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Going Travelling? 10 Handy Tips For Coping With Culture Shock

Written by The Leap on 13 / 01 / 2015

Gap Year Advice

Our Leapers have just headed out to their gap year travel destinations of choice and amongst feelings of excitement, curiosity and intrigue, I have no doubt that they are also experiencing a mild case of what is known as culture shock. Culture shock is a mix of emotions that includes confusion, stress, and anxiety which arise from being in new surroundings and away from a familiar environment.

Whilst it’s perfectly normal to have these feelings, they can make the start of your travelling experience a lot less enjoyable. To help you out, I've prepared some of the best advice to help you cope and ensure you’re fully prepared when the time comes for you to jet off.

1. Find Out What Language They Speak

Are you travelling to a non English-speaking country? You might want to find out what the local lingo is and buy a phrasebook so you can learn a few key words and phrases - the Lonely Planet's phrasebook shop is a great place to find what you need. One of the worst things in any new situation is not being able to communicate with anyone – it'll just make you feel frustrated and alone.

People will really appreciate it if you make the effort to converse with them in their language, and will in turn make an effort with you to ensure you feel at home in their country.

2. Read Up on Local Customs and Culture

One of the ways to avoid an extended bout of culture shock is making sure you know what to expect from the country in terms of its culture, customs and traditions. Understanding these things will be of great value to you.

Prior to heading off to your chosen destination, have a look at these international etiquette guides compiled by Kwintessential. And be sure to make notes!

3. Educate Yourself on Where to Go and Where to Avoid

The last thing you want to do is end up in a dodgy part of town in whichever country you’re visiting. You'll stand out like a sore thumb, which will not only make you feel self-conscious but put you at risk too. Use a travel guidebook (try the Lonely Planet shop again), to ensure you stick to the safer, more central areas.

Remember, this doesn’t necessarily mean you have to surround yourself with other tourists, as there are plenty of beautiful, rural spots where you can go to escape the crowds and hustle-and-bustle of city life.

4. Once You Arrive, Explore the Area

The other thing you really mustn’t do whilst abroad is hide away and wallow in your own misery, no matter how overwhelmed you’re feeling at the thought of venturing outdoors. Take some time to explore your surroundings and get to know the place you’re staying, as this will make it start to feel all the more familiar.

Don’t be afraid to approach people and ask for help if you get lost or simply want some guidance – you’ll probably find they’re more than happy to be of assistance.

5. Go Out and Meet People

Be open to meeting people in situations you’re not used to as well, such as in cafes, on public transport and even on the street. When I was travelling I found that the more people I spoke to, the more doors that opened for me. I ended up having some wonderful experiences and making friends for life.

Befriend some of the residents who can help you find hidden gems in the area and you’ll have a more authentic experience, causing you to feel less like a stranger and more like a local.

6. Improve Your Communication Further: Enrol in a Language Course

Photo: jimmyesl.com

You may have already started doing some independent language study. If so, great! But joining a language school would be even better, as it gives you the chance to meet people too. We're big believers in this at The Leap - for example, choose to volunteer and travel in Cuba on your gap year and you'll find that Spanish lessons are an integral part of the program.

We do this in a bunch of destinations - there are few better ways to break down cultural barriers and immerse yourself in a foreign culture. If you want to sort something out yourself, you can find a list of language schools across the globe on Course Finders, who feature 7,450 schools in 139 countries.

If you’re in an English-speaking country, perhaps you could do a course in something else or take classes in your chosen hobby - such as journalism, dance or cookery. This will give your days some structure and provide you with the motivation to get out and about.

7. Do Something Familiar

Photo: wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_pub

Sometimes it helps to simply do one thing that makes you feel at home when you’re abroad, such as cooking your favourite dish or playing an album that you love. These things will bring some familiarity to your situation and help you cope with all the cultural differences you’re exposed to.

If the local haunts are too alien for you, hunt down your nearest Irish pub – these can be found even in the most far-flung places (I've seen them in Mongolia, Zambia and Nepal to name a few), and will give you a taste of home no matter how many miles away you are.

8. Talk to Your Fellow Travellers

If you’re suffering, don’t keep it all bottled up inside. Sharing your thoughts with others will make you feel a lot better. If they’re also from another country, you’ll often find that they're going through the exact same thing and will be able to give you some advice.

Otherwise, talk to a local who can help you out when something happens that you can’t make sense of, or answer your questions about what’s appropriate and what’s not.

9. Write It All Down

Photo: abeautifulmess.typepad.com

If you can’t bring yourself to tell other people how you’re feeling, let it all out in the pages of a journal instead. Not only can this be extremely therapeutic, but it can also make you realise how far you’ve come when you look back on it several weeks later.

You could even consider taking the notes you’ve made and creating a blog post from them to help others who are struggling to settle in to a new way of life in a foreign country. I've done it myself, and I also really recommend it as one of the best ways to beat the post-travel blues.

10. Stay Organised

You’ll feel much calmer and more at ease if you keep things tidy and organised. First things first, unpack everything from your bag and make yourself at home in your new accommodation. Be sure you keep all your important documents together and in a safe place, then arrange all your other possessions so that you can locate them quickly and easily.

If you’re staying put for a while, you might even like to put posters or photographs up on the wall, giving your room a more homely feel. Next, go out and buy all the things you need or forgot to pack like maps of the area, groceries, a local sim card or toiletries.

Kicking the trip off in this way will help you clear your head and maintain a positive attitude throughout.

What Are Your Suggestions?

To those of you that have been there and can relate to the concept of culture shock, we’d like to hear from you – how did you feel? What were your coping mechanisms? Do you have any tips for others?

Please share your thoughts in the comments box below – it would be great to hear your suggestions.

Main photo credit: nchscourant.com

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