Understanding culture shock

I have lived in Germany for two years now and experienced some many shocks. My first shock on arrival in Germany in January 2011 was at the Frankfurt airport.
Robert Mugisha
Robert Mugisha

I have lived in Germany for two years now and experienced some many shocks.

My first shock on arrival in Germany in January 2011 was at the Frankfurt airport. Everything around me seemed to have more than quadrupled in size that I could not help thinking about my home airport, Kigali International Airport (KGL). Frankfurt has four runways compared to our own KGL with one. Annual passenger traffic at Frankfurt is estimated at 56.4million compared to Kigali’s 500,000 annually. From Frankfurt Airport, 107 airlines fly to 275 destinations in 111 countries with approximately 1,365 flights each day. Kigali has about 15 airlines. But most intriguing was the large underground airport parking area that I later came to know has a parking capacity of 4,000 cars. I was also informed that you have to note carefully where you park, since you might later end up spending so many hours searching for your car.

At this point, I did not know that I was experiencing culture shock. A few years back, I had experienced culture shock when I had travelled for a cricket tournament in South Africa. Of course, it was the first time that I was travelling by air, and the short moment of sickness on take-off could not be avoided, even though I was so excited to be flying. This sickness was not my shock. It was when, on the next day, on the way to our first match, that we saw a sign that read, “No police patrol beyond this point!”

I was shocked and could not believe my eyes. These words were racing through my mind during the course of the whole tournament, and I came to realise that not all that sounds like paradise (abroad) is actually is. Recently, I came to know that these experiences are termed “culture shock” after I saw a fellow African on television, on his first visit to Europe, unable to use a coffee machine.

According to Paul Pedersen, author of “The Five Stages of Culture Shock”, culture shock is the personal disorientation a person may feel caused by the stress of being in a new environment. It is a normal part of adjusting to new foods, customs, language, people and activities. A person with culture shock may experience some symptoms including irritability, headache, stomachache, tiredness, loneliness, hopelessness, distrust of hosts, withdrawal from people and activities, homesickness and lowered work performance.

There are five stages of cultural shock: honeymoon, crisis/rejection, recovery, mastery/adjustment, and reverse/return culture shock.

The honeymoon stage is dominated by enthusiasm and fascination about the foreign culture. The perception of endless opportunities is combined with openness, curiosity, and a readiness to accept the situation. Judgment is rather hesitant and irritations are suppressed in favour of concentrating on the nice things. There are friendly but superficial relationships to host nationals.

During the crisis phase, which describes the actual culture shock, perceived differences in language, values and symbols between the own and the foreign culture cause feelings of anxiety and frustration. Usually, you predominantly seek contact to fellow nationals. A general unease is provoked by the feeling of uncertainty about yourself and the surroundings, and increased due to the lack of familiar signs of orientation and belonging.

The crisis phase is followed by recovery. You accept your problems and start working on them, by improving your language skills and start to feel at ease in the new environment. The relationship to host nationals starts to improve too.

In the mastery phase, the adaptation reaches its final extent. Anxiety vanishes almost completely and the habits and behaviour of the host society are accepted. You become functional, can work effectively, and are able to be more flexible.

The reverse cultural shock happens when you return home. You have been away for a long time, are comfortable with the habits and customs of a new lifestyle and you may find that you are uncomfortable in your home country.

It may take a little while to become at ease with the signs and symbols of your home culture. So be prepared.

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