Squires: How to avoid culture shock while abroad

By Taylor Squires

I think one of the most interesting concepts in the world is culture shock.

Many people claim to know what it is and if you were to ask them to define it, they would probably give you something along the lines of ‘a feeling of disorientation that you can experience when you are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.’

Now, although there is no denying that this is accurate, I believe that until you’ve truly experienced it first hand, it’s hard to understand how much culture shock can impact a person.

Before I left for Sweden last semester, I sat through a pre-departure presentation that touched on the concept of culture shock and how to deal with it.

I remember thinking to myself that I would never have any problems because I was going to Sweden: I had been to Europe before and didn’t experience any symptoms of culture shock back then, so I figured that this time would be no different.

In addition, I did a lot of research on Sweden and found that the climate was almost the same and that the Swedish way of life is somewhat similar to Canada.

In my mind, I was good to go.

Fast-forward to about three months into my exchange, and I was experiencing culture shock.

What was so interesting was that I didn’t even realize it until it was discussed in one of my classes.

As I’ve mentioned in some of my previous articles, I had to create a completely new lifestyle in Sweden: the academic system was very different from what I was used to in Canada, the grocery store didn’t carry a lot of the foods I was used to, and since I don’t speak fluent Swedish, I was essentially a walking language barrier.

With all of these cultural obstacles in mind, I discovered that the way that culture shock impacted me was through feelings of frustration, anxiety and confusion.

It was not uncommon for me to have weeks where I just felt generally frustrated.

I would look at a poster in the hallway of the university and become upset because I couldn’t read what it said. And although I knew that there was nothing important written on it, I was upset just by the fact that I couldn’t understand it even if I wanted to.

There were also times where I would get confused because I couldn’t communicate properly with someone, and as a result, I constantly felt anxious.

Luckily, there are many ways to minimize and even overcome culture shock.

The first way is to expect culture shock to happen irrespective of location. Even if you are going to a country near your home, be prepared.

The next way is to find people who can relate to what you’re going through, so that you can learn from each other’s experiences. Once you have found a support group, it is important to give yourself time to adapt and to grow in your new environment.

Finally, if symptoms persist despite your coping efforts, you shouldn’t hesitate to seek professional help.

Take it from experience: if following any of these tips makes your time abroad more enjoyable, it is undoubtedly an investment worth making.

Photo supplied.
Photo supplied.