This is What Culture Shock Feels Like (+ How to Help)

When a person goes through culture shock, they feel as though someone changed all the rules to the “game of life” but didn’t give them an instruction manual, so they have to bumble around and figure it out as they go, like a child.

Culture shock can, as you might expect, be a combination of confusing and humiliating and demoralizing. It ebbs and flows like grief, with some moments being easier than others, and some moments being unexplainably agonizing, with no linear path through the experience.

(Some have given a model that shows a process of honeymoon, frustration, adjustment and acceptance, and these are helpful descriptors, but in reality the process may look a lot more jumbled than a straight line from stage to stage.)

Indeed, culture shock is a kind of grief. I remember worshipping in an international church in Addis Ababa and being overcome with the weight that all the immigrants around me were carrying and trying to release to God as they sang—the fact that all of them were sad in different ways though they were trying to move through the sadness. It struck me that they were—and I was—grieving, because we had lost our mother(land).

So culture shock is losing a mother(land) and dealing with what life looks like without her. This grief can manifest in several ways, but some of the most common symptoms are:

  • withdrawal
  • negative feelings towards the host nation
  • unhealthy coping mechanisms (excessive alcohol, food, tv, etc.)
  • stress/anger/irritability

So, how can you help someone going through culture shock? Let’s look at four practical ways you can help, corresponding to each symptom:

To help someone who’s withdrawing…

Be gently persistent with invitations to get together, go to events, be social. Don’t be put off if your initial invitations are met with legitimate excuses (working, child sick) or not legitimate ones (where it sounds like they’re trying to find a way out of saying yes).

Don’t fall prey to the “Well, I tried…” shrug of the shoulders. You don’t have to be pushy, but be there. Be that person who just doesn’t go away. Who checks in via text or phone (even for 5 minutes). Who knows that they are going through an internal disorientation that many people (including many immigrants going through it) don’t fully understand.

Being a faithful, stable presence is the best gift you can give to someone who is feeling adrift and alone.

To help someone who’s having negative feelings towards the host nation…

Take a deep breath and know that your patriotism can survive criticism (whether deserved or undeserved). Be willing to listen to a different point of view that might have legitimate things to say about problems locals are blind to. Learn from them and affirm where you can. Have a sense of humor and laugh with them about the weird things that they see (i.e. why DO we spend so much money on clothes for our pets??).

Also be willing to listen and gently challenge misunderstandings or unnecessary offence taken. I know how easy it is to misread the situation and be offended when there’s no reason to be—I have had many tearful venting sessions with my Ethiopian husband about perceived slights I experienced on the street in Ethiopia that turned out to be nothing except me reading negative motives where there was only goodwill. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, until a local was kind enough to set me straight.

In the same way, your immigrant friend can’t know what they don’t know unless there is a bridge person (you!) to help connect the confusing cultural dots sometimes. And know that your very presence in your immigrant friend’s life may be doing more than anything else to dispel negative views of the host country/locals.

Why? Because, as humans, we generalize. For example, I have an extremely high view of Singaporeans as being genuinely wonderful people, but when I think about it, I know exactly six of them (four in the same family). I have generalized my feeling about a few friends to the point that I am predisposed to like all of their countrymen.

The same thing works negatively, but I’m going to venture to guess that you are a positive credit to your nationality! Know the power of your individual influence to shift a newcomer’s feelings towards the positive.

To help someone who’s being tempted to engage in unhealthy coping mechanisms…

Engage your friend in conversation about what they miss from their home country. What did they do for fun? What are their favorite memories? Hearing their answers will help you brainstorm healthy coping mechanisms with them. In other words, how could they recreate some aspects of their old favorites in this new place? Establishing “happy places” or “happy practices” will go a long way to helping them feel at home.

To give you a couple of examples, those from crowded urban environments often want to find an urban public space to hang out with lots of other people around, since this is what they are used to (as opposed to the pedestrian-poor, car-laden suburban roads of many university towns in the US). Or someone who enjoyed playing soccer back home could be encouraged to find a group that plays pick-up games in the park or an intramural team on campus.

To help someone who’s dealing with stress/anger/irritability…

Be understanding. That’s all. Understanding what culture shock is and the uncomfortable ways it manifests will help you to not take it personally if and when you see your friend’s negative feelings coming out.

Validate their emotions—“I understand why you feel angry about that. That is really hard.” Be willing to explain any cultural confusion. Brainstorm with them on what they can do (if anything) to accept or improve the situation they find themselves in. Mainly, just be there. Available.

At our core, all any of us want (no matter what culture we’re from) is to know someone’s there for us even when we’re struggling. Being there speaks louder than words ever could.

Your faithful presence is the most powerful way to welcome.

How have you been a friend to someone going through culture shock?

One comment

  1. […] Culture shock is a real and…well…shocking experience that can blindside people who are not    expecting it. I’ve written more about what it feels like in another post, but here’s a good short explanation: when you go through culture shock, you feel as though someone changed all the rules to the “game of life” but didn’t give you an instruction manual, so you have to bumble around and figure it out as you go, like a child. […]


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