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Communication Skills and Culture Shock

Intercultural communication is a hard skill to master completely, but it will come to you gradually. Communications becomes a major issue when you are abroad. Languages vary from country to country but so do communication styles and codes of non-verbal communication. Words don't always translate from one language to another as we would like. Abroad we have to listen two or three times as hard to people in order to find out what they really mean.

Much of your effectiveness in the university and satisfaction in the living experience will depend on how well you build relationships with the host nationals. Skillful intercultural communication is a medium for finding out what expectations your hosts have of you and getting across your expectations of them. It is a method of anticipating problems and solving those which arise. It is a channel for reaching out and establishing links with people.

"Culture Shock" is a term used to describe the more pronounced reactions to the psychological disorientation most people experience when they move for a period of time into a culture markedly different from their own. It can cause intense discomfort, often accompanied by hyperirritability, bitterness, resentment, homesickness, and depression.

Unfortunately, there is no vaccination for this occurrence. For some persons the sensation of culture shock is brief and hardly noticeable. These are usually people whose personalities provide them with a kind of natural immunity. For most of us, however, some degree of culture shock is something we will have to deal with.

In a sense, culture shock is the occupational hazard of living abroad through which one has to be willing to live through in order to have the pleasures of experiencing another culture and country in depth.


Culture shock has two distinctive features:

1. It does not result from a specific event or series of events. It comes instead from the experience of encountering ways of doing, organizing, perceiving, or valuing things which are different from yours and threaten your basic unconscious belief that your enculturated customs, assumptions, values and behaviors are "right".

2. It does not strike suddenly or have a single principal cause. It is cumulative. It builds up slowly from a series of small events which are difficult to identify.


Culture shock comes from:

  • Being cut off from the culturally known patterns with which you are familiar and all the nuances and shades of meaning that you understand instinctively and use to make your life comprehensible.
  • Living where your sense of time is different from the general sense of time in the host country
  • Having your own values (which you had heretofore considered as absolutes) brought into question.
  • Being continually put into positions in which you are expected to function with maximum skill and speed and in which the rules have not been adequately explained.



The Progressive Stages of Culture Shock

One's first reaction to different ways of doing things may be "How quaint!" When it becomes clear that the differences are not simply quaint, an effort is frequently made to dismiss them by pointing out the fundamental sameness of human nature - people are really basically the same under the skin.

Eventually, the focus shifts to the differences themselves, sometimes to such and extent that they seem to be overwhelming. Soon the differences are narrowed down to a few of the most troubling and then are blown up out of all proportion.

By now the foreigner is in a state of distress. The host culture becomes the scapegoat for the natural difficulties inherent in the cross-cultural experience. Culture shock has set in.

Some of the symptoms that may be observed in relatively severe cases of culture shock include:

• Homesickness

• Exaggerated cleanliness

• Boredom

• Family tension and conflict

• Withdrawal (e.g., spending excessive amounts of time reading, only seeing other compatriots; avoiding contact with host nationals)

• Physical ailments (psychosomatic illnesses)

• Need for excessive amounts of sleep

• Stereotyping of host national

• Compulsive eating

• Hostility towards host national

• Compulsive drinking

• Loss of ability to work effectively

• Irritability

• Unexplainable fits of weeping

culture shock 

Not everyone will experience a severe case of culture shock, nor will all the symptoms necessarily be observed. Many people ride right through culture shock with some ease, only occasionally experiencing the more serious reactions.

There are distinct stages of personal adjustment which virtually everyone who has lived abroad has gone through. These stages are:

 1. Initial euphoria

2. Irritability and hostility

3. Gradual adjustment

4. Adaptation and biculturalism


1. Initial euphoria: Most people begin their new experience with great expectations and a positive mind-set. If anything, they come with expectations that are to high, attitudes that are too positive towards the host country and toward their own prospective experiences in it. At this point, anything new is intriguing and exciting. But for the most part, the similarities stand out. The newcomer is usually impressed with how much people everywhere seem alike. This euphoria is wonderful, but a letdown is inevitable.

2. Irritation and hostility: Gradually the focus turns from the similarities to the differences. These differences which suddenly seem to be everywhere are troubling. Small, seemingly insignificant differences are blown up into major catastrophes. This is the stage identified as "culture shock".

3. Gradual adjustment: This step may come so gradually that, at first, you will be unaware it is even happening. Once you begin to orient yourself and to be able to interpret some of the subtle cultural clues and cues which passed by unnoticed earlier, the culture seems more familiar. You become more confortable in it and less isolated from it. Your sense of humor returns, and you realize that the situation is not hopeless after all.

4. Adaptation and biculturalism: Full recovery will result in an ability to function in two cultures with confidence. You will enjoy many customs, ways of doing things and personal attitudes which you will definitely miss when you go home. In fact, you can expect to experience "reverse culture shock" upon your return to your own country.



RX for Culture Shock

There are positive steps you can take to minimize the impact of culture shock:

1. One of the best antidotes to culture shock is knowing as much as possible about the culture where you find yourself.

2. Begin to look consciously for logical reasons behind everything in the host culture which you find confusing or threatening. Take every aspect of your experience and look at it from the perspective of your hosts. Find patterns and interrelationships. Relax your grip on your own culture a little in the process.

3. Don't succumb to the temptation to disparage the host culture. Resist making jokes and comments (Well, what else would you expect from the people?") which are intended to illustrate the stupidity of the "natives", and don't hang around your fellow countrymen who do make them; they will only reinforce our unhappiness.

4. Identify a host national who is sympathetic and understanding, and talk with that person about specific situations and about your feeling related to them.

5. Above all, have faith in your self, in the essential good will of your hosts, and in the positive outcome of the experience.



Skills that make a difference

Some people seem to take to another culture more naturally than others do. And some foreign cultures seem to be easier to adjust to than others. But there are certain skills or traits which you may have or can develop which will facilitate your rapid adjustments:

• Tolerance for ambiguity

• Sense of humor

• Low goal / Task orientation

• Warmth in human relationships

• Open mindedness

• Motivation

• Non-judgementalness

• Self-reliance

• Empathy

• Strong sense of self

• Communicativeness

• Tolerance for differences

• Flexibility; adaptability

• Perceptiveness

• Curiosity

• Resilience after failure



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