Culture shock by definition is a feeling of confusion that results from suddenly experiencing a culture with customs that are not familiar to you. It’s a sensation that comes in many waves. It’s unapologetic. With that in mind, how does one prepare for the inevitable, when perhaps culture shock is not something factored into a summer, semester or year abroad?
To combat culture shock like the proper global citizen that you are or will become, it’s important to understand the different stages of culture shock. Please note, the stages listed below may be experienced at different time-frames or not experienced at all. I listed the stages based on my experience living, working, and studying in Spain over the span of three years.
- Honeymoon Stage: This stage feels like waking up on a Sunday morning by natural sunlight with a moderate sound of birds chirping, and the smell of coffee. It’s an exciting stage where everything is new and perfect, and if you’re lucky, better than anticipated.
- Antagonistic Stage: This stage comes to a surprise to most. The sensation of everything being new and perfect has begun to wear off. You start to notice inconveniences and/or differences in your daily routine. Resulting in a whirlpool of emotions and questioning if study abroad was a wise decision.
- Recognition Stage: This stage typically commences midway through your study abroad program. What felt foreign or an inconvenience has now started to become like second nature. You are starting to feel comfortable with change and embracing new challenges.
- Assimilation Stage: This stage feels like you’re on top of the world. Your adopted city feels like home. In fact it is home. You have fully embraced the language and culture, and to your surprise you have begun to think in Spanish. Every time you walk down the street you carry yourself freely.
Once you understand the different stages of culture shock, either from the ones listed above, your own experiences or research, it will be easier for you to manage your reaction towards your feelings. The fact is, it is inevitable to avoid culture shock, it’s a part of the study abroad experience. It is essential to keep an open mind, be patient, and practice mindfulness during your time abroad.
I highly recommend that you become involved in the local culture. Attend events, such as, intercambios (language exchange) where you may practice your Spanish and meet locals. Stay active by joining a local gym or an intermural sports team. And if you’re feeling down, reach out to your support system. This person (or persons) might be your roommate, colleagues, friends and family back home, or program coordinator. Above all, have fun! This is an amazing experience that you will remember for a lifetime. Lastly, I will conclude with the most memorable culture shock scenarios I experienced in Spain:
- Assumed everyone spoke English.
- Body contact. There seems to be a lot of body contact in a non-sexual way. For example, greeting someone with a kiss on each cheek.
- Customer service (when eating out). Don’t expect your waiter/waitress to stop by your table frequently to ask if you need anything else or refill your beverage. This of course might differ if you’re at an upscale establishment.
- Food portions. If you’re from the states, expect your food portions to be half the size.
- If you’re used to establishments closing at 2am or 4am, expect to be pleasantly surprised. Locals in Spain are accustomed to heading to a bar at midnight, the disco at 3am, and calling it a night at 6am. Talk about a proper night out!
- Public display of affection (PDA). It’s everywhere. At the market, metro, park, everywhere!
- The Siesta. The siesta for shops and businesses is from approximately 2pm until 5pm; while bars and restaurants close from about 4pm until about 8pm or 9pm. However, recent laws in Spain might change the length of the siesta.
Eliseo has been working as StudentLink Counselor at New York University since 2016
Alumni Instituto Franklin, MA Bilingual & Multicultural Education 2012-2013