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What is culture shock?

Culture shock or stress comes from loss of familiar cues and unmet expectations. It is compared to a ‘dis’-ease with its own symptoms

Culture shock or stress comes from loss of familiar cues and unmet expectations. It is compared to a ‘dis’-ease with its own symptoms. We emphasise that this “shock” is a natural process and can be a valuable personal learning process.

In our societies of ever greater mobility, crossing borders has become commonplace. Whether it is national borders, city borders or even the invisible borders that could be felt when moving from one school to another, one community to the next, we’re very likely to experience varying degrees of stress, anxiety and fatigue.

This is often referred to as culture shock, though “acculturation stress” may be a better term.

Is culture shock negative?

Many people see culture shock as a negative or even traumatic experience. Kalvero Oberg called it a ‘dis’-ease, complete with its own set of symptoms:

  • Psychological: loneliness, homesickness, frustration with self or hosts, depression, agitation, outbreaks of suppressed anger, aggression, moments hostility, hatred.
  • Physical: headaches, stomachaches, dizziness, unsettledness, seeking to suppress the bad feelings with too much eating, drinking and sleeping.

A personal learning process

In the video above, we suggest that culture shock is actually valuable as a personal learning process. This inevitable and natural process that so many people must go through can push us to learn about ourselves and see how culture can govern our speech and behaviour, our expectations and responses.

This is, in fact, the view of intercultural trainers —t hat is, the more stress or shock one has experienced in intercultural adaptation, the more self-understanding one might gain and the more empathy one can cultivate toward hosts and other newcomers.

One of the best ways to develop these outcomes is to simulate culture shock experiences in training designs.

Games like BAFA BAFA and Barnga expose potentially hidden cultural assumptions, reactions, as well as latent capabilities to cope with stress and develop more intercultural sensitivity and awareness.

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Intercultural Communication: Dynamics of cultural identities in global interaction

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