As a seasoned traveler and a person who has lived in 12 fairly different countries, I tend to embrace a bit of culture shock and see it as a positive experience. I embrace it precisely because years of experience has taught me the potential pitfalls and also the hidden joys of being immersed in a new culture . For those who encounter culture shock for the first time, it can be a disorienting, isolating experience.
How one reacts culture shock is entirely dependent their frame of mind. Yes, travel can broaden the mind, but only if you welcome the experience. Here are the top strategies I’ve used to make encountering a new culture an enriching experience:
- Open your mind – Obvious advice, I know, but absolutely critical. Most of the people I know who had negative expat experiences left their host countries almost entirely ignorant of the country’s language, history, cuisine, culture, politics, etc. If you travel for extended periods of time and/or live in a “foreign” country, you will enjoy the experience more by learning as much as you can about that country before you travel as well as during you stay. Opening your mind also means realizing that travel is as much about new experiences as it is visiting places. Don’t leave your common sense at home, but at the same time try not to judge every single thing through your own cultural lens. Know that some hard work is required on your end, but that the ultimate reward is a much richer, more positive experience.
- Learn the language – Another obvious piece of advice that is nevertheless not followed by quite a few Anglophones who live in non-English speaking countries. Nothing makes you feel more isolated and helpless than spending extended periods of time surrounded by people you can’t understand. English speaking countries generally do not place a high value on learning a foreign language and, as a result, many Anglophones mistakenly think that one has to be a genius to learn a foreign language. In the country where I live, almost everyone speaks at least 3 languages fluently and knowing up to 5 languages is not uncommon. Telling somebody here that you can speak another language would be like telling them you know how to drive or that you can read. My point is that almost anybody can learn, at the very least, the rudiments of a language. Most people positively react to foreigners who try to learn their language so even the potentially awkward act of, say, asking for directions in a new language can be a more pleasant experience that you’d imagine. There are no downsides to learning a new language other than the effort you will need to put in. And, yes, when you return to your Anglophone country, people will think you’re a veritable genius.
- Enjoy the sheer novelty – This is the hidden gem. When you first arrive in a country that is unfamiliar your mind will kick into overdrive. You will notice everything; the sights, the sounds, the smells, how people behave, how they dress, your new surroundings and so forth. Some of those memories will be so new that they will be imprinted on your brain. If I had to guess, it’s survival mechanism that evolution has bestowed on us. Your mind is trying to familiarize itself as quickly as possible with the new parameters. For some people who have never experienced this phenomenon, it might be stressful at first. To be honest, adjusting to a radically new situation can be tiring. The positive side is that, for a short time, you once again have the hyper inquisitive mind of a child. Your brain is absolutely alert. You see the world with eyes that are not so jaded by experience or the same old drudgery. Know that this period does not last for a long time. Eventually your mind reverts to homeostasis, so enjoy the feeling while it lasts.
- Enlist your baser instincts – It’s a cliché but I tell you it’s 100 percent true. The FASTEST way, bar none, of learning a new language and/or culture is via one’s romantic partner. If he or she is from the country in question, you have both the motivation and the means of broadening your knowledge. Barring that, I find that attraction to the lifestyle, potential “romantic” partners (i.e. “Wow, Barcelona is full of amazing women”) or the cuisine are pretty significant motivators. Food and sex are, after all, primal needs. As an aside, I arrived at my current situation in Europe fueled by a passion for my then girlfriend but also everything related to the world of wine. Double-whammy. I am no longer into the former and not as much into the latter , but the momentary motivation they provided me with made a big impact on my life.
- Continue to pursue your interests – The benefits of continuing to cultivate your interests in a new environment are twofold. Firstly, it will give you a familiar anchor in an unfamiliar situation. More importantly, in my opinion, is that shared interests offer opportunities to meet new people in your new country. If you are truly passionate about your interest(s) and search out like-minded people, new doors will open to you.