"...so you want to know about culture shock..."

To some it's a horrible experience that devours your precious time abroad and leaves you exhausted and confused, to others it is a business impediment that can crash the most thought out deal. Students get confused, families can be torn apart, and the "lucky ones" come away feeling guilty -- asking each other why "someone as lucky as me" would be experiencing feelings like this. It is culture shock, and the majority of women who "live abroad" for a significant portion of time will face it and it's power will positively or adverseley affect the satisfaction of your life. It is simple differences between the way a culture affects our communication and interaction with "foreigners" that makes our own idiosyncracies stand out. The following is a tale of culture shock, a web that has been woven by American women living in Europe and nearly a century of science.



"When we walk to the edge of all light we have, and take a step into the darkness of the unknown, we must believe one of two things will happen, there will be something solid for us to stand on or we will be taught to fly." -Patrick Overton


A subculture of people have emerged during the last 50 years of the later part of the last decade in this century. Known as sojourners, this group of people numbers over 15 million Americans who elect to take up residence and/or journey to the far ends of the earth during any given year. While moving one's family to another part of the world has been going on since the beginning of time, nowadays it can greatly affect the individual, family, and business involved. Hundreds of thousands of women in particular due to work, studies, or family, find themselves suddenly living day-to-day life in a foreign environment. It takes some getting used to and Americans who understand and experience this living in transition know the feeling of culture shock and have witnessed it in other people's lives. Culture shock is legendary, it has been praised and scowled over, joked about, scientifically dissected, instituted at universities and corporate orientation training programs around the world; it's in the movies, throughout literature, on the political front, in the headlines of social concerns, supported in community churches and still whispered over tea. Living abroad and spending a significant amount of time getting to know another culutre is a fantastic and enriching experience but when the feelings of culture shock come to the surface, there tends to be a negativitity surrounding it. Thus the birth of an American subculture and with it the researchers, experienced expatriots, and newly transplanted Americans who have and continue to provide information and support from many viewpoints.

The experience of living in cities like London, Paris, Munich and New York and traveling to cultures in Northern Europe, the Mediterranean and the entire United States of America, leaves me with memories of thousands of travelers who have taken a fascinating step into quite literally another world. And as a professional or a student, I've seen others too, along with mothers and wives who have accompanied their husbands on international business transfers. It is for these women that the following article highlights some of the historical and scientific findings associated with living one's life abroad and provides suggestions for making the most during your transition. You will find that living your life in another country is full of great moments and opportunities to learn about yourself and your views. There are occasions of awe when traveling to new places, and the acquiring of a broader outlook on life becomes quickly apparent. As you will soon learn, living in the foreign culture also requires strength and a certain survival instinct so that when times get tough, and believe me they will, you will have developed inner resources to get you through. Hundreds of people have learned what you're about to read about the challenges of this new lifestyle. The good news is that in spite of the difficulties you encounter, most sojourners succeed in enjoying the fruits of life in abroad. As as example, let's look at Americans living in Paris.

First of all there are many reasons why people leave their country of origin, yet the experience of living in a foreign culture remains the same for most. Whether you are migrating--settling in France--or sojourning--living there temporarily--it is important to realize that this is a new era in your life, a positive and challenging experience, yet one with many obstacles to overcome. Take advantage! You will have numerous resources to draw upon, a variety of women and men to support you, and time to learn new talents. But keep in mind it is a different culture; even though the daily goings-on of living life in general are the same, the French have different ways of doing things. You are now the foreigner and it will not always be exotic. Indeed, it is no accident that the terms travel and travail are etymologically linked, for in all cultural legacies there are tales about the stress of travelers.


"It takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that," said the Queen. -Alice in Wonderland


Moving to and living in a foreign country involves innumerable challenges and changes and indeed it seems that sometimes you have to work twice as hard. Fortunately, there are now programs and worldwide organizations that recognize these challenges and have become attentive to our needs. This was not always the case however. It was only since the 1960s that social scientists became increasingly more interested in the area of culture contact and began to conduct studies on the impact of living internationally. Let's briefly examine some findings to get a perspective on the dynamics of living abroad. For example, extensively reviewed evidence indicates that wives of businessmen are subject to the greatest stress during a sojourn. There are many reasons for this. Still keep in mind that while culture shock and much of the research conducted seems discouraging, it has been done and is provided in order to arm us with the knowledge to overcome the hardships.

For reasons I will explain in a moment, numerous studies have shown that men adapt better than women. You see, social support is a very important factor in determining a successful sojourn. What happens when these wives of the businessmen we mentioned before leave their country of origin, they also leave behind their friends, relatives, and employment--all of which served as their support systems. They come to the new country and, while compelled to make a home in a place that is not yet home, they often have a difficult time meeting others with whom they can confide in and hence, have little social support. Furthermore, women who worked equally with their husbands or on their own often find that they cannot reach the same level of participation that they remember having before.

When businessmen arrive in the new culture, however, they are immediately thrust into an environment with coworkers and responsibilities, and they feel somewhat depended upon or part of "the team." This is not to say that they do not have a difficult time. On the contrary, managing cultural differences in the work place can often be frightening. It is to say that women (specifically in this scenario) have distinctive difficulties, especially in communicating, keeping up their self-esteem regarding perceived social acceptance and in maintaining the feeling that you are making a contribution in this world.

We must keep in mind that in general, women of all ages tend to have more supportive relationships than men, and women who work (and hence have the availability of large and varied social support networks) experience less depression than women who do not work. When the availability of your social support systems through your home or work is removed as a result of an intercultural move, it is clear why non-working women adjust least well. And, as a matter of fact, previous overseas experience does not really have an effect on adjustment--it is the satisfaction and happiness of the spouse that is by far the most important factor in determining a successful sojourn. This is why corporations have taken notice and are now providing relocation programs for the entire family.


"There is help for those who wish it. Those who say they don't need it may be too blind to recognize the problem. The irony is that they need the help most of all." - Robert T. Moran


So what can be done to increase your social support network and maintain your level of self-esteem? It may be hard to perceive unless you're actually going through the day to day life, but a weekly routine to keep you out and about is one suggestion that many women find success with as it gives you the feeling of consistency in this new and unfamiliar place. It is also a good way to see and be seen by the locals on a constant basis. By all means take a French class and try your hardest to practice it in public as the French appreciate it immensely when they see you making the effort. This varies in other cultures but for the most part your hosts look favorably on the effort. Plan monthly day trips to see the countryside (some of the most beautiful in Europe) and to get the feeling of being out of the city. Always keep in mind that volunteer work, or if possible employment, is a great way of meeting people. Read some classic books you've always wanted to by the river or at a cafe. Or just simply relax when you have the chance--this is a priority of life in Europe as people work to live and not live to work.

You can also take this time to do a hobby or cultivate a talent you "never had time to do before." Or join a support group--talking about your feelings always helps sort them out and you'll be amazed at how the "new" sojourners will turn to you for advice (and how quickly you become a "pro"). Many women find creative urges to paint or research a topic they have an interest in, and there are many interesting lectures and classes that allow you to continue your education. Stay strong, stay involved, enjoy, and don't give up on yourself. It's too easy to fail and too worthwhile to succeed. On the other hand, don't be too hard on yourself if you're lazy every now and then--it's hard work living day to day in another country, any one who has experienced life and culture shock will tell you that.

It is truly a great paradox that sojourners, who do not easily learn the conventions of another culture, are usually individuals who are highly skilled in the rituals of their own society. We are not accustomed to failure and to find sudden inadequacies in this new culture can, and will be, very frustrating and often embarrassing. Indeed, a difficult part of this process for adults is the experience of feeling like children again and not knowing instinctively the right thing to do. Intercultural relations can only prosper when it is accepted that human groups differ in their respective cultural identities and that they have a right to maintain their idiosyncratic features if they wish. So do not compromise yourself or your culture, instead show, and be willing to be shown, what another way of living is like. Maintain your primary identity with your own culture, but reach out and make contact with the French or whomever's land you live on. While learning all the while to accept the differences you encounter live your life within them.

by Erin, for her Masters of Science degree


for specific case examples, review the scientific study
locate support from this list of World Wide Organizations
start gaining knowledge with recommendedations from the Cross-Cultural Library
find out about more on-line resources at a Collection of Cultural Web Links

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