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Culture Shock: From Idea, To Concept, To Reality


Germany is by all means a nation which is relatively advanced in most aspects as a western nation, whilst it does contain its issues, it's relatively a civilized place. However, as an ex-pat, especially an ex-pat who moves around as much as I have, you're going to come across a nation/several nations which give you a phenomenon known as culture shock. Culture shock, in layman's terms, is a certain sense of disorientation and loss of reality on hand of experiencing a new culture. This is for a variety of reasons, boredom out of a new job, technological gap, skill interdependence and the culture's perceived value of said skills, even more simple things such as a language barrier. That's why it is difficult to pinpoint how to prevent culture shock, because it truly is based on an individual level, but there are steps that one can attempt to help yourself ease into integrating into a host culture. But first, let's dissect exactly how culture shock can come about and the actual effect it has on us as individuals. To fully understand culture shock one needs to live through it, and it's relatively difficult to control. It's not something you can prepare for, or prepare the severity for, it's going to hit you eventually, and the impact of it will vary essentially.

One of the primary problems with culture shock at first is identifying it, at first it feels like you're in a “rut” or to a similar degree. Most of the time you won't even identify it until it's over. Culture shock is also often mistaken for depression, because it has similar symptoms. So, let's get to the brunt of the problem, how bad is culture shock? Well, it can mean anything, from disillusion of reality, to just simply feeling lethargic and there being an absence of energy. Personally, my worst experience was in Switzerland, that isn't to say Switzerland is a bad country to visit, by no means, but the way the culture developed and normalized certain ideals was different to all the ideals I was taught to as a child. This caused a certain cognitive dissonance, and that is what culture shock is at face value; cognitive dissonance when two cultures clash. The interesting thing about culture shock is what happens after however. See, there are typically four effects culture shock can have on the individual. These range from two extremes, to two other extremes. Typically you learn to assimilate (a word often used negatively despite the fact that it's simply not something that is negative) and you begin to integrate, you retain your culture, but still follow ideals and traditions in the host nation because it is the polite thing to do. The other is the extreme in a negative fashion, you reject the host culture, and begin to only see the negative and profound in that culture, this usually follows by one or two years of staying there miserable, and leaving as soon as possible to bad mouth said host culture. The other extreme is giving up your own culture and adopting the host culture as your own, this is a rare occurrence, because one has to seriously love a culture close to without fault to adopt such a mindset. The final one, which is mildly more moderate, is to become cosmopolitan. Becoming Cosmopolitan is the second most common occurrence, when ex-pats take away their national identity and pick and choose positive aspects of cultures that they wish to have on themselves as individuals. For lack of a better term, Cosmopolitans are culture vultures. They pick and choose aspects, which is a perfectly fine way of living life mind you.

The biggest issue is the aftermath of these results. Those who fully integrate, and those who do not adjust at all will feel what is called “reverse-culture shock” also a phenomenon which essentially is the same effect, except it's in one's own home country. Living in Germany again after close to ten years being away from it, I can honestly say I've had my share of culture shock. This would be due to the fact that I'm not used to the mass amount of BMW's, variety of grocery stores, or hell, variety of home improvement/gardening retailers that exist in this country alone. See, it's the little things that get you, not the obvious stuff like food, weather, it's these small details that pile up with time and become more and more overwhelming. That's what I experienced back in Switzerland, having never fully spoken German for more than a week or two at most, only because I had to, I was forced to consistently speak a language which I was unfamiliar, and uncomfortable with, and that was just the tip of the iceberg, I didn't speak clear German, and I was conversing with people in Swiss German (for clarification, take two or three pebbles, put them in the corner of your cheeks, and attempt to speak German, mix in the occasional English word, and you've got Swiss German) which isn't to say it's bad, it's a marvel people understand it to such a degree, but it was still nerve wracking for a fifteen-year old kid at the time. This caused me to feel depressed, and made more anti-social, the more I could put myself in situations where I could actively avoid having to speak German, the more I could actively stop making a fool of myself. So I didn't socialize outside of school that much at the beginning, I spoke English to any of the boarding residents from America and what not, I actively tried to avoid the truth in the hopes that I could delude myself that I am living in an English speaking nation.

In short, take a note of what I did, no matter how weird or strange a culture seems to you, you have to remember that you're just as weird to that culture, and you shouldn't be put off by most of the things done. If anything at least take note of what I did and don't do it, finding other ex-pats is great, amazing even, to know you're not alone is a good feeling, but at the same time, integration is key to perfecting your language, and your people skills, and believe me, these skills are learned and never forgotten again, they stick with you and will be one hell of an asset to you in what's to come in the future.

By Florian Schmidt

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