Help! I'm Suffering Mini Culture Shocks

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Dear Jacob,

I recently read a great quote that reminded me how common culture shock actually is and how, although I should pay attention to it, it doesn’t have to rule my life. In the wise words of Geert Hofstede, “Studying culture without experiencing culture shock is like practicing swimming without water.” (Hofstede & Hofstede, 2005, p. xi) For me, traveling, studying, or living abroad almost always require ‘studying the culture’ as you don’t really want to stick out as a foreigner and especially if you want to try and fit in with what is ‘normal,’ whatever that may be.

Note: While traveling and studying abroad the situation is different than when you are working abroad. However, I would highly recommend checking out this Culture Compass by Hofstede Insights* if you know where you are going and are interested in specific differences you might encounter.

Today I want to dive into how you can identify little things that might cause you culture shock (and you might not even be aware of them) and some tips I have for dealing with them.

How close do you sit with friends? How close do you get to strangers? Both of these are individual preferences influenced by culture.

How close do you sit with friends? How close do you get to strangers? Both of these are individual preferences influenced by culture.

How close people stand or how loud they talk:

Especially if you are planning on spending time in Spain (or other countries with similar cultural tendencies), be prepared to have your personal space invaded. I know that it might make you uncomfortable that someone talks really loud while standing really close to you, but these are two culturally ‘normal’ things here. And it can be difficult to accept things that are different to what you are used to as being okay—hence the term ‘culture shock.’ This is why we talk about culture competences or the ability to adapt to different cultural situations.

All of the culture shocks in this post can be hard to deal with but personal space is something that can really make you feel like you are outside of your comfort zone or even feel unsafe. However, it is hard to know if you should feel threatened by this closeness (it’s not always with the best of intentions in all places), or if you should try to come to terms with the situation and figure out how to make it work for you. As a general rule of thumb, I would suggest always going with your gut, but taking into account how others around you are acting as well. I truly believe that it is ‘normal’ to reject the differences as not being ‘okay’ at first, but try to be open to how people are interacting around you/or with you in different situations.

My story: I will never forget the first time I went out for drinks with my classmates while studying my undergraduate degree here in spain—a guy from my class, José, stood way to close to me and no matter how much I backed up, it felt like he was just following me around. When I later commented this in class (I did study sociology after all), he was shocked and embarrassed that he made me feel this way. Now we are friends.

How straightforward people are:

Depending on where you were born and how you were brought up, you will have different expectations of the types of answers you get from other people. In some cultures, saying ‘no’ is totally acceptable; in other cultures, they will imply the ‘no’ while still saying something that sounds like ‘yes.’ If you are only going to be in a place for a short period of time, this is something that is very difficult to catch on to. However, this can come as a big culture shock when you are expecting something to happen and it doesn’t or you thought you made a rough plan and the other person took it to heart.

If you are going to be traveling or moving abroad, consider doing a little bit of research beforehand on how people communicate. Keep in mind that every individual may have a different reaction to the norm, but having a general overview of what to expect will help keep you on your toes. I wouldn’t recommend completely changing how you make plans, etc., but I would keep it in mind when talking to locals. In addition, paying attention to nonverbal communication can give you some hints to what the person is really thinking.

My story: Having just moved to Finland, there are somethings I expected—like people who communicate less. What I didn’t expect was how true this can be. For example, I am living with a Finn and, while I don’t feel unhappy with the situation at all (in fact, I rather like him as a person), we don’t talk and I don’t ever know what he is thinking—even if I ask directly. Apparently it’s normal...

Things like how easy it is for someone to stop and help you out might surprise you.

Things like how easy it is for someone to stop and help you out might surprise you.

How easy it is to get help:

There are some countries where people are known for being really friendly and will try to take care of you if you are in need. There are also places with opposite stereotypes. And the way we see these places is tied to their cultures and the way locals interact with you (as a traveler or expatriate) can have a big impact on your experience. Needless to say, it is a pretty common and stereotypical culture shock when people go to a new place and they find that people are ‘really welcoming’ or ‘very cold.’ These explanations are just comparisons to what we are used to or what we expect.

At the same time, it is important to know that these generalising stereotypes are exactly that—stereotypes. That means that while a large portion of the population may fit the expectation, many individuals within the same society may behave differently. For example, Spain is known as being more welcoming and friendly than other European countries (say Germany), but I personally know some really incredible Germans who have gone out of their way to make me feel welcome and comfortable.

My story: I personally find that this friendliness (from all kinds of people) makes me feel slightly uncomfortable because I don’t know how to react. People have really gone out of their way to care for me in a variety of situations—in cultures from Brazilian to Turkish to Finnish—and I never really know what to do. This is still something I am working on!

Is the amount of garbage in parks influenced by culture? Probably. (Note: here it was for a Roald Dahl festival and no parks were harmed.)

Is the amount of garbage in parks influenced by culture? Probably. (Note: here it was for a Roald Dahl festival and no parks were harmed.)

How people treat common space:

One of the biggest culture shocks I had when I moved to Spain was how people used and, in my mind, disregarded public spaces. Whether it is the street or a public park or a natural reserve, there always seems to be garbage lying around and people just don’t seem to care. I personally don’t understand how a person can be standing next to a garbage can and throw his empty cigarette package on the ground, but I have seen it happen too many times to count. While the actions make me mad, seeing how different people use public space makes me realize that it is very linked to cultural expectations of that area.

If you are going to be traveling a lot or living abroad, you will soon find that the different ways people of diverse cultural backgrounds view and interact with the public space around them (which is very different to the private space or the home) changes depending on who you are spending time with. As we don’t really tend to question how we treat public areas—we just accept our actions as being ‘normal’ ones—when we are forced to question them in new cultures it can be a shock.

My story: Seeing how people in Spain treat their public spaces shocked me. However, talking about it with them opened my eyes to how they don’t believe it is a problem and how they honestly believe that it is someone else’s responsibility to keep the streets clean. While I don’t agree with this personally, I also don’t think I can tell a large percentage of the population they are inherently wrong.

How people consume food/alcohol/party:

The way we unwind from stressful days and interact with people around us (either loved ones or strangers), is also something that is very cultural and can produce culture shock. You might be used to social drinking and go to a place where it is very obvious that the intention is to get drunk as fast as possible, or the opposite may be true. Or perhaps you are used to having long meals with people in your social group and end up in a country where food is consumed as fuel. Either way, the way we consume food and alcohol in social settings help us define how we interact and create relationships. When this expectation changes, it is hard to know what to do.

Recently talking to a friend who has also moved abroad to Spain we were contemplating how, when we go back the the small town we are from, we cannot keep up with the drinking that people do. As a very social activity in Spain (often accompanied by food), the idea to get drunk by 7pm is almost unthinkable. At the same time, when British or Germans have visited me in Spain, they also think that how much and how fast we drink is pretty slow. When you go from one culture to the next, you might get caught up in how they do things, but this can come as a big shock when you go harder than you expected and end up feeling sick.

My story: This is also true for food. Over Christmas with my adopted (that is, my chosen) Italian family, I didn’t ever know how many dishes there would be and continuously overate to the point of feeling ill. Eventually I learned not to take seconds and was able to do so without feeling rude but just to get to this point was emotionally hard.


These are just a few of the things that you will most likely come across if you spend time with people from other places and/or are traveling abroad. I know that I am constantly checking my reactions to make sure they are appropriate because it is hard to know when something is cultural (almost always) and you don’t want to make the wrong impression for silly reasons.

What are small culture shocks you notice while traveling?

Sincerely,
Spain


*This is one of many different but similar tools you can use. I personally like this one.

Hofstede, G. & Hofstede G. J. (2005). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind. Revised and Expanded 2nd Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill. Get it here!