Uit de interculturele hoek…
What is culture shock and how to deal with it!

Vincent Merk

Hello stranger!

Let’s imagine you’ve been in your new environment for a few weeks now and you’ve just started a new study or career at one of the NUT-member institutions in the Netherlands or Flanders.  You are very enthusiastic about this all, of course. You are now in what we call in intercultural jargon the ‘euphoria phase’ (other terms are ‘love’ or ‘honey moon’, take your pick) and in a way you just behave like a tourist there, still discovering the many facets of life in that new city of yours, and probably finding this flat countryside beautiful, you just bought a bike and you feel you perfectly fit in this landscape, oh yes… it’s still sunny and warm out there… So far so good!

But let me tell you, things will change soon… the autumn will soon appear with that heavy rain, those strong winds and sky, water and landscape in predominantly grey colour… But “no sweat, it’s all part of the (intercultural) game of living there”, I hear you say! But the worse is still to come, winter and its short daylight… So maybe that one morning in winter time will come when you have an important exam or work appointment you can’t miss, but you just feel like staying in your warm bed, you feel (home)sick and perhaps also pissed because your bike was stolen the evening before (remember we told you, this is national sport # 2 in NL or Flanders) and you need to walk in the heavy and cold rain to this f…ing  campus or town district where your new university is located. We all have those bad days, but now it’s your turn! And you’re not at home. “Bloody hell, I feel miserable”, you’ll keep saying to yourself and possibly to those around you. I now see your desperate face…

You’ll then experience what we call culture shock, an emotional rejection of everything that is now local in your new life. So you’ll blame that local food, weather, people, etc. for all your worries and troubles. Well yes, you won’t be a tourist anymore, you live and work there, mind you! This feeling of general frustration will be rampant underneath the surface, building up for a while and will need but a trigger to explode, like a volcano. You’ll need to overcome this stage of depression and reach stability, taking the best from both worlds. If you don’t, you’ll feel unhappy and possibly go back home earlier than planned.

This concept of culture shock is typical for expats or migrants who have been outside their own comfort zone for a while. It’s an individual experience based on a mix of personal and professional aspects. You may experience light but repeated shocks, so not the big dip described above, or you may even not suffer from it at all. So please take my message as a warning of what can happen to you. If it does, anticipate it and cure it by sharing your emotions with others, your friends, buddies or coaches. It’s indeed a strange experience that can happen to everyone, nothing to be ashamed of. I now see you’re smiling again!

What to do to survive culture shock?

  • Keep in touch with your home base (family, friends there, but also news and events)
  • Share your feelings with others you trust, or those who have also experienced culture shock, professional caretakers
  • Build up a new routine in your new environment i.e. embrace local culture but also find familiarity with things of your own culture
  • Be optimistic and see things also with some humour!

Good luck, stranger, and enjoy your new life in the Low Lands!

Vincent Merk – v.merk (at) tue (dot) nl,
trainer intercultural communication at University of Technology, Eindhoven