Posted on Feb 24th, 2006

A college friend of mine moved from Nebraska to Mississippi. While working at the local Pizza Hut in her new town, she was her usual lively self, greeting the customers with, "Hi guys, what are you ordering today?" She was perplexed that people seemed to be offended but she did not know why. Until one lovely lady replied to her usual cheerful greeting with:"We’re not guys! We are women!". She soon learned the proper way to greet people was "Folks" not guys. And that you always say, "Ya’ll come back now!" when they leave.

According to the Webster dictionary, culture shock is: "a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation."

The key here is "adequate preparation."

Here are some tips for preparing for culture shock:

1. Do your homework. Be prepared. Learn about the culture, how they do things, how they like things, what clothes do they wear, etc. Ok, what about the clothes? Even in the U.S., tastes in clothes are not the same everywhere. What they would usually wear in Miami might look out of place or even inappropriate in Kalona, Iowa.

2. Talk to people who have been there. Or even someone who had been in the general area. Find out what the most recent local news was. An out-of-town speaker at a local conference made a joke about tornados in Kansas when she started her speech. She was greeted in silence. She was not aware of the fact that a tornado did actually hit a town in the area and had killed a relative of someone in the audience. In a small town where everybody knows everyone, they felt like one big family.

3. Leave your assumptions behind. Be open and ready to learn new ways of doing. Don’t assume that just because it was ok to stop people on the streets and talk to them, that in this new place it is alright as well. Observe first and watch how the locals interact before you resort to your usual lively self.

4. Expect culture shock to happen. Just because you were all ecstatic upon arrival, the worst is yet to come. Know that after the initial euphoria, that the anxiety and uncertainty will set in. You could start feeling irritable, having second thoughts about moving to this new place, feeling bored to death, and even start hating anything local. Acknowledge that these symptoms mean that you need to start to engage in your own self-development.

5. Find some support networks. Find a friend you can confide in. Take time to meet go out and meet new people. If you are so new that do not have friends from work or school yet, go to a church and find one where you feel welcomed and comfortable. You do not need to change your religion, but you need to have contact with real people who are interested in you. Talk to people at the grocery store, or wherever you go. You might find someone that has connections to your old hometown.

6. Remain physically active. The worst thing to do is lock yourself in your room and staying in bed. Take a walk to the library. Visit a park. Go to a fitness center. You would find how invigorating it could be.

7. Be intellectually curious. Learn about the town, its history. Visit the local museums and important landmarks and public gatherings. Ask questions, be genuinely interested in what you see.

8. Be patient. Give yourself time to get over it. Take a look at the benefits of your experience in this new culture. Be aware that if the symptoms get worse, if you continually have feelings of despair and loneliness, that it is best to seek professional help. But most of the time, culture shock can be managed, if one is adequately prepared to tackle the challenges.

Being uninformed and making assumptions can get one in trouble. As you can see from the above examples, you can lose friends, and even lose tips because of being unprepared. If you are leaving for an extended stay overseas, you might want to invest in cultural training before you leave.

Ya’ll come back now!

Marlene is a cross-cultural trainer and curriculum designer for cultural competency programs. A non-traditional student, she is completing her master’s degree in liberal studies with concentrations in Communication, Anthropology and International Business. She is particularly interested in culture shock and acculturation issues. She is currently doing a project on the cultural preparation of foreign educated nurses in the U.S.

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