Culture Shock or Culture Fatigue
Sometimes living in another culture can make you feel overwhelmed. When this happens you may be feeling culture shock or culture fatigue. “Culture shock” is a well-known expression that describes the stress and disorientation a person feels when living in a foreign culture. A more accurate term is “culture fatigue.” It describes the gradual accumulation, day by day, of stress from encountering the many differences in the new culture.
Here are some situations that trigger culture fatigue:
- Your normal habits of communication (customs of politeness, idioms, expressions of emotion, etc.) don’t always work the way you expect.
- People behave in ways that are not customary in your country. Sometimes, it is not clear to you what the rules for appropriate, customary behavior are.
- You find that people have surprisingly different values in this culture regarding the importance of family, money, time, or other things.
- No one seems to understand who you really are: People may not know or care who your family is, and your previous accomplishments, profession, or job position seem unimportant.
- You discover that people have different beliefs from your culture about reality, such as what causes sickness/health, or whether there is a spiritual realm and its nature.
- Despite all these stresses, you are expected to function with full competence.
Some Symptoms of Culture Fatigue
It is not unusual to experience some of the following symptoms from culture fatigue: exhaustion, irritability, depression, homesickness, sleep difficulty, anxiety, a desire to withdraw from the target culture, unexplained weeping, overeating or overdrinking. This is particularly true for students of color living in a country where people may be very different. Many people experience one or more of these symptoms between two months and a year into their stay in the foreign country. Don’t be surprised if you do too! Normally, these symptoms will come and go, and eventually pass. If they do not after several weeks, seek advice from your local health care center or an advisor on campus.
Managing Culture Fatigue
- Take care of your physical health: eat healthy foods, exercise, and get plenty of rest.
- Maintain good attitudes: Keep your sense of humor and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Remember that cultural differences may make you a bit uncomfortable, but that feeling will pass.
- Learn as much as you can about the host culture. Be curious and interested. It will help you understand why people there do what they do.
- Make at least one friend - this is important. It will increase your foreign language ability, help you understand the host country, and make you feel a part of the community quickly.
- Be non-judgmental, open-minded, and tolerant of cultural differences. Remember that cultural practices evolve as part of a whole cultural system; there may be parts of a culture you dislike or disapprove of, but it is part of a broader social system, and makes sense inside that system.
A person can improve and increase these characteristics in himself, simply by consciously practicing them.
If you are in immediate need of someone to talk to, find a friend, or another American or international student who has been there for a while and can help you interpret the situation. Above all, remember that the cross-cultural lessons you learn now will be with you all your life.