Getting over “the shock”: On culture shock and how to handle it

Culture shock. If you’ve ever travelled, you’ve experienced it; if you’ve travelled as much as I have, you have experienced it in all the colours of the rainbow.

I still clearly remember my first major dose of culture shock. Of course I’d travelled before; through my childhood and adolescence I spent plenty of holidays in France in particular, and was used to the concept of things being different from how they are at home. But in 2008 I travelled to Australia, and on the way home stopped in Singapore for a few days. It was my first time in Asia, and (Europe aside) my first trip outside the English-speaking diaspora of the UK, USA and Australia. I was on the Singapore metro, and suddenly looked around me and realised I couldn’t see another face that wasn’t Asian. It hit me like a tidal wave that I was the foreigner here.

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Street corner near my hotel in Taipei, Taiwan. Hard to know what’s going on, but I love the confusion!

Culture shock is something that I’ve come to love, however, and the longer I travel the more dissatisfied I become with places that don’t take me outside my comfort zone. Of course there are many wonderful places close to home, but I love that feeling of the unfamiliar. Sometimes it can still be uncomfortable, though. I don’t think I will ever get used to the constant attention that comes with walking through a souk in the Middle East, or really any location in India. I find it very difficult to shop in any form when I am constantly trying to drown out the sales patter from an over-enthusiastic street vendor, and if the lottery money ever comes through, I’d be sorely tempted to set up a school for “how to sell to tourists” because I am convinced business would be a lot better for these entrepreneurs if they just learned to sit back and let us get on with it. Many times I have walked away from a stall simply because I was getting overwhelmed by the sales pitch.

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Tourist market, Swakopmund, Namibia. I found the attention overwhelming at the time, although I’ve experienced worse since!

It can be hard to shake off feelings of ingrained prejudice, too. Africa is one I am still working on, even though 99% of the people I have met were absolutely lovely. There is constant promotion on TV and in the news that Africa is filled with people who are out to scam you, attack you or kidnap you. I have never once had the feeling that I was genuinely under threat, however I have many times had a sense of fear that was thoroughly unfounded. It frustrates me, but I have learned to stop, consider the situation rationally and then follow my gut instinct even if I think I am being over-cautious. I have probably walked away from situations where I was at no risk (see what happened in Buenos Aires!), but I have a duty to myself and my loved ones not to take that chance.

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Local (non-tourist) market in central Madagascar. I wouldn’t have coped with this a few years earlier; the craziness still makes me uncomfortable but I love the immersion in the local culture.

One issue with travelling across cultures, on the other hand, is the risk that you yourself might do or say something to cause offence. I am currently travelling through Taiwan, and had an incident on day 1 which brought that home to me. Walking through a park, camera out and taking pictures, I climbed the steps to a pagoda to get a better vantage point. A few seconds later I noticed a lady sitting under a tarpaulin on the pagoda bench, clearly sleeping rough. Feeling guilty for charging into her space and waving my expensive camera around, I did something I hardly ever do and tried to give her a small banknote (I normally avoid giving to beggars and prefer to donate to charity instead). It wasn’t much, NT$100 or less than £3, but it was waved away very emphatically. I have a feeling I offended her by making the offer.

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Helpful signposts, Danshuei, Taiwan

Most of the time, though, I love knowing that the place I am visiting has different social norms than I am used to. I find that it is very hard to go wrong with a smile, a bit of sensitivity and a large helping of general good manners. Taiwan is a great example of this; the people here are overwhelmingly polite, friendly and helpful, and I have never yet felt any disapproving glances. My friends will tell you that I am not a quiet person; I am generally pretty loud, so I try to moderate that a bit (easier when you are travelling alone), but I also benefit from the fact that I have blonde hair. I look nothing like a Taiwanese person, so I realised on day 1 that there was no point trying to blend in, and I suspect a lot of allowances are made for me because it is very clear I am a foreigner. This is something that is a definite bonus. A fellow traveller on a previous trip commented that she tends to get judged in Arab countries because she looks local (she is actually half Indian and half Caucasian, born and raised in the UK and with no religious or cultural reasons to dress conservatively), so she has to be more careful with the way she dresses than I would in the same country. For myself, I have had issues in Sweden because I look and dress very much like a Swedish person – fortunately our cultures are fairly similar so the issues have been mainly restricted to language, but it makes me aware of the advantages of looking different.

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Dressed for the mosque, Muscat, Oman. Dressing like a local is fun but can sometimes feel inappropriate; on this occasion, though, it was absolutely what was expected of me

So how would I recommend dealing with culture shock? Here are my top tips:

  1. Be polite. Address people with a smile and a pleasant attitude, and most mistakes will be forgiven.
  2. Leave your expectations on the plane. When you are travelling through a different culture, the normal rules might not apply. You will save yourself a lot of stress if you are already expecting this and have planned in advance to take things as you find them.
  3. Avoid anything too outlandish until you have tested the waters. Look around you: how are people dressed? Ditch the strappy tops if nobody else wears them; throw caution to the wind if that’s what the locals do (that’s you, Brazil!). You’re having an adventure; nobody at home need ever know what you looked like unless you show them the photos.
  4. Do your research. If you know you will be travelling to somewhere culturally different from what you are used to, read the guidebooks and Google your socks off before you leave home. It will help you prepare for many of the differences, and ensure you have brought the right clothes/shoes/attitude for the place you are going to.
  5. Ask. If you’re not sure how something works, or whether something is acceptable, speak to a local. One of the huge advantages of speaking English is that you will nearly always find someone who can understand and help you; if you are met with confused looks and awkward apologies, at least you tried.
  6. Own your own culture. You come from a part of the world where things work differently, and that is nothing to be ashamed of! Clearly rule 3 still applies: look around you first and get an idea of how the locals do it, but it’s ok not to blend in as long as you’re not causing offence. Depending on the number of foreign tourists, you can be source of fascination for the locals, which is kind of fun! (Although I am developing a sense of paranoia here in Taiwan, where my blonde hair means I regularly get stared at. You start to question whether it is simple curiosity, or if they have noticed your shoes don’t really go with your outfit, or whether you spilled something on your tshirt…).

Above all, have fun!

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Amritsar, Indian Punjab. These students asked me for a photo rather than the other way round, but I wasn’t missing the opportunity!

15 Comments

  1. Great post! I have to admit that I’ve not yet visited India or China where I think I would have significant culture shock, but your recommendations are spot on.

  2. I’m currently travelling through Africa and while there definitely is still culture shock, I’ve been off the beaten track slightly and don’t do tours. It does get extremely hectic and hassly in some areas and I struggle to keep the open mind that I started off with. Especially with people trying to make you pay Muzungu prices every 2 steps you take.
    Did you feel the same way in Africa? How do you suggest I get over or deal with them :/

    1. I wish I had a magic wand to deal with the hassle! I usually try to just take a deep breath and remember it’s just how things operate there. I have a tendency to see too much attention as threatening to me, so it helps to remember that it’s not meant to be intimidating even if it feels like it. Otherwise I just avoid eye contact and try not to engage if I’m not feeling up to it… sometimes the only thing you can do is act like you can’t even see them there, even if it feels incredibly rude.

      In terms of getting charged tourist rates, my approach is generally to learn to live with it. Normally things still cost less than they would at home, and it does make some sense that tourist sites are more accessible to local people, not to mention that our income is so much higher than theirs. It’s annoying, but I can sort of understand it! If you can’t afford what they’re charging then walk away, and if they’re that bothered they will change their tune.

      And mostly… remember that it’s normal to feel uncomfortable and overwhelmed at times. It’s not your culture, and that’s why you went in the first place!

  3. Love, love, love this article!!! I completely agree with you, I relish that feeling of the unfamiliar and being out of your comfort zone.

  4. What an honest post! Interestingly enough, my first sense of culture shock wasn’t so much through traveling, but when I first moved from diverse Los Angeles to less diverse South Carolina! I was never so aware of being a minority, haha. But yes I agree that it’s great to get out of your comfort zone!

    1. Oh wow, I can imagine! I moved from the south of England to the north and that was challenging enough as the mentality was so different, but I can only imagine with the minority issue as well! Thanks for commenting!

  5. Those are some helpful tips! As often as I fly back to the Philippines (we go at least every 4-5 years) I still get my dose of culture shock! It’s very different than what I’m used to and I just find myself having to adjust. I haven’t been anywhere that’s super drastic for me as of yet but I’m hoping to in the future 🙂

  6. Great article.! I have never traveled overseas from the US or Canada…but have been to Mexico. I actually experienced it moving from Canada to the US believe it or not! I couldn’t believe all the ignorant questions I would get asked about my country..lol…I learned all about the US in school, but maybe didn’t about my country. Oh well its how it goes!

    Valerie

    1. We get the same in the UK as well, that people know surprisingly little – apart from the people who know all about us and can argue British politics better than I can, haha! I’m sure there’s a fair amount of culture shock involved in going from Canada to Mexico, too – as you’ve discovered, it doesn’t need to involve going very far!

  7. I’m originally from a moderately conservative country, and so I feel like being somewhat in the middle. Normally would read about the culture wherever I’ll be going to be safe but still not enough for me to be culture-shocked. Learning comes with it. Now, I’m living in a different country and I sometimes feel that people around me gets just as shocked when they see some things I do that are part of my culture but I love it. So really, it’s a two way thing and the exchange makes everyone grow 🙂

    1. That’s an interesting perspective Iva, one I’ve not thought of coming from the UK originally, but of course when your own background is more conservative it must be even more important to learn where the boundaries are – what’s normal for the country and when should you start to worry? Thanks for that perspective!

      But yes, I think owning your own culture is so important – it’s part of who we are and helps that two-way dialogue! Thanks so much for commenting… ?

  8. Nice post! I have not yet visited China where I think I will definitely experience culture shock

  9. Great tips! I too am someone who likes to get out of my comfort zone and experience something totally different. Culture shock is kind of exciting. You have some excellent tips for dealing with it too!

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