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Culture and Customs:
Living Abroad Can Be (Culture) Shocking

Country mailboxes American style Walkabout Language Learning™ works well when you live in another country. Even if you've had cross cultural training, living abroad brings you face-to-face with a different culture and customs. These differences can seem interesting and quaint at first, but as you realize they are part of daily living, they can create subtle (or not so subtle) conflict in your routine and you may experience culture shock. Even if you have cross cultural training, intercultural communication can tricky. Click on the links on the right to read personal stories about different countries, or visit our "Culture Corner" to read more about cultural diversity.

Culture shock is a poorly understood term. When I've heard people mention it, they seem to refer to observable differences between countries--like this sample collected from the internet:

"My Polish fiance just came to the US. First time ever. Talk about Culture Shock! He can't get over these 4-way stop signs! Mailboxes on the side of the roads and nobody steals the mail! I live in the rural area and never lock the house. I don't even know where the key is; he doesn't get it! Nobody fences in yards! My horses sleep outside at night! Cars have air-conditioning! Hot water is on the left! Everybody stops at a stop sign even when there is nothing coming! And the list goes on and on.

"I'm taking him to church today. He'll freak out when he sees carpets and bathrooms in a church!" (Polish Forums Krysia Apr 22, 07, 07:01 - edited for length and English convention)

While these definable differences make up part of the culture shock experience, it is often the less noticeable aspects of a culture and customs that cause the greatest problems. I call it cultural diversity's dirty little secret. No one tells you that after you get used to the noticeable differences, such as driving on the other side of the road, living without air-conditioning, or eating with your fingers, you will still experience a wide range of emotions. Experiencing cultural diversity when you are the "outsider" may make you question your value system, which could evoke uncomfortable emotions.

Nearly everyone living in a foreign culture experiences culture shock. L. Robert Kohls has written a wonderful book that explains culture shock, details its different phases, and provides suggestions for overcoming it. It is called Survival Kit for Overseas Living. It is a good cross-cultural training handbook. I highly recommend it.

Officially, culture shock is the disorientation experienced when learning to live with a new culture and customs. In this case, culture refers to “the total way of life of a group of people. It includes everything that a group of people thinks, says, does, and makes … its shared system from generation to generation.” (Kohls 1979, p. 17) Different cultures value different things. To improve your intercultural communication skills, you need to understand what culture shock means. Kalvero Oberg first diagnosed it this way:

“The (cultural) signs and clues include the thousand and one ways in which we orient ourselves to the situation of daily life: when to shake hands and what to say when we meet people, when and how to give tips how to make purchases, when to accept and when to refuse invitations, when to take statements seriously and when not …” (Kohls, p. 68)

Prepared to welcome culture shock Culture shock almost always catches you off guard. When my aunt and uncle served as a Peace Corps volunteers in Kenya, they had been told during cross cultural training that they would experience culture shock. My uncle explains, that in his enthusiasm to make the most of his experience, he sat down, and opened the front door to welcome it. He planned to E-X-P-I-E-R-E-N-C-E Kenya, culture shock and all. The only problem was that it came in the back door. My uncle complained that he never saw it coming until it was over, only in retrospect did he realize that he had been experiencing culture shock.

When a person comes head to head with a new culture and customs, and particularly with new values, it can be uncomfortable because our basic beliefs about good and bad, right and wrong, polite and rude are deeply rooted. L. Robert Kohls describes living in a intercultural communication as a game:

“Living in a foreign culture is like playing a game you've never played before and for which the rules haven't been explained very well. The challenge is to enjoy the game without missing too many plays, while learning the rules and developing the skills as you go along.” (Kohls, p. 73)

Culture shock can lead to some embarrassing embarrassing situations. Take a moment to listen to this audio file, "How to overcome the obstacles of fear, embarrassment and anxiety."

To help myself get the cross cultural training I need and to learn the culture and customs of the country I plan to visit, I buy a book about the country that I plan to visit. Most large bookstores have books about intercultural communication in specific countries. A more economical approach is to purchase a "CultureGram." CultureGrams writes 10-15 page cultural summaries of countries around the world. CultureGrams also offer summaries of many less-traveled countries.

Of course, the best way to really understand the culture of your host country is to learn the language. Follow our Walkabout Language Learning method to get there. For additional ideas, check out Ultimate Language Secrets by Owen Lee. We've read it; it has great ideas to turbo boost your language learning.

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Cultural Diversity

Culture, with us, ends in headache.

--Ralph Waldo Emerson

Cultural Diversity

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