Culture shock comes almost immediately—and quite naturally—when you arrive in another country. Culture shock need not become a problem, particularly if you understand and expect it as a normal aspect of adjustment to an unfamiliar culture.
We learn patterns of thinking, living, and relating from the families, communities, and cultures we are raised in. These patterns are automatic and natural, and we seldom stop to define or question them. It may never occur to us that people from other cultural backgrounds would think, live, and relate any differently than we do!
Culture Shock Is Normal and Expected
When first confronted with subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle differences between your culture and Kenya’s culture, you can experience frustration at the ambiguity of it all. It’s like being thrust into a game, knowing you’re expected to play and win, but never having the rules explained. Attempts to communicate may be misunderstood. People’s behavior may seem peculiar and make no sense. When you do not understand another culture’s patterns of behavior, you experience automatic inward responses. These responses are referred to as culture shock.
These responses can be mental, emotional, physical, and/or spiritual. You may experience discomfort—a sense of insecurity or not belonging. You may even feel like you have been reduced to the level of a baby, dependent on others again! The most intelligent, highly skilled individual may feel inadequate in an unfamiliar cultural setting. Interestingly enough, the subtle differences—not the glaringly obvious differences—more often cause stress and frustration.
Underlying the aspects of a culture that are outward (language, dress, food preferences, behaviors) are the values of a culture. An individual’s outward behavior is often based on some cultural value.
Keys to Dealing with Culture Shock
Recognize that culture shock is a normal, human response to plunging into an unfamiliar cultural setting. You can deal with culture shock and maintain effectiveness in relationship building at the same time.
Writer Peter Adler described culture shock as “the very heart of the cross-cultural learning experience.” Dealing with culture shock forces you to reflect on yourself and your culture, resulting in a new understanding of your values, beliefs, and behaviors.
Recognize that the depth and duration of culture shock will vary. It varies from person to person—depending upon temperament and previous experience with adjusting to change—and from situation to situation—depending upon the cultural distance between the host culture and your own.
Accept the host culture’s living patterns. Your host culture may have a long history and values that its people are used to or feel they have been well-served by.
Recognize that different is not necessarily wrong, nor is it inferior. By maintaining this attitude, you will remain open to others and ready to learn—rather than closed and ready to judge. This is the right relationship-building attitude!
Accept that the host culture is imperfect, as is your own. Biblical principles are the standard by which every human culture is measured, and therefore each one is imperfect.
Avoid comparing the host culture to your own. Avoid making comments that compare or contrast, particularly negative comments, and guard against an attitude of superiority.
Do not talk about finances. When talking to the nationals, do not mention money in any way. Do not talk about how much it cost you to come on the trip, how you raised the money, how much we make back home compared to how much the nationals make, how much things cost at home compared to there. It’s best not to mention money in any way.
Step out in friendship. Don’t let cultural barriers—even language barriers—keep you from making friends with nationals. You will be amazed how far a smile and some “charades” will go! You can get involved in games or work projects, doing things side by side and developing camaraderie.
Smile! Always smile when meeting people. Do not wait for them to smile first. Take the first step and you will find that they will respond positively.
Shake hands at every opportunity. The handshake is a great friendship gesture. You will win many confidences by simply shaking hands. Children especially like to shake hands and will be disappointed if you overlook them.
Do not make fun of anyone or anything. Laugh with them—never at them! People never appreciate being made fun of. In fact, it could cause resentment toward you and the rest of the team.
Be friendly. Go out of your way to be as friendly as possible to everyone! Wave at people along the highways and streets. Be especially friendly to the children.
Do not pity them. You will see poverty, hunger, poor dress, sickness, deplorable sanitary conditions and more. Ignore their condition and love the people. Accept them as they are and let Christ be seen in you.
Enter the host culture as a learner and a servant. Practice your listening skills, and be ready to ask for help when needed. Do not go as the one with all the answers and the right way to do things! That approach automatically builds walls instead of bridges.
Learn some of their language. Even a few words will help!
Give yourself time to adjust. Realistically, adjustment happens slowly over the course of months and years. Simply adjust as much as you can during your time on the field.
Recognize that being a Christian will not shield you from experiencing culture shock. God is not only interested in the result of your ministry on the field, but He is also very interested in the process of transforming you into His likeness. His Word makes clear that He brings good into our lives even through frustrating and difficult circumstances. He can use the natural cultural adjustment process to shape you and make you more flexible, open, sensitive, and freer from monocultural constraints.
Maintain a balance of appreciation for your culture versus the host culture. Occasionally, someone totally rejects his or her own culture in favor of another. This response is psychologically and emotionally unhealthy, because it is actually impossible to totally divorce from one’s own culture. Each individual is a product of his or her culture, and those who turn their back on their culture will experience frustration in the effort to leave behind their very foundations and build new ones. Build and maintain a balance of appreciation for what is good within one’s own culture and what is good in the host culture.
What is the bottom line? Culture shock is not something to be feared or avoided. It is part of your growth as a person and a disciple of Jesus Christ.