A Seminar on Culture Shock
The following speech was given at the Bloom Where You're Planted conference in Paris, France in October of 1993 to over 200 attendees -- women who came together to learn about the challenges commonly associated with life, work and family in a foreign country.

"Good Morning and welcome everyone to Bloom Where You're Planted. Every year newcomers like yourselves come here to listen and learn about life in Paris and Bloom is an excellent head start to get you going. The people who have put this program together, those of us who are speaking and conducting the afternoon sessions, even the people who have lived here a couple of years and come back, come here again because we know it works. It works.

Bloom, and orientation programs similar to this, are so very important for people who have moved to foreign countries. It provides you with an opportunity to get more information about Paris, to get to know some other people who live near you, and to hear about the difficult aspect of culture shock. Some of you may be newly arrived here, others already here for a few months, and still others of you may be already experiencing some feelings of culture shock.

What I'm about to talk about may sound a little negative - especially if you've just arrived or if you've never experienced culture shock. But the reason Bloom provides this speech is to help you realize that culture shock is a very normal, and inevitable part of living in a foreign culture. And from here on our, we're here to help you understand it, to teach you ways to get through it, and to show you the many ways to take advantage of your time in Paris.

You see those of us here realize that many of you have left your families and friends or had to put your career on hold - and these are all very important support systems that you need to begin to replace. In addition to having fewer social contacts and support groups, you must now learn to live a cross-cultural life. Meaning it's important to each of us to retain our own identities and keep in touch with our home cultures while also wanting to successfully integrate here as much as possible.

Yet actually accomplishing this is often so very frustrating. I'm talking not only about the overall process of adjusting yourself to a new life but also the technical difficulties of everyday life: the differences in shopping, transportation, and housing can be so stressful that you really begin to wonder if you can do it.

What you need to realize is that this self doubt; these negative feelings that you'll experience, is culture shock and you are not alone in thinking and feeling this way. You may say to yourself- I don't want to know about this, I don't want to think about it - I'm having such a good time here, but the fact is: culture shock is a problem that exists whenever people live in foreign countries, it is a scientific issue that has been researched in order to help people like us better enjoy our time abroad.

So bear with me as we begin to discuss some of the unfortunate consequences that can happen when anyone lives in a foreign culture. And join with me in realizing the strengths that each of us possess to help us overcome these obstacles.

I personally have really had to look at my own strengths just recently as I've moved to Munich 2 months ago and guess what, culture shock is creeping up on me. It's interesting too in that I've lived in 3 different countries at 3 different times in my life under 3 very different circumstances and each time I experienced pretty much the same mundane feeling I'm about to describe.

So we're all in the same boat, or garden I should say, as we really want to Bloom Where We're Planted. Let's begin to understand what experiencing another culture is all about.

The first important concept we need to grasp is that of culture. Culture defined involves 3 things: shared beliefs and experiences, feelings of worth and value attached to those experiences, and a shared interest in a common historical background. Now when we look at these things we can see that the very essence of a culture excludes those who are not born into it - we do not have shared experiences with the French and although we may know of their history and their "culture" we didn't grow up here, we were not a part of it, it is not a thing we have in common.

It shouldn't be surprising then to realize that when you first arrive here you are alienated from that shared experience going on all around you. Now this is with any culture, France in particular, is a little bit more difficult because it is a very tight knit culture. However, it is a common phenomenon to simply not feel a part of it, especially at first and for some of us we never really become a part of it. What you can do though is learn how to cope with it- learn how to stay happy and fulfilled in any unfamiliar place.

It used to be, and this is traditional thinking now, that exposure to unfamiliar cultures was very stressful and that it caused confusion and anxiety, which face it, does sometimes happen. Nowadays, however, the attitude is that living in a foreign culture is beneficial because it broadens ones perspective and promotes personal growth. Which, it does!

You will be exposed to other world views, other ways of life, other politics, etc., and you will learn and grow from these experiences - that's the fascinating part. The reality is that this enhanced insight into your own world view, your own culture, and the positive benefits you will derive from being here most often grow out of the negative stressful aspects of culture shock.

What you have done in your life is make a major transition. And any form of transition is potentially stressful. When people leave home to go to college, when families move from the country to the city (or vice versa), when someone close to you dies - these are all life events that require people to cope, to learn, to survive the transition - and a cross-cultural sojourn - meaning, living in a foreign country for a significant length of time - is certainly no different. It is a major transition.

Researchers involved in the field of psychology widely us the Social Readjustment Rating Scale when associating problems with one's environment. This scale was developed in 1967 and what it does is it assigns different mean values to particular changes and events in peoples' lives depending on their stress quotient.

About seven years ago, an expert in cross-cultural adaptation applied this scale to the normal adjustments required in a cross-cultural move. These changes (which are indicated by a star to the right) are things such as . . . and so on. It is astounding to compute the sum of the normal changes involved in an overseas move (and this is not including any additional stressful situations such as death or serious illness) it is 443. OK, so that's a big number you say to yourself, well the researchers who invented this scale considered 164 as high. 443!

It is no wonder why we experience culture shock! Now it's been found that people who have lived abroad before learn a great deal from their experiences with culture shock and that this knowledge can be helpful. BUT, and I am a good example, just because one has knowledge and information like you're getting today, doesn't mean you can avoid the feelings of culture shock. It is inevitable. It is culture shock and it is normal.

Again, culture shock is normal and every person will experience it but to a different degree. It depends on who you are and why you're here. Let's look at 4 factors that will help you understand your own personal strengths and weaknesses within the context of living in a foreign culture.

You have your own history, your personal background; you have your individual personality to look at, those traits unique to you; you have group issues to take into account; and you have the situational factors to consider, those circumstances that put yourself in.

Now as you read these things just think to yourself or jot down notes on the handout where your strengths lie and also consider those areas where you might not be quite as strong, for these are things you need to take into account when you're feeling frustrated. For example, you say "well I've never lived abroad before" I'd say all right, be a little bit easier on yourself, it's your first time. Or you say "well I'm here because of my husband's transfer and I don't know what I want to do" I'd say OK, that's the main reason why women come here, there are alot of other women in your same situation, and you can help each other find your purpose again through a support group.

OK, so lets briefly look at your history and background - have you lived abroad before? Do you come from a large city? Did you ever want to go to France? Do you speak the language? And the language by the way is one of the most important factors in determining your satisfaction here. Try to get past the thought of looking at it as a barrier - it is important to at least have the feeling that you can speak enough to get by.

Next are individual factors: Are you outgoing? Are you tolerant? Do you consider yourself to have a strong personality? Are you flexible? Do you have a specific goal above and beyond the pleasure of traveling? In general, what kind of person are you - the reason I bring this up is that we are all active processors of information but sometimes it is not possible to deal with each and every piece of information that competes for our attention, especially in a foreign language and culture, so how your are scripted, how you categorize things will to a large extent affect the way you react towards things.

All right and next we have group factors, and this is important because most of the information you acquire about Paris will come from other people (not from books or the media). It is also important because we all left behind support networks and you don't really realize these people are support networks when you're living your day to day life in your home country. I mean you don't think of them in such a way, but the important this is that they're there - friends to talk to when you have some kind of difficulty, business associates to get advice from, family to share exciting news with, etc. Suddenly, in a very real sense, you are alone and you have to make friends again and this is where most people have the hardest time. This is also where religion and where your church can play a very important part in helping you succeed. A spiritual commitment provides similar beliefs and values which can be shared not only with your fellow countrymen but also with the host nationals. The coffee groups they organize here are so wonderful in the way that they provide you with a sense of confidence, belongingness, and they are certainly a place to be called upon when crises arise.

Yes indeed, group belongingness is very important - even more important than the kind of person you are or the reason as to why you're here. As part of my research, I surveyed nearly 100 women from the 1989 Bloom program and while 95% described themselves as sociable and outgoing, 62% indicated feelings of isolations and 88% felt lonely. And again, this is normal, they were honest, these are typical feelings. But as I explain in my article on culture shock in your Bloom handbook, most sojourners succeed in enjoying the fruits of life in Paris...mainly through the benefits of finding and belonging to new support groups.

OK, the last factor here is the concept of situations. Here we ask ourselves where do we live? Nine times out of ten it is now in an apartment and if you're used to living in a house - apartment living takes some getting used to. Another question: who do you have to take care of? And here is where culture shock really comes into play because you are forced to meet your everyday needs in unfamiliar ways. In analyzing situations you'll see that the constant demand of coping with differences in such things like transportation, shopping for food, housing and all that it entails, social norms - constantly having to cope with these differences leads to frustration and even a questioning of your competence. As I said before, this resulting self-doubt is the primary symptom of culture shock.

It is important, however, to view this condition as a normal routine of cross-cultural contact and not as if you're different or somehow a failure. The situations you will encounter here, the interactions you will have are different. Look at it this way, when you interact in familiar situations you know how to act or what to say to get what you need. You even know what the probable response of the other person might be or the kinds of events that might change the situation. When you interact in another culture, however, you don't instinctively know these things.

It always amazes me in the years that I've been involved with cross-cultural adaptation, how many people think they will be immune to culture shock. And it is even more interesting to realize that sojourners, people like us, are usually highly skilled people, successful people in their own culture but when they move abroad and are confronted with these numerous, often subtle changes, they're simply no used to the constant, inadequate feeling of not knowing instinctively the right thing to do. That's why the sooner you accept the fact that culture shock is inevitable and say to yourself "OK, I'm going to work with it" the sooner you can get through the whole process of it.

So what is the process of it, what is culture shock exactly? There are 5 main aspects of culture shock many of which we've already alluded to. The first is strain, or stress due to the effort required to make necessary psychological adaptations. Mind you these are psychological processes that you're not even aware of. Suddenly you feel stress- it's because you brain is trying to understand what's going on.

Secondly, there is a sense of loss and feelings of deprivation in regards to friends, status, and even possessions. I say possessions because this is a very interesting aspect especially for women who must make a home in a place that isn't home. The following quite from a female researcher hits it right on the head when she says "Adaptation is a major challenge for a wife, for there is much to disorient her and contribute to her experiencing culture shock. She is in a new culture, country, lifestyle, and home. She may not have the energy, desire or money to decorate her home (which is often a rented one) as she did in her own country, to make it a comfortable place reflecting her personality and identity. She is usually the family member who has to deal with the grocer, the butcher, the plumber, or the repairperson. These encounters, routine but often frustrating even at home, loom as forbidding obstacles in a foreign country with different customs and a different language."

In addition to this very accurate representation, the responsibility falls on the wife and mother for a positive family adaptation; in most cases you are expected to nurture the rest of the family through the adjustment process. If you feel confident and secure in the new location, the rest of the family will generally follow suit; but if you are depressed or angry, difficulties will almost certainly arise.

The third aspect is confusion over role expectations and self-identity. What is your role now, what exactly is your purpose? This demands special attention because most women come here due to their husband's business transfer and this has compelled you to modify or terminate your own career plans. Furthermore, women who worked equally with their husbands or on their own find they cannot reach the same level of participation they remember having before. Instead you've got ambiguous roles here and it is a source not only for confusion but also for the next factor:

Feelings of ineffectiveness due to the difficulties in having to cope and that's what we already talked about with facing everyday situations in a new and unfamiliar way.

The fifth aspect of culture shock has to do with rejection- feelings of being rejected by members of the host culture or rejecting them whereby this usually manifest in a refusal to learn the language. Now, the point I'll emphasize again is simply to inform you of these feelings so when it happens you'll be better able to deal with it and to make it clear that this is all very normal.

On the other side of our culture shock coin, is the fact that it also has a very positive effect, yes you heard me right, culture shock has positive effects too, primarily in the sense that it motivates you to learn more about the new culture. When turned around like this, you'll see that there is a longing for a more familiar, predictable and understandable environment and this desire motivates you and encourages you to learn more quickly about your surroundings so you can master situations once again.

It can also contribute to individual growth in several other ways. Learning always involves some form of change and the feelings stemming from change can be provocative - you may realize certain aspects about yourself you never had time to think about before. Culture shock is also considered an individualized phenomenon and some people enjoy that special or unique feeling of experiencing it in your own way. Another positive benefit, and this is one of my favorites, is that of being on the outside of everyday situations - as an outsider you are able to perceive things which are taken for granted by hosts (and this also works when you return to you home country as you arrive with not only a broader perspective but also with fresh eyes as to everyday activities). And finally the motivational aspect we just mentioned encourages a greater understanding of one's own culture.

This last benefit brings me to an important point: people who are successful at living overseas adapt. They maintain their primary identity with their own culture, but they also reach out and make contact with the host culture. Adapting is what we are all striving for. To be satisfied, to be accepted somewhat by the French, to be able to function during everyday activities without added stress.

A good tool to help you understand your experiences, to help you understand the process of adapting is the U-curve. This curve illustrates the stages you can expect to go through while adapting to your new life here. The first stage is usually called the honeymoon stage - it is an initial reaction of enchantment and fascination. You think oh my gosh, I'm in Paris. You admire it all and are very friendly and cordial at this point. Then anywhere from a month to six months later, depending on who you are and your situation, you come in contact with the crisis stage. Here is when the initial differences in language, concepts, in values and in the way you get things done lead to feelings of culture shock, feelings of inadequacy, frustration, anger. Now this is obviously at the low point of the U and although the feelings of culture shock won't be as severe from day to day, week to week, this stage can last anywhere from 6 months to a year or more.

Now again, I don't mean to bring doom and gloom onto you but you need to know this. Knowledge is power and you now have the power to do something to lessen the shock. For example, this is where your social supports come in, where your ability to speak the language plays a role. The foundation you build now and in the first few months lay the groundwork for a successful adaptation down the road. I like to use the metaphor of the garden, right now your planting the seeds, you're nurturing the soil so when you do begin to grow in a real sense and not just remain in this enchanted honeymoon, you will have strength.

The next stage which moves on to the upswing of the U is called recovery. The crises you face become resolved by focusing on your own personal strengths and weaknesses, by applying what Ellen has to say in the next speech on things to do to enjoy France, and by simply finding out what works for you. At this stage people are speaking the language, learning about the culture and even finding humor in the mistakes they used to make. I like to visualize this stage in the garden as the point when the stem is healthy and strong and the wind can blow at it and the rain beat on it and sun scorch it but it stays firm because it has a life purpose - the bud is beginning to open - and when it does, when it blooms, you've reached the last stage, that of adjustment. You're enjoying the culture, you're being productive in it, you feel "at home." While there still will be occasional instances of strain and things you will not agree with the French on (for instance the education system), you can take on these new challenges more lightheartedly and you can handle day to day tasks with more efficiency and ease.

You have bloomed where you're planted. Not a shabby thing to strive for and certainly a goal that can be attained. The best thing you can do right now to get started is to become actively involved in some kind of group. n Depending on what you plan to do here and the amount of time you intend to be here will help direct you to the right group for you. Some people find it more enjoyable and challenging to interact with a host group while others find it comforting and refreshing to discuss one's experiences with fellow nationals. Whatever your case may be, get involved! Another important step that you can take today as well, is to begin to develop relationships outside your immediate family. This is valuable because the normal stresses of cross-cultural adjustment become magnified when couples do not have friends outside their partnership. So try and get a phone number today and immediately follow-up this week with lunch, for example.

Another recommendation that is very useful, especially for you Americans, is to do some reading up on political parties and you own history of America. Europeans, especially the French, love to discuss and debate and argue over these things and it actually quite fun. This is something proactive that you can do - seeds that you can plant - so when you get to the recovery or adjustment phase you can take part in this lively aspect of their cultural life with informed opinions.

This will also help you during the crisis phase as a consistent, weekly activity, such as reading, is very important. Find a cafe near your home or in a section of the city you like to be in and go there to read at the same time every week; not only will you be getting out and disciplining yourself, and preparing yourself for future debates, but you will be seen on a consistent basis by the locals and in turn you'll be making contacts on your own with the French. This is a technique my friend has mastered - she goes to the same cafe at the same time every week and it is so fun to there with her now, they treat her like royalty. And she knows about their families and they ask about hers, and it is a very good feeling for all parties involved.

The last thing I recommend is to look upon culture shock as a normal part of the process, a necessary part of the process. A seed doesn't just instantly become a beautiful flower, there is work involved. And although this work is difficult - it can also be positive and challenging and motivating. It's up to you. This on-line resource center is here to help."

back to Upon Arrival