Culture Shock: How to Cope with International Travel

There are many issues that Americans face when it comes to International travel, especially if you will be staying in a foreign country for several weeks or months. Far from home, you are forced to integrate yourself in an unfamiliar culture without the comforts of home, which can be overwhelming at times. Most people suffer from symptoms of culture shock when they travel or move internationally, so you should know that you aren’t alone. Culture shock can be somewhat intimidating, so here are a few ways to deal. Essentially, culture shock occurs as a result of disorientation with new surroundings. You’ve transplanted yourself from the familiar into completely unknown territory, and it isn’t the big things — like language barriers and confusing road maps — that affect international travelers the most. It is the things that you don’t expect which tend to throw you for a loop. You expect to have trouble understanding the locals, but have you considered the timetables of stores and restaurants? What about the way in which people conduct business? How about etiquette? How about the most basic thing such as having a coffee – actually we have a drink for this one just grab a zojirushi travel mug and you’ll be sorted!

There are five basic stages of culture shock, so here is a brief explanation and a few tips to deal with each:

Stage 1: Honeymoon

The first stage of culture shock lasts for about two days and isn’t the nightmare you might imagine. The honeymoon stage is the feeling of excitement and intrigue that everyone experiences when visiting a new country. You’re in awe of everything around you and you still feel connected to life back home. You might call your parents or your friends to touch bases, but you’re so preoccupied with the sights, smells and sounds of your new surroundings that you don’t have the time or the inclination to feel homesick.

Don’t allow the honeymoon stage of culture shock take its hold. While you should feel excited and you should anticipate all of the things you’ll see and do, give yourself a chance to relax and unwind. Your nerves will likely be taut and you’ll be exhausted by the time you fall into bed at night, so avoid coffee before bed time and try to eat your meals in your apartment or hotel.

Stage 2: Distress

The distress stage of culture shock often starts after you call home for the first time and fail to get an answer. You start to realize how far you are from home and how disconnected you truly are from the familiar. People prone to panic attacks will often begin to experience them now because you feel as though you lack a support system. The things about which you were so excited yesterday become scary and intimidating and you aren’t sure you can handle it.

When the distress stage of culture shock kicks in, it might help to look through photographs of your family or of your home in the States. Try not to schedule any business meetings or sight-seeing trips, but don’t stay locked away in your hotel, either. Try short excursions to a coffee shop or restaurant down the street and take a short walk in the immediate area to start to acclimate yourself. Baby steps are the key here.

Stage 3: Scorn

The scorn stage of culture shock is usually the longest and most difficult to shake. You’re no longer sad or scared or intimidated; instead, you’re scornful of everything around you. It seems ludicrous that you ever wanted to come here in the first place and you can’t believe you though you’d enjoy yourself. The people — who used to seem exciting and exotic — now seem ridiculous and rude and annoying. You don’t want to try the food or sample the wine or visit the tourist sights; the new place seems quite inferior to what you had at home.

The scorn stage is completely normal and you shouldn’t be angry at yourself for feeling the way you do. Traveling internationally is stressful and adjusting to the unfamiliar can be a painful process. Help yourself recover from this stage faster by finding things you do like about your new surroundings. Find something that charms you or excites you or makes you feel more at home.

Stage 4: Autonomy

The fourth stage of culture shock is autonomy, in which you start to get over your prejudices and insecurities and find things that you like about your new surroundings. You might still be a little nervous or uncomfortable, but you start to see things in a new light. You’re adjusting to the commute to work and to the cultures and customs that define this country.

Stage 5: Acceptance

The final stage of culture shock comes soon after autonomy and is the beginning of your new life. Depending on how long you’ll be staying in the foreign country, you might only get to enjoy acceptance for a few weeks, but it will be a relief. You’ve familiarized yourself with the culture of the foreign country and you no longer feel threatened by your ignorance of the way of life. You’ve gotten a handle on how things are done and you’re even experimenting with new things. This is the healthiest stage and everyone reaches it.

When traveling internationally, you can expect culture shock to come part-and-parcel with all of the other headaches of travel or moving. If you’re traveling with a friend or colleague, you can help one another by talking about your fears and insecurities to make it go faster.

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