6 Culture Shocks and How to Handle Them

There are multiple layers to culture shock, but unique aspects of this universal expatriate experience arise while on quick trips back to our home countries.

Going from this:djibouti street culture shock

To this:

New York Street culture shock

That’s bound to produce some culture shock.

I recently spent a week in New York City, where the temperature was 70 degrees colder, the food twenty degrees more expensive, and the city filled with more people than all of Djibouti and Somalia combined. There were tunnels under the ground and buildings higher than four stories. There was food that wasn’t really food, advertised in big red flashing lights: McDonalds McDonalds McDonalds. There were people dressed in costumes and Christmas wrapping paper already on sale. Everything felt new and loud and bright and vaguely familiar, but also slightly exotic. It was a week of sensory overload.

Culture shock has many layers, and on a short trip like this one, it is often the external surface things that can cause the most confusion and consternation.

What are some of the biggest (surface) causes of culture shock? Here are five and tips on dealing with them.

  • Food 1 of 14
    mcdonalds

    There is food that is not really food, and it comes in blinking, shiny, loud places, wrapped in paper and consumed by many. Nothing screamed "AMERICA" more at me during my trip than this lit-up McDonald's sign. I wasn't even slightly tempted, but somehow the sign still contributed to an increased awareness of my now foreign nature.

  • English 2 of 14
    english signs

    Speaking your native tongue. Sometimes words just don't come, and you have to filter through two or three other languages before the right ones come out. Also, everyone else speaks English. Now no conversation is private. When you've practiced tuning out conversations in foreign languages, the sudden onslaught of understandable words can be too much stimulation. This also means your own conversations are understood.

  • Clothing 3 of 14
    naked cowgirl

    The way people dress. Every country, every city even, has its own sense of fashion. It might be black abayas and face veils in Qatar, or brightly colored and sequined flowing dresses in Djibouti, or blue jeans and sweatshirts in Minnesota. Or it might be a naked cowgirl in Times Square (her words, not mine).

  • Weather 4 of 14
    weather

    The weather. Significant changes in altitude or temperature or sunniness/cloudiness, as well as the time of the sunrise and sunset, can be hard to adjust to. Or not — I had no trouble getting used to the colors of leaves and their crunchiness on sidewalks. But maybe my obvious delight made me stick out to others as I leapt from crunch to crunch and caught falling leaves in the air, exclaiming about the colors around every corner.

  • Money 5 of 14
    money

    Money and how to handle it. No more bargaining, but instead knowing when to tip and how much. And making conversions in your head and being worried that the credit card company will put a hold on the card when they see charges from airports and cities all across the globe.

    Image source: Flickr

  • Choices 6 of 14
    choices

    All the choices in restaurants and stores. Expats are the people standing in Starbucks and reading every single word on the menu. They are the ones waving people ahead of them. The ones the cashiers eventually ask, "Can I help you?" and the expat responds, "Yes, please. Make a recommendation." And then the expat orders that exact recommendation. They are the ones who spend thirty minutes in the chip aisle when their mother-in-law sent them on one quick errand.

    Image source: Flickr

  • 7 Tips… 7 of 14
    culture shock tips
  • Don’t Stare 8 of 14
    stare

    Don't stare. Okay, look a little bit. Curiosity, when non-judgmental, is how we learn about the world. But don't necessarily conform either. I didn't cover my face in Qatar, and I didn't stroll around Times Square in my bikini. I'm kind of a blue jeans type of gal no matter where I live.

    Image source: Flickr

  • Be Prepared 9 of 14
    pack well

    Be prepared. Pack more socks than you think you'll need if going someplace cold. I had to wash in hotel sinks. Borrow. A long black London Fog coat and pair of gloves saved me when the temperature dropped 70 degrees from my normal.

    Image source: Flickr

  • Language Refuge 10 of 14
    speak french

    Sometimes we resort to French or Somali, just to create some sound space, a kind of family private place. Don't assume that just because someone is speaking English they are talking to you or about you. It's okay to stammer around for a bit; the tongue will loosen up, the brain will release the words. Be patient.

    Image source: Flickr

  • Ask, Learn, Teach 11 of 14
    tipping

    The price is the price, just ask about tipping etiquette. And the money is really small and lightweight, like toy money. Don't lose it. Here's a chance to prepare your kids for any Americanized school tests they might take. Mine failed the math portion of their first standardized exam, because they didn't know the coins.

    Image source: Flickr

  • Be Patient 12 of 14
    english signs

    Take your time. Read all the words. You want to order something you'll like, eat the cereal you like. But also don't be afraid to ask for advice. Let someone toss a bag of Fritos into your car,t and don't look back.

  • Enjoy 13 of 14
    enjoy

    Overall, enjoy the trip. Don't let culture shock strip away the opportunity to suck down a pumpkin spice latté or fear of being a fashion pariah inhibit your ability to be productive at the meetings for which you came. Laugh about your English, especially when your Israeli taxi driver says you have a French accent. And go nuts with the Fritos. Or whatever your tastebuds are craving. Because remember the most important expat travel tip of all, click through to the last slide...

    Image source: Flickr

  • Best Tip 14 of 14
    eat while traveling

    When on trips to your home country of less than one week, food has zero calories, even if your personal cravings lead to that red, shiny McDonald's. If I can crave candy corn, you can crave a Big Mac.

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