“Culture shock may never end!”
This encouraging remark is a summation of statements I have heard from immigrants to the US from various parts of the world, including my parents who both have lived in the US for more than 50 years and still don’t feel completely American despite their best attempts at raising my sister and I American so we would blend in better. (By the way, I am being sarcastic about the ‘encouraging’ part.)
Maybe that’s why I had to come to India. No, that’s why I was destined to come to India. I had to feel how it really, truly and deeply feels to come to a completely different world- a world I’d feel alien and try to understand it, blend in and feel comfortable.
Is this possible?
To trackback- is it possible to feel completely comfortable and culture-shock free even in America the country of my birth? To that, I’d answer a resounding NO. That may shock people, but if we all look deeply and truthfully at our lives to say that things never change – that we never face personal transitions or even societal transitions we’d be denying a very real and palpable reality. A living culture, and individuals in that culture, can only be living as they evolve and change. Some changes are good – and some are not always welcome.
Some changes can be downright impossible to accept, agree to and adapt to. This is when the true culture shock sets in. And, when we are out of our native environment, this culture shock is magnified exponentially!
How to Face Culture Change
Many culture shock experts advice to focus only on the positive and stop complaining about the negative. Easier said than done.
As I am facing culture shock living in India a second time, I began to question this. Is this realistic? Is this good for my mental health? Is this very idea of thinking positive forcing me to remain in culture shock?
Reviewing my own life and professional experiences; especially those experiences giving therapy and coaching to those medically diagnosed with mental health disorders (depression, bipolar, ADHD, autism, schizophrenia and others), I was reminded that though it is not good to always be negative it is equally unhealthy to be in denial also. Extreme negativity and extreme denial cause true mental disorders. I also do not believe positive thinking or positive affirmations work in all situations. If these affirmations are used for the express reason of denying the reality to avoid being negative to release tension this is also not healthy.
Culture Shock Inherently is by Nature a Problem
So, if you are facing culture shock, it’s most likely because you are unable to handle something negative that happened to you when living, working, studying, visiting or interacting in relationships with those abroad.
To validate this statement, how many complain of culture shock when they are comfortable, things are good, and they enjoy the thrill of change and difference?
Not many, I suppose. So, if you have culture shock, it is because you ARE having some problem with your surroundings, the social customs or other practical issues of your new surroundings. The very nature of problem for most of us is negative. Since we often want to avoid negative feelings; we decide to gloss over this or sugar coat it with positive affirmations. When we choose to always look on the bright side, we fail to dig deeper into the culture to find out the truth about what is going on. Local people may not want to hear about it; but at the same time, if we deny what is happening to us and ‘shove it under the rug,’ the person we hurt most is ourselves. This means we live in denial and become a victim of our surroundings.
Benefits of Complaining
Complaining can be good to get the feelings and anger out. Complaining, like anything else in life must be done with moderation. If the complaining forces us into a place of an ‘us vs. them’ mentality or isolation or inability to cope with our new surroundings, we need to stop complaining and use our energies to find out about the local culture, why things are happening the way they do and see how we can adjust to it. Yes, this is not always easy. Most people do not think about why do they or do not do things; often it is ‘just my culture.’ That being said if we use our investigatory skills and keenly observe things and try to think about things from different angles (always asking “Why does someone behave like that?”) we may find the real answer to the situation. If we don’t find an answer, we may at least gain empathy and sympathy for the local situation; a different kind of understanding than we had before.
Disadvantages of Positive Affirmations
Sugar coating, glossing over and using positive affirmations in excess is also unhealthy. Firstly, positive affirmations may in some cases do nothing more than give us an inflated ego, which is not useful when facing culture shock. Rather than inflate our egos at these moments, we should humble ourselves and try to see things from their point of view. Be like the baby who is absorbing her environment and simply observe the world around us. Of course, as adults, we don’t want to revert back to baby-hood, it could hurt our egos, but in times like this (extreme culture shock) this technique reaps tremendous benefits. I am not saying this as a coach and social worker with research books to back me up; I am saying this as a person who has experienced culture shock in India and has personally used this technique with success. Denying the reality also will only “help” for so long. I put help in quotes because it really only appears to help. It’s all a big illusion. Think about any problem you have faced in your life (not only culture shock). Did you ever deny any problem you faced? Did you ever deny aspects of any situation you faced because the reality was too painful? Be honest! We are all human and most people are guilty of this, even if they never will admit it publicly. It’s ok. First admit it to yourself. Do you remember what happened when you denied the situation? Did it get worse or better? How or when did it resolve itself? In most cases, such issues only get resolved once we are brutally honest with ourselves, admit we are in denial, face the harsh reality and actively find solutions to get over the problem at hand.
All these things are NOT easy. I know. I like any human, like you, have faced all kinds of problems in my own life. Denial never fixed one of those problems. Being overly positive about a clearly negative situation did not help, either. Admitting the problem, facing it head on with bravery (and fear!), and finding solutions did however work – like magic!
Magic, like life is not easy. But surviving culture shock is not either. Some people out of their native environments their entire lives never feel completely at ease or accepted in their adopted homes. But some, some of us braver ones who face the fear of culture shock, adaptation, change and personal growth do find more ease and comfort than those living in denial or the la-la land of positive affirmations.
What path will you take?
I understand those who may really need to hear this message may not find this post. If you know anyone who NEEDS to hear this or NEEDS to interact with a professional coach who has been through culture shock, please forward this post and have them contact me- Jennifer Kumar at email@example.com
Feel free to share your culture shock experiences below.
When did denial hold you back from finding comfort abroad?
When has being positive (denying reality) kept you from moving forward and overcoming culture shock?
Three steps to adapting to new cultural rules and behaviors.
Photo credit: Meredith_Farmer @Flickr. Click on photos for bigger sizes.