Culture shock

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Culture Shock

(Adapted and expanded from Staying Healthy on Outreach - Culture Shock)

Culture shock can be defined as feeling unable to cope in another cultural environment, although at least some culture shock is to be expected and should be enjoyed as an opportunity for growth. It is not always experienced as a shock, except at times when the cultural difference is very great and the individual is inexperienced or unprepared. A more appropriate word to describe the feeling might be Culture Stress as the symptoms and coping strategy is very similar to general stress. See also Culture Shock in Wikipedia.

Short Term Culture Shock

Suggestions for Managing Stress

  • Briefing: Learn about the culture before going. 1 Cor. 9:19-23. The more preparation people have the better they will cope.
  • Look for what God is telling you in this time. He is interesting in developing you through this. Don't miss an opportunity for growth
  • Put rest days, quiet times in weekly outreach schedule
  • Talk, share and pray with one another over struggles - Don't be a "lone ranger," have a servant's heart and work as a team. Phil 2:3-8, 14-16
  • Continue to take walks out in the community - don't isolate yourself at home for too long.
  • Get into the culture through language. Learn simple phrases and use them. Visit local markets, stores, and churches. Accept invitations to people's homes... ask your school leader first!
  • Keep perspective! This is a temporary experience, don't waste your opportunities, and remember that you are the guest.

Long Term Culture Shock

Other Things to Write About

  • waves
  • frog boiling
  • three times
  • rage
  • adapt - learn the right way
  • relate and ask locals opinion
  • general symptoms
  • how to overcome
  • acknowledge
  • affirm
  • embrace
  • share
  • really bad....
  • reverse shock - supermarkets, debriefing, tgeam or with experienced and, like minded folks
A sketch graph illustrating the sensation of culture shock over time.

From Handout I Found I Back of Filing Cabinet in Brussels Office...

Culture Shock

What is culture shock? The word sounds like it means the sudden jarring of a culture against a person. Some people experience this deeply during the first year of living in another culture. Others experience the opposite... an excitement that frees them from the routine of their own culture. Though some do not go through culture shock, most people go through some sort of cultural fatigue. The differences that were exciting at first start to become irritating, and one gets easily tired by the unfamiliarity and uncertainty. Slowly a person becomes worn down. Different people find different things tiring. For some it may be table manners; for others the language; still for others it may be the postal system; and so on. Often, it is the little things that add up. This fatigue is usually worse during the first six months and it makes you feel too tired to use the energy to relate to people, Even in similar cultures, the differences are not easy, Loneliness, the feeling of helplessness, the loss of small comforts, good conversation, and close friends can cause feelings of resentment toward the host culture and the people of that culture. Nothing works the way you expect it to. You may ask yourself the question, "Is it all worth it??".

The best way to come into a culture is to accept the difference by trying to understand it. This requires time, work, and often a bit of frustration. The host culture will look at you differently than you will look at yourself. They will probably not see all that you have given up to come and work with them. If the host culture didn't know many people from your culture, they will have an image or stereotype of what you are like before you even get to know them. This will often come from what they have heard of possibly even seen in your own culture. These generalizations are not always true and, at best, are true of only a visible minority in your culture. The host culture will generally not seem too sympathetic, you may feel misunderstood or uninteresting. At the same time, the one going into the new culture will be tempted to form his own opinions, stereotypes, and generalisations about the host culture. Again these will probably be distortions. Although here may be an amount of truth behind your observations, it is to your advantage to understand the reasons behind them. As missionaries we are called to serve. So how can we come into a new culture and maintain a servants attitude?

There are three attitudes which make cross-cultural adjustment difficult, They are pride, impatience, and laziness. Bridging a cultural gap through language learning means that for the love of Jesus we are willing to become as children again. This means that we will need to babble in our new tongue like a two-year-old. People may laugh at our mistakes (even if they generally appreciate the effort you do). There is no room for pride which would tempt us to retreat into the safety of the expatriate missionary community, away from the people we are called to serve. We have to have hearts that are open to learn, to make mistakes, or to ask questions. At times, our progress will seem to be slow. We will get to the place where we seem unable to absorb any more. At these times we can become impatient, and seek a quicker way to communicate our message, e.g. depending on translators. This could become a hindrance to our adjustment, especially in the area of language acquisition. A lazy person will not want to put out the work necessary to learn; for cultural adjustment and language learning involves much work.

As we grow in our cultural awareness, we will discover that there are different ways of doing things other than our own. Values and ideas will clash when cultures come together. Neither will understand the other, and both sides will think their way is better. In these situations we need to understand the importance of our relationships above any task or set cultural way of doing things. To Jesus who loves and calls all of us to himself, the unity of His body is more important than the outcome of our work, He is more interested in the process, how we work together toward our goals, than the success of the venture. This, then, will be the opportunity to give way to each other out of love, for Jesus' sake. Don't insist on the "American Way" or the "Asian Way" that you have grown up with. Rather, take the opportunity to learn more about the host culture, and do it their way. You will discover as we say in YWAM circles, that things can be "different, but not wrong."

What positive steps can we make to learn our new culture? Perhaps the best steps possible are outlined in the next section on "bonding". Here are some ideas:

  1. Build friendships. The best way to learn about a new culture is to meet and build friendships with Locals. This can be done through a church, or if you are a courageous person, in launching out in the neighbourhood by talking to people. In Belgium, A café is an excellent place to do this. Find someone with whom you can try out your new language; who will correct your pronunciation and grammar. A Christian from your church may be able to meet with you regularly to teach you about his culture and correct your mistakes in language and manners,
  2. Set goals for yourself. Don't just "take it as it comes". Weekly goals for visiting people, learning vocabulary, trying out newly learned phrases or manners, will help you keep at it and allow you to keep track of your progress.
  3. Try to find a good language school that will focus on conversation rather than grammar. Grammar is necessary to any language, but it needs to be taught in the context of regular conversation.
  4. Try to keep your forms of escape at a minimum. Escape is not bad. Sometimes a retreat into visiting someone from your home country, eating something that you like from your home culture, or going to a film will help to break the tension and refresh you. But of course, too much of this will hinder the process.
  5. Be slow to form judgements or opinions. You may easily misunderstand the motives that have led your hosts to do something which you consider strange or unacceptable. Becoming critical will not build friendships. Trying to be polite on the surface, while sharing horror stories among fellow foreigners will only serve to alienate them and you further from your hosts. First, be quiet and listen. Ask why (in a right spirit). When you state your opinion, do so in the form of a question. Presume that you have misunderstood and ask for more explanation. Next, realize that you are a guest worker here to serve them. Don't try to force your opinion or force them to take the action that you think is necessary. This will only breed hostility. In the end, if you still think that your way was right, then commit it to God and pray about it. Give way to them and trust the outcome to God. If they were wrong, be gracious and help pick up the pieces without even thinking "I told you so".

Make every attempt to learn the common language of the people. English is spoken everywhere, and many English speakers will find that they can get by almost anywhere (especially in YWAM) with their mother tongue. However, love does not demand its own way, nor does a servant demand to be spoken to in his language. People may be able to communicate with you in your tongue quite well; however, they don't share their "heart issues" well, except in their mother tongue. To learn someone else's language, even honest attempts are a sign of love and commitment, will serve to open people's hearts to you.

A Word About Bonding  :

The word "bonding" is a medical term used to define the psychological and emotional identification that occurs between parent and child in the moments after birth. It has been observed that just at birth there occurs in both mothers and infants a heightened time of sensitivity which enables them to develop a close emotional and psychological attachment which is important to the healthy future adjustment of the child. If for some reason the child is removed from the mother's presence in this crucial time, the child will build this attachment with someone (or something) else, be it a nurse or other attendant in the hospital.

In many aspects, cross-cultural missions is a birthing process. The new missionary arrives in his newly adopted culture much like a newborn arrives into the world: disoriented by the different sights and sounds, vulnerable, unable to communicate effectively, etc. This moment of first exposure is very important, for it is a time of extreme sensitivity when the missionary may build the deep emotional and psychological ties to his new culture that will make him most effective in his attempt to minister there.

The typical missionary style of ministry in the past was to make forays; that is, to live in a missionary compound with other missionaries of like culture, and then to exit regularly to conduct mission activities. The problem with this model is that often the missionaries are unable to understand the depths of the culture, and address the "heart issues" fundamental to the change of world-view necessary for true conversion to occur. Misunderstandings and unfortunate stereotypes are perpetuated by older missionaries passing on their external observations to the new missionaries. Resulting fruit is therefore limited, and missionaries are often resentful over the resistance of the local population to their message. Anger, negativity, frustration, and even burnout may result.

The bonding approach to missions is that in this first period of sensitivity immediately after arrival, when the new missionary is still motivated by the thrill of his calling and arrival after months of preparation, he or she make a "plunge into the local culture. The missionary should, if at all possible, resist living in the mission compound and take up residence with a "local". There he will learn to see the country and culture through the eyes of his new-found friend, learning from him how the "system" works, etc. He will be more able to build meaningful relationships with those people he or she has come to minister to and receive insights into the culture which will enable him to adapt the Gospel message to make it more intelligible to them. He will learn how to deal with stressful situations, acquiring help and answers from the network of local residents he has befriended.

In Youth With a Mission we recognize the importance of bonding for new staff workers. Although it may not always be possible to make a complete "plunge" for economic reasons, we desire and encourage new staff members to build friendships with locals, both Christians and non-Christians, attend their churches, and during the language program, spend as much time as possible living with a Belgian family.

Ideals and Relationships

(a short excerpt from "Re-Entry" by Peter Jordan, pages 33-34)

Most missionaries arrive on the mission field with a high level of idealism, ideals are wonderful, but they are just that: ideals. All too often, our ideals form the basis of our expectations. We expect our fellow missionaries will have a certain level of maturity or will behave in a certain way. We expect the mission agency to function in a particular manner. We also expect God to do many wonderful things through our ministry as we step out in faith to serve Him. Usually our expectations are overinflated, and need to be modified to be realistic. For some who have arrived on the mission field full of idealism, this can be a shattering experience which can lead to bitterness and resentment toward the mission agency and toward fellow missionaries who fail to meet their expectations.

It is not necessarily wrong to be disappointed when expectations are not met. But it is wrong to let that disappointment fester into bitterness and resentment toward your fellow workers. Missionaries are human, and mission agencies are imperfect institutions. Working on the mission field is a high-pressure lifestyle. People are working in difficult situations, and are often cut off from their culture, family, and friends.

In such an environment, it is to be expected that mistakes and misunderstandings will occur. The key is to resolve these when they occur, and not let them develop into major interpersonal conflicts. Tragically, that is often what happens. As a result, conflict with fellow workers continues to be the major reason why most missionaries leave the mission field prematurely, You must be sure it is not your motivation for leaving.