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10 Tips for Dealing with Culture Shock

Written by Milly Whitehead on 06 / 04 / 2017

Gap Year Advice

It’s almost inevitable when you’re halfway across the world...

Culture shock is a weird one. I used to think it was made up and simply home-sickness. I now know how wrong I was!

Google defines culture shock as the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.

Basically it’s pitching up in an unfamiliar country without a clue of the layout of the area, customs of the people or where to locate the nearest fast food place.

Our leapers have just set out to their incredibly enviable destinations for some unforgettable adventures. However, I’m sure the shock of being thrust into a whole new regime, location, diet… (everything really!) is setting in about now and will take a few days to overcome.

Here are a few tips for getting over any initial panics ASAP so you can truly enjoy everything on offer:

1. Research in advance

Before you set off, do a bit of internet surfing and know what you’re letting yourself in for. Look up the history, language, customs and more.

Invest in a travel guide, watch some movies set in country or learn a little of the lingo. It’ll all help you gain an insight into the culture and enable you to settle in far quicker and function better on arrival.

Don’t be afraid to look a fool: throw yourself in and show off your new found knowledge.

2. Explore your surroundings

On arrival, first things first, before the jet lag fully sets in, get out and explore.

The trick is to make your new destination feel like home. Start by taking a stroll. Daunting, especially when you’re going solo, but vital. Take in every inch of your new surroundings: the sights, smells, colours, people and more.

Back home you take the little things for granted, like the architecture of the buildings, the postal system and the greetings of passers-by. Spend a little time discovering these finer details.

Once it starts to feel more familiar you won’t feel so overwhelmed and all the angst will melt away. If in doubt – perhaps you think you might be lost or are just desperate for a coffee – don’t hesitate to ask. Generally, the locals will be thrilled to help you out and totally up for a chat.

3. Talk to local people and find things out

Have an open mind. Meet local people. Get the inside scoop on all things Cambodian, Peruvian, Japanese, even Welsh – wherever you are.

Why not buy yourself a journal and note down all your exciting new discoveries. Perhaps task yourself with finding out something new about the culture every day.

It’s as simple as starting up a conversation. With the waiter in the restaurant, the lady sitting beside you on the bus or the vendors at the market.

It might seem scary at first but it’s totally worth it and you’ll soon be making friends in all aspects of your travel. Without even realising it, you’ll be learning fascinating things that no amount of internet research can tell you about the culture.

The more you engage, the more doors are opened up to wonderful new adventures and experiences too. Discover hidden gems, from waterfalls to local bars, that your average tourist will by-pass and miss out on.

The more authentic your experience becomes and the more you get to know the inner-workings of your alien culture, the less foreign and more local you’ll feel.

4. Chat to your fellow volunteers or tourists

The likelihood is that they’re feeling the exact same as you: uncomfortable, uneasy, out-of-place and utterly bewildered.

Grab a mate and compare the all the crazy differences between your destination and your home country. Chat about all the things (it generally focuses on food) that you’re missing. Have a moan and a giggle about how squatting is a completely unconventional way of going to the loo, or how chips shouldn’t simply be allowed to be served without ketchup of mayonnaise.

Sharing your thoughts, worries and feelings with someone from your culture can really help to understand that what you’re going through is totally normal.

Getting it all off your chest will help you to notice that it’s all just the effects of culture shock and that the sooner you come to terms with your new situation, the better you trip will become.

5. Do something familiar

Sometimes all you need is to take a few hours to bring familiarity to a place that is currently feeling very much foreign.

Listen to your favourite album as you wander through the markets. Cook your go-to comfort meal with your fellow backpackers or for your host family. For me, it’s watching that silly movie that always comes out when all the family are together.

Doing a few familiar and comforting things leaves you feeling a lot less intimidated by all the cultural differences you’re being exposed to.

If the local haunts are feeling a little too exotic and alien, why not seek out the one place that does a good old ‘English’ fish and chips, or the seemingly mandatory Irish pub on the corner (believe me, they will be one).

Often it works to just imagine familiar things. The creamy texture of mum’s mac n’ cheese, the smell of wood burning on your fire in winter, or the delightful taste of Ben and Jerry’s cookie dough on a hot day.

6. Do something courageous and new each day

Sounds odd after the last one, but doing a mixture of the familiar and unfamiliar is the way to beat the shock.

By fully throwing yourself into uncharted waters, with a little taste of home every now and then, you’ll find yourself adapting far sooner than if you approach everything with angst and trepidation.

It doesn’t have to be as mad as jumping out of a plane, and please don’t run off and put yourself in danger because of me, but trying something new or doing something that takes a little self-convincing is a great idea. You’ll notice how strong and brave you really are!

Imagine you’re on the other side of the world, chowing down on some strange unrecognisable dish as you prepare for your first white-water rafting expedition. You’ll be so busy and excitable that panic or worry won’t even cross your mind.

7. Contact home, but not too much

Don’t call home every minute of the day. It will only make you think you miss it more than you actually do: believe me, I know!

Always being connected to your home culture will also stop you from fully enjoying and immersing yourself in the local culture.

Talking to family and friends just a few times a week is a good idea however. Fill them in on all your crazy adventures and antics to really make them jealous. Their reactions will be a good reminder of the incredible opportunity you have to experience a whole new way of life.

Sometimes all you need to start appreciating a new place is that gleeful feeling you get inside when you hear of friends’ mundane days working in the bleak rainy weather back home!

Exchanging photos can be a great way to keep in contact without finding yourself desperately homesick. You’ll soon realise that what you’re up to is far more exciting that what’s going on elsewhere.

What’s more, it will force you to take in all the amazing new things that your culture shock might be blocking out.

8. Care packages

Often it’s the little things that make all the difference. So why not have the family sent over a small package?

For me it was Marmite and Cadbury’s chocolate… Maybe you left behind your favourite t-shirt, can’t locate your go-to shampoo or just NEED a Percy Pig. Having a tiny bit of home with you can set your mind at ease and allow you to dive into local life.

9. Document your adventures

Can’t bring yourself to tell others how you’re feeling? Or maybe don’t want to worry those at home?

Sometimes it can seem like everyone else is having the time of their life and you just don’t want to be the odd one out.

While many are probably having similar feelings, there’s no better place to let it all out that the pages of a journal that no one else will ever see! Writing down our worries and issues can often give us the outsider’s view needed to recognise how unnecessary they really are.

Not only can it be extremely therapeutic, but it can make you realise how far you’ve come when you look back on it several weeks later. Soon you’ll see the funny side to situations that certainly didn’t seem humorous at the time.

You might even notice the magical little quirks of the foreign culture that seemed so terrifying just a few days earlier.

You could also create a blog post to help others who are similarly struggling to settle into a new way of life in a foreign country.

Lastly, take tonnes of photos. Once you’re back home I guarantee you’ll be endlessly flicking through pictures taken on your travels, desperately wishing you were still there! Just waking up to how incredible it really was will definitely help with your future travels.

10. Be safe and organised

The worst thing when travelling is finding yourself far away from mum’s helping hand and confronted with a big fat problem.

It could be that you’re penniless in a town with no ATMs, without accommodation in a place you were certain would have spare beds, or a great number of other issues.

Being prepared in advance can make everything a whole lot more straight forward. The panic of trying to organise it all on arrival is sure to leave you feeling the full effects of culture shock. If you’re feeling safe and in control, everything else will be easier too.

Feeling calm?

Culture shock is almost inevitable. However, it can minimised and short-lived if you take on board a couple of these tips.

Above all, I highly recommend filling every minute time. Don’t sit around thinking about how crazy what you’re doing really is!

Feeling brave but not sure where to start? Fill out our What Type of Traveller You Are Quiz and we can point you in the right direction. Simples.

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