Culture shock can be described as the disorientation a person may feel when experiencing an unfamiliar way of life due to immigration or a visit to a new country, or to a move between social environments. [note]
Culture shock is primarily a question of identity and of understanding, which is a painful and hard process because – no matter what – most books written about the subject can hardly help individuals cope with concrete problems that arise during their life abroad. Culture shock is the experience of something unusual and distressing that would not happen, or would not happen with the same frequency, in the cultural environment one is familiar with. A minor example of this are table manners.
I went to restaurants in Asia where people spit bones on the table. Though this might also happen in Europe, I would say it is quite rare, and actually I’ve never seen it. It is mostly considered inappropriate to put your food remains on the table. On the other hand, in Europe smoking is allowed in places where it is not allowed in Taiwan. On university campuses in Taipei, smoking is prohibited. In Europe, not only is it permitted, but until a few years ago in some countries people could smoke inside high-school buildings! (and I remember seeing a lot of students smoke when I was in junior high-school…). Again, it’s not a question of superiority or inferiority, but of difference and of knowledge. If you know a habit, you might dislike it, but it won’t shock you. Culture shock is a feeling of dislike increased by surprise.
The reason why some people react with disgust or contempt when they see certain habits is not only or necessarily because they disagree with these habits, but also because they are new to them and so particularly conspicuous. There are travellers who, when criticizing allegedly odd habits of their host country, don’t even think of all the disgusting things in their home country, because the latter are familiar to them, so that they tend to consider them more “normal”. I was stunned when some Taiwanese told me they think Germany is dirtier than Taiwan. Probably, they don’t think that dirty night markets, street restaurants or building facades are disgusting, but when they see a drunk German teenager pee on the street of the city centre on a Saturday night, they might feel appalled, believing Germans don’t know what hygiene means. The fact that people, especially young people, urinate on the street at night after getting drunk in pubs or clubs is widely tolerated in Germany, or at least, in some parts of it, like Berlin (and now someone will say that Berlin “is not Germany”, but that’s another topic).
Culture shock is often related to a contrast between home country versus host country. For many people, travelling is a way to escape from something – from a failed relationship or marriage, stress at work, pressure from the family and so on. In certain cases, travelling can be construed as a quest for happiness, self-development, self-discovery, etc. Therefore, the host country chosen to be the place where one can escape from reality is often idealized. It is a better world where one doesn’t have to face the difficulties and the problems of the home country. I think of the novel by Elizabeth Gilbert “Eat Pray Love.” Interestingly enough, in the introduction of the book, the author-narrator describes how miserable her life had become and how she couldn’t bear it any longer. After realizing that she didn’t love her husband and didn’t want to be a mother, she goes through a painful divorce, a painful relationship, and on top of all that, she loses almost all of her money. The solution is, of course, to go travelling. It is the perfect journey. Since her editor has agreed to give her a large sum of money to go travelling so that she can write about her experiences when she comes back, she has no financial worries. She spends a few months in Italy, India and Bali. Long enough to enjoy the good and interesting aspects of life in those new places, but not long enough to have a real life full of daily problems. In Italy, for instance, she mainly enjoys food, but she also meets a lot of friends and has fun with them. Gilbert’s stay in Italy is what we can call the “honeymoon” phase of a stay in a foreign country. Let’s talk about that for a moment.
The Four Phases of Culture Shock
When I came to Taiwan I was really enthusiastic. I had heard a lot of great things about Taiwan before coming here, which had given me a “positive” bias towards this island. But as time went by, I realized that there were many things that made me feel bad or that I didn’t like. I think that my stay in Taiwan is a good example of the four phases of culture shock: honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment and mastery.
“During this period, the differences between the old and new culture are seen in a romantic light. For example, in moving to a new country, an individual might love the new food, the pace of life, and the locals’ habits. During the first few weeks, most people are fascinated by the new culture. They associate with nationals who speak their language, and who are polite to the foreigners. This period is full of observations and new discoveries. Like most honeymoon periods, this stage eventually ends.
“After some time (usually around three months, depending on the individual), differences between the old and new culture become apparent and may create anxiety. Excitement may eventually give way to unpleasant feelings of frustration and anger as one continues to experience unfavorable events that may be perceived as strange and offensive to one’s cultural attitude. Language barriers, stark differences in public hygiene, traffic safety, food accessibility and quality may heighten the sense of disconnection from the surroundings.
Still, the most important change in the period is communication: People adjusting to a new culture often feel lonely and homesick because they are not yet used to the new environment and meet people with whom they are not familiar every day. The language barrier may become a major obstacle in creating new relationships: special attention must be paid to one’s and others’ culture-specific body language signs, linguistic faux pas, conversation tone, linguistic nuances and customs, and false friends.
In the case of students studying abroad, some develop additional symptoms of loneliness that ultimately affect their lifestyles as a whole. Due to the strain of living in a different country without parental support, international students often feel anxious and feel more pressure while adjusting to new cultures—even more so when the cultural distances are wide, as patterns of logic and speech are different and a special emphasis is put on rhetoric.
This is the period during which one starts to develop problem-solving skills for dealing with the host culture. In this phase, one searches for ways to cope with the new reality, the outcome of this quest depending on the individual. Reactions to the new environment can be, among others:
- Excessive sleep
- Compulsive eating/drinking
- Stereotyping host nationals
- Hostility towards host nationals [note]
During the adjustment phase the individual defines his relationship to the host country, whereby the outcome differs in every single case. Generalizing, one might say that the two opposite reactions are rejection or acceptance (mastery). In the case of rejection, the consequence might be the decision of leaving the host country, or a deep resentment towards the host country.
In the mastery stage people are able to integrate in the host culture. The extent to which integration occurs, varies strongly in every single case.
Between Love and Hostility – Prejudice, Stereotype, Observation
A couple of weeks ago I had a quite fierce argument with a fellow blogger. He said that one of the purposes of his blog is to refute prejudices and stereotypes, but I thought that he was stereotyping himself and ignoring other people’s opinion (which he described as biased). I think that in most conversations about this topic it is quite easy to end up in vague statements such as “you cannot generalize”. Which is one of the main reasons why it’s so hard to say anything at all about any country or people. If you say “Chinese are polite”, you will also find people asserting the opposite. Basically, there is hardly a single statement that one can make about a country that won’t be refuted by someone else.
Now, if generalizing is so bad and pointless, probably you can’t talk about a culture or a people, because it’s impossible to avoid generalization. That’s why I suggest to make a distinction between prejudice, stereotype and observation.
The word prejudice comes from the Latin verb “praejudicio”, which means “pre-judge”. Prejudice is “a set of affective reactions we have toward people as a function of their category memberships.” [see: David Schneider: The Psychology of Stereotyping. New York / London 2004, p. 27].
The word stereotype is a modern coinage, entering the English language in the late 17th century. It derives from the Greek words “stereos” (solid) and “typos” (model, pattern). The initial meaning of the term referred to a metal plate used to print pages. In the 18th century its meaning began to apply to solid behaviour patterns, and it was not until the 20th century that journalist Walter Lippmann first made an extensive use of the term in its contemporary meaning [see: Schneider 2004, p. 8].
A stereotype can be described as “a positive or negative set of beliefs held by any individual about the characteristics of a group of people. It varies in its accuracy, the extent to which it captures the degree to which the stereotyped group members possess these traits, and the extent to which the set of beliefs is shared by others.” [J.M. Jones: Prejudice and Racism (2nd edition). New York 1997, p.170].
The difference between prejudice and stereotype is that the first is an affective pre-judgement often based on past experiences, while the latter is based on the process of categorization.
Both prejudice and stereotype, though they often have a negative meaning, are basic tools of our cognition process. If I go to the cinema, watch a horror movie and dislike it, I might choose not to go and watch another horror movie. This is a prejudice – I haven’t watched all horror movies, but based on my past experience I tend to think I dislike the genre.
Stereotyping is a form of categorization which is almost inevitable. If I meet many Italian people who are emotional, I will tend to think that Italian people are emotional.
Nevertheless, prejudice and stereotype have a low level of accuracy. For example, how can I have an opinion about Germans, Italians, Chinese etc. if in my own lifetime I won’t even meet 1% of the total population? Perhaps I’ve met two or three stingy Italians, but can I say all Italians are stingy?
Observations, on the contrary, are based on and limited to particular cases. The Oxford English Dictionary defines observation as “the action or process of observing something or someone carefully or in order to gain information.” I will use the word observation in this everyday meaning.
Now, observations are extremely important when you try to know more about your host country.
For instance, if a girl goes to Italy she will probably meet some men on the street who whistle at her or call her “bella” (beauty). Well, this is a simple observation and if someone has met such people it’s obvious that this memory will always be associated with their image of Italy. However, it is not legitimate to infer that all Italians are like this. Observation is necessary, but observations should not turn into stereotypes or prejudices.