If you’re exploring the world and engaging with unfamiliar places and people, sooner or later – probably sooner – you’re going to experience culture shock.
What is culture shock? It’s that uncomfortable sense of being out of place and overwhelmed. It’s not knowing quite how to act or not getting the responses we expect from others. Often, culture shock manifests in ugly ways like frustration, judgement, and a vague sense of superiority: the buses are always late here, the people aren’t friendly enough here, or they’re too friendly or stand too close, the streets are too dirty, the buildings too ugly, the traffic too crazy…
The details depend on where you come from and where you traveled to, but culture shock always comes down to that feeling that things are just… too…. different. We yearn for the comfort of familiar customs, language, food, and visual surroundings, and we’re easily annoyed by anything confusing or inconvenient.
I have personally felt culture shock everywhere from Italy to Sierra Leone, in rich countries and poor countries, cities and villages. I’ve experienced it in groups and while traveling solo, on long trips and short, and while traveling in comfort or on a shoestring. I’ve even felt it in my own country, traveling to other parts of the USA that are culturally different from my home.
Does this make me a bad traveler? Nope! It makes me a human, with a human brain. And you’re a human too.
Culture shock is completely understandable, when you think about it. In familiar daily life our brains use heuristics and filters to process only what’s necessary, filling in the rest with assumptions. We predict people’s behavior, guess their intentions, and think we understand their values and motivations. We expect to know how the world works and be able to guess what’s going to happen next.
In a new place where these mental shortcuts fail us, our poor tired brains are stuck trying to process EVERYthing all at once. To make matters worse, when we travel we are often jetlagged, tired, and dealing with physical stressors like unfamiliar food and new bacteria. No wonder our poor brains get a bit overwhelmed and cranky!
The interesting thing about culture shock is that it’s the other side of what drives many of us to travel in the first place. We crave a new environment because it’s exciting, because it expands our worldview and makes us question our assumptions, because it keeps us on our toes and fights boredom. If we’re interested in travelling mindfully and learning from locals, cultural dissonance is essential. When things are going well and we’re feeling up to the challenge, we experience a flow-like state, a high that makes all the challenges worthwhile. But when we’re tired or a few too many things have gone wrong today, suddenly “culture shock” rears its ugly head.
This feeling of culture shock often happens to long term travelers and expatriates after 2-3 months of living in a new country, once the excitement has worn off and the realities of a new environment really set in. Symptoms of culture shock are pretty similar to burnout: frustration, lack of enthusiasm, the desire to be somewhere else. But culture shock can strike any traveler at any time, especially if your mind or body are a bit vulnerable for other reasons.
If you’re struggling with culture shock, it’s important to recognize what’s going on and take steps to get yourself in a better mental state so you can enjoy your trip. Sometimes just a small mental shift or chance interaction is all it takes to get things headed in the right direction again. Try these tips to help you deal with culture shock and get back to that sense of delight and discovery that draws us to travel in the first place.
Care For Your Basic Needs
It’s easy to think that culture shock is originating from outside us, and that it’s the fault of someone or something else. But in reality, everything is filtered through the lens of our current mood. If our energy and mental reserves are depleted, it’s much easier to see the world as difficult and threatening instead of exciting and novel. So, before you do anything else, notice your culture shock symptoms and give your body and brain a little break.
Don’t judge yourself. Culture shock is normal. You’re not a “bad traveler,” you are a human. This is how human brains work, and judging yourself for this natural process is just going to bring you down even more. Give yourself a little internal hug (aww) and repeat to yourself three times: “I feel this way because I am pushing outside my comfort zone, which is a trait of strong and courageous people.”
Take care of physical needs. Find a good meal and get more sleep. Have you been drinking enough water? It’s amazing how much these seemingly little things can impact our mood! They control the backdrop against which everything else occurs.
Treat yourself to comfortable accommodation. If you have room in your budget and tend to travel cheaply, this is an excellent time to treat yourself. Skip the hostel bed or roach motel, and instead find a quiet place with good vibes and clean rooms where you can feel totally safe. Take a nice hot shower (if that’s an option), curl up in a comfortable bed, and let your mental batteries recharge.
Mix up your activities. If your schedule is flexible, try giving yourself a break and doing something different. Instead of a full day of sightseeing, spend a few hours reading in the lobby of your accommodation. If you tend to explore solo, consider booking a guided excursion so you can relax and forget about logistics. If you usually travel in a group, consider taking a day to just wander solo.
Indulge in the Familiar
Culture shock can be a natural defense to feeling out of place, and often leaves us feeling “home sick.” It may not be actual home we’re craving, however, but simply familiarity. Give yourself a little dose of the familiar today, and you may find it easier to open up to the unfamiliar tomorrow.
Indulge in familiar media. Listen to your favorite music, read a book, watch a good movie, or read news about home. I always travel with a few playlists saved to offline storage on my phone, because nothing soothes my nerves like my most beloved music.
Eat familiar food. While exploring local food is often one of the best parts of traveling, consider finding a tourist-friendly restaurant or some other source of familiar food for a meal or two.
Connect with someone special. Call or message a friend, engage on social media, or even re-read old messages from friends and loved ones. After I had a confusing and unpleasant encounter with an angry woman in Liberia, I admit that I called my mom on WhatsApp. Though I like to think of myself as a strong and competent adult, sometimes we all need a little support.
Spend time with other travelers. Especially if you’ve been traveling solo, it can feel like no one else understands what you’re going through. Connecting with other travelers might help you see that everyone experiences culture shock, and also offer the relief of familiar interactions. I’m American, but when I bicycled through Southeast Asia I met a number of European travelers who felt like instant friends. Culturally speaking we had more in common with each other than with the locals, and we were able to learn about each others’ cultures too as a bonus.
Make yourself available by spending time in the lobby of your hostel or hotel, a coffee shop, or wherever travelers hang out. Take care not to turn every interaction into a complaint session, as you may bring others (and yourself) down. But some lighthearted joking about the challenges you’ve experienced can be very cathartic.
Connect with expats. Especially if you’re traveling in an unusual or challenging place, expatriates can be a valuable cultural bridge. In West Africa they were often the only foreigners I encountered, and they greatly enriched my travels, especially the Peace Corps volunteers. They probably share your frustrations (imagine not just traveling in a challenging place, but living there and trying to get useful things done!) and also have experience working through them.
Expats can be a fantastic source of information about local culture and politics, because you can ask them questions that you can’t ask most locals due to language barriers or politeness. Chances are, expats have experienced plenty of culture shock themselves, and may be as happy as you are to connect with another foreigner.
Engage and Learn
Withdrawing into familiarity can definitely help with culture shock, but there’s a risk of getting stuck there, especially if you’re traveling in a place where the atmosphere feels overwhelming or you get a lot of attention when you walk around.
Once you’ve recharged your mental batteries, it’s important to recognize the right time to venture back out into the fray. One of the best ways to make the unfamiliar feel less threatening is to get curious about it and try to understand it. You may never feel completely comfortable in a foreign place, but understanding why things are the way they are can make it easier to deal with.
Just walk out the door and around the block. If you are feeling overwhelmed, this is the place to start. You can always go back inside. But if it turns out to be easier than expected, you can always keep going. I used this mental trick to get myself out the door in Uganda when I was tired of all the attention and calls of “mzungu!” and it often led me to memorable experiences.
Seek out less touristy places. If you’re on the tourist trail, wander a few blocks in a different direction and you might find an entirely different experience. In Aswan, Egypt, for example, I found the corniche and several blocks closest to the Nile to be an unpleasant gauntlet of aggressive touts and absurdly high prices. Several blocks inland, where the folks from the Nile cruises rarely venture, I found friendly waves, honest shopkeepers, and positive interactions with locals. The sad reality of overtourism is that everything becomes transactional, so seek out places where you might be seen as a human rather than a business opportunity, and open yourself up to the interactions that follow.
Engage with friendly locals. This is the best remedy I know for coping with the temptation to box people into frustrating generalizations. Face-to-face with a single human being, it’s harder to generalize. If you’re lucky enough to find a local who is as interested in talking with you as you are with them (and with whom you have some language in common), relish the opportunity to connect and learn.
Often, but not always, I find these conversation partners in locals who are young, outgoing, and educated, and we learn a lot from each other. If it feels appropriate, ask questions: What does it mean when passing cars honk at me? What do people here think about a woman traveling solo? What impressions do people here have of my home country?
Cultivate curiosity. If there are local behaviors that make you uncomfortable, see if you can take the edge off by getting curious about what’s behind the behaviors and your own reaction to them.
For example, what is it about the culture in Sierra Leone that makes it normal for locals to ask me for money or favors, and why does it feel rude to me? (One hint is that in Sierra Leone, as in many other African countries, anyone with wealth is expected to share it with friends and family, even the locals. The idea of amassing wealth for yourself, as is common in America, is considered strange.) Why do so many men, in so many places around the world, think it will actually work to blatantly ask a foreign woman for sex? (One answer: western movies and porn may be the only contexts in which they see white women!)
Travel brings us face to face with complex global dynamics around race, gender, religion, and economics, to name just a few. These topics can be uncomfortable but extremely eye-opening if explored with an open mind.
Manage Your Mindset
Along with engaging and learning comes the invitation to update our mindset. Try these mental tricks to help expand your point of view and turn frustration into insight.
Look for the hidden positives. It’s usually easier to see negatives, especially when we’re feeling overwhelmed or tired, but there’s always another side to the coin if you look closely enough.
For example, it’s frustrating that in West Africa the old decrepit vehicles are always breaking down and delaying your journey. However, when you see the ingenuity and mechanical skill the locals have developed in response, you can’t help but be impressed!
In places where schedules are flexible and things are always “late,” the fluid timing also allows for unexpected conversations and connections; no one is in too much of a hurry to stop and talk.
In Rwanda I once watched a large fallen tree get cleared from the road in fifteen minutes flat because everyone in the traffic jam got out of their cars, chopped the tree into pieces, and dragged it off the road! I can’t imagine this happening in the US, where infrastructure is better but most individuals are far less resourceful.
Try to see yourself from the locals’ perspective. Consider that their environment feels as normal to them as your home does to you. So what about you and your home seems strange and confusing to them? This is one of the best culture shock remedies I know, because it’s enlightening, humbling, and often amusing. If you have a chance to actually talk to a local about this, it can be a lot of fun.
Sometimes this can be small and silly things, like locals being amused by our attempts to say hello or order food, or our hesitation at crossing a chaotic street. Other times it’s more foundational. For example, while living for Uganda for a couple months I sometimes felt drained by the the large and festive families I stayed with. I loved my time there, but retreated to my room when I felt overwhelmed or didn’t want to be in the way in a crowded house. I learned toward the end of my trip that in Ugandan culture, “personal space” isn’t really a consideration. My attempts to be polite led my hosts to worry that I was unhappy and wanted to go home! This wasn’t true at all, but my behavior had seemed strange and probably rude to them, and they did their best to interpret it within their own cultural framework.
Consider the pros and cons of your own cultural framework. We tend to analyze foreign cultures critically, but often accept our own without question. Use the dissonance of culture shock as fuel to consider what aspects of your own culture you would actually choose, and what you might want to change or replace. In this way we can take a step closer to building our own personal culture by choice.
For example, until I traveled in Africa and Asia I had no idea how unusual the American ideal of personal independence is on a global scale. Seeing how families in other cultures care for each other without question, even sacrificing their own personal goals while finding joy in their sense of duty and belonging, provided a much-needed perspective on my own aggressive search for independence and freedom. This crack in the wall allowed me to hold my own drive more lightly and see what I was giving up in exchange, ultimately shaping my personal path.
Remind yourself that this is what you came for. If you enjoy the cultural aspect of travel and weren’t simply seeking a relaxing holiday, then remember that unfamiliar culture was part of what you wanted to experience when you planned your trip. Now that it’s here, perhaps it doesn’t feel quite as good as you imagined it might, but that’s ok. As with so many challenges we take on (I’m thinking of backpacking and bikepacking trips personally), the true value is often clearest in hindsight.
Realize this will pass. Humans have a tendency to project our current emotional state into the future. We’re continually surprised when things change, but try to remind yourself, things will change. That special moment is coming. The kind shopkeeper, the smile on the street, the unexpected conversation, the breathtaking sight… The magic of travel WILL come back.
Though it may not feel like it in the moment, culture shock may morph into your most potent learning opportunities in hindsight. Once you’ve returned home to your own familiar culture, where no one pays attention to you on the street and simple things like buying a meal no longer take all your focus, there’s a good chance you’ll look back on those moments of frustration and overwhelm as catalysts for growth.
Perhaps those moments taught you something important about the culture you visited, or about your own culture by contrast, or about human nature in general. Maybe the process of working through them helped you realize that you are more resilient, courageous, and adaptable than you imagined. These discoveries will be woven into the fabric of your identity and your relationship to the world.
These are the true gifts of travel. Sometimes they don’t come easily, but that only helps us cherish them even more.
More Travel Resources
If you liked this post, you might also like these:
- Mindful Travel: How to be a Good Human While Traveling
- International Travel Prep Checklist
- Water Purification for Travelers
Or visit the full list of travel resources right here.
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