of culture shock.

When you start to notice these, realize that what you’re experiencing is real and that this is culture shock. Reach out to people around you and tell them what you’re experiencing. Make time for self-care and be sure to communicate with others often. By doing this and keeping a positive mindset, you will progress to finally acclimating to the culture you are in.

Making Your Time Abroad Meaningful

The most important tool in combatting culture shock and making the most of any experience is keeping a positive mindset. Having a positive mindset is helpful in all areas of life, especially dealing with something difficult like culture shock. Though a lot of this has to come from within, there are a few ways to make it easier for yourself, such as making friends, getting physical exercise and seeking new experiences.

All in all, the experience you have is entirely up to you. Instead of feeling like cultural differences are a burden, think of it as something valuable that you are coming to understand and in turn, gaining knowledge that empowers yourself. You have power over how your trip impacts you. And, now that you know what you’re headed for, you’re one step closer to ensuring that you have an amazing experience abroad.

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