Adapting to Culture Shock

Culture Shock

Many people who enter and live in a new culture for more than a month experience what has been labeled “culture shock.” This means the newcomer will experience feelings such as not belonging, alienation, unworthiness or inadequacy and may lose touch with his or her own real feelings. In many ways, the person will be experiencing real mental distress but what must be recognized is that culture shock is a normative process. It is something we all may experience to a greater or lesser degree.

We do experience culture shock differently, however.

From: ACTION Pamphlet 4200.14, May’76, “Adapting Overseas in the Peace Corps”

I think it is safe to say that just about everyone on this planet has been impacted by the COVID-19 Pandemic by now. Lives have been upended and people are reactive. People are coping with this reality for the most part the best that they can (I will not condone those who think it is productive to show up to the Michigan or Illinois State Capital with AK-47s, however) and while everyone is coping differently, the one thing we are all experiencing is culture shock on a mass scale as we deal with our new realities.

For the past two months, Recovery on Water, my rowing team, has been taking their mission of providing fitness and social connection for breast cancer survivors very seriously and bridging this mission with the virtual world. Besides virtual exercise classes, there have been numerous other options for team members such as nutrition classes and social events. There has also been a Monday night support group for the past couple of weeks called Coping with COVID and I’ve attended both sessions.

I realized this week that as I’ve been working to put my COVID experience in perspective, I have been pulling on my coping skills that I learned as a Peace Corps Volunteer nearly 30 years ago as I figured out how to deal with culture shock. Case in point is attending any kind of ‘coping’ group: prior to Peace Corps, I had never been part of one. During my time on Antigua as a PCV Language Arts Teacher, our Language Arts team met at least once a month with our Associate Peace Corps Director, Elnora. I suppose it was a work meeting, but it was also a chance for all of us to get together and support one another as we made our individual ways through our service. Advice I gained from those meetings, I still share today–and it wasn’t the ‘this is how to teach language arts better’ variety. It was advice on how to adapt to a new culture. When I am looking for my translators, my bridges? This was advice I learned at these PC Language Arts meetings.

When I sought out and attended the American Cancer Society’s breast cancer support group following my speedy cancer treatment in New Orleans, I was looking for support not only in my actually coping with my breast cancer treatment, but I was also seeking support from local women who could help me feel more a part of the New Orleans community and culture. I needed a depth of support that my younger, non-local, colleagues could not offer because culturally, they could not relate to what I was experiencing. While not resolving all of my issues with adapting to my new membership in the cancer community, it did help.

Not only have support groups helped in adjusting to new cultures, but so has “a familiarity with the stages of cultural adjustment.”

International organizations break down culture shock and cultural adaptation in to 4 or 5 different stages. My Peace Corps Paperwork includes 4 stages and you can click these links for details: Stages of Cultural Adaptation and Stages of Cultural Adaptation page 2 . Summarized they are:

  1. Fascination/Exploration
  2. Frustration/Withdrawal
  3. Re-emergence/Experimentation
  4. Reconciliation/Adaptation

Over at the international organization Participate Learning, they define the 4 Stages of Culture Shock as: honeymoon, frustration, adjustment and acceptance. Both Participate and Peace Corps are saying similar things and so look at the initial stage as being ‘lighter’ (many of my students saw the initial couple of weeks of remote learning as a big snow storm shutting everything down and letting them off the hook with work); the second stage as being frustrating (the couple of weeks where I was feeling particularly ‘prickly‘); the third stage as adjustment and experimentation (trying to learn how to use all of this new technology!) and the final stage as reconciliation or acceptance. I’m not quite where I want to be with Stage 4, but I’ve spent some time this past week feeling that acceptance is eventually possible.

***One thing I also remember is that these different stages are not always linear and that you can cycle through again even though you might have reached acceptance.***

“The trick, of course, is to find ways to satisfy our needs in situations where our previous sources and techniques for need-satisfaction are impossible or inappropriate to employ.” ACTION Pamphlet 4200.14, May ’76, “Adapting Overseas in the Peace Corps”

Here are some of the suggestions they gave that you might find helpful in adapting to our current situation:

And finally, signs that I am adjusting to this new reality:

2 thoughts on “Adapting to Culture Shock

  1. Pingback: Weekly Round-Up | Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer

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