As I was leaving my five year long job for a different career, I sent an emotionally long email to my coordinators expressing how much I loved the organization and how happy I was when working with them. The reply I received was unexpected. It was a short good luck note. I was puzzled thinking that maybe I made a mistake by writing such a “lovey dovey” email but I did it again. As I was leaving another place I wrote an email this time to many people whom I had admired and appreciated. To my surprise I only received one or two replies. I felt bad, lost, and awkward since my emotional contact was not reciprocated. I felt stupid, weird, and inferior. I also felt worried about what they thought of me and worst of all perhaps I ruined my chances of joining the organization again.
The cultural background I come from, showing strong feelings towards people in formal and informal settings is normal and in fact, encouraged. People with loud expressions are considered nice and friendly, while people who are calm and reserved are seen as arrogant and cold. My culture is also made up of hierarchical social structures. For example, we refer to everyone older as uncle and aunties. Bosses and supervisors are always addressed as “Sirs” or “esteemed” individuals. A sense of gratitude towards hierarchy is socially valued and reinforced since it opens doors to many opportunities including social membership and sense of belonging. It looked like my long-learned knowledge of how social life worked was threatened by a new culture’s beliefs and values.
Culture is accumulation of knowledge, belief, and behaviour over time and it is along that continuum which cultural change and adaptation is possible. On the other hand, culture shock is a sudden and abrupt exposure to change especially when an individual is not prepared. Globalization and learning English as a universal language sometimes gives the illusion of knowing other cultures well but the truth is that language is only one aspect of a culture and living it is another.
Going to another country, the experience is not just a geographical change but a also a psychological change. Facing cultural differences is not always a pleasant experience and in some cases it can be an upsetting. The most common emotional reactions are confusion, disappointments, frustration, and fear. New comers often judge and question their self-worth and wonder if they are good enough to belong in a new society. Cultural shock can be a significant contributor to anxiety, depression, and other forms of mental disorders including schizophrenia. Going through severe form of stress can trigger these pre-existing biological and psychological vulnerabilities. However, every individual’s experience is unique because some might develop minor adjustment issues while others might need professional help in adapting and developing better coping skills.
To manage cultural shock, the following can be helpful tips.
First, becoming aware of the differences and acknowledging that culture runs deeper than it appears to be. Childhood upbringing and immediate environments influence a person’s psychological map. It is important to realize that many people have influenced us for good and bad and the building blocks of our current values.
Secondly, while embracing one’s own cultural identity an individual can gradually explore the main culture with openness and curiosity. As human beings, we are often too quick to judge people before having an in-depth knowledge of their life and circumstances but by asking questions we can reduce short-cut thinking in favour of factual and accurate understanding.
Thirdly, the person then can incorporate some elements of the dominant culture with their own for better adjustment. Choosing one over the other is not helpful for successful adaptation. Sometimes newcomers stay within their own culture with less openness towards the mainstream and other times they are too open and let go of their own cultural identity which can be problematic and perhaps damaging in the long run.
If you are struggling with cultural adjustment, contact your therapist today.