Living abroad is good for your personal development


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In contrast to the majority of early and some recent literature which see culture shock as a negative construct, a positive view is offered by Juffer (1987) who considers culture shock to be caused by a “growth experience” in which change and transition are synonym of potential growth and personal development (cited in Pedersen 2005). Most of the recent literature tends to support this positive assumption. As a matter of fact, Furnham and Bochner (1986) state: “The implication is that although it may be strange and possibly difficult, sojourning makes a person more adaptable, flexible and insightful”(p.47).

In addition, recent empirical research about growth the potential of the sojourn demonstrate that although the visitor faces difficulties to adapt to the new environment, there is also an increase in awareness and understanding of oneself (Kauffmann et al., 1992 cited in Pedersen 1995), in the interest towards cross-culture issues, and a more critical attitude toward one’s culture (Carlson & Widaman, 1988, cited in Pedersen 1995). Kim (2001), asserts that the difficulties faced when experiencing culture shock lead the individual to make a greater effort in changing their old ways to carry out daily activities, achieving a better quality of life in the new environment.

Gudykunst and Kim (1984) identified the stress related to the initial culture shock a characteristic of the intercultural transformation theory, according to which an individual goes through a stress-adaptation-growth dynamic which over time becomes cyclic and continual. This initial stress the individual faces living in the new culture, which is named in the literature as acculturative stress, is believed to be not necessarily unconstructive and might in fact lead to positive results. After all, the acculturation process is a step towards assimilation as the individual makes a great effort to change their cultural patterns  in order to make them suitable to the new environment.

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Culture Shock – A Study Case


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As a result of a new pattern developed by recent research, emerges a new model of culture shock; an educational, growth model which emphasises the potential positive consequences of culture shock. An anecdotal illustration to this new concept of culture shock is the experience of a friend who came in the UK to stay only for a few months. When she first arrived in London her language skills were very low and it was the first time she had left her home country.

After the initial month, when she experienced a high sense of enthusiasm and curiosity towards the new environment, she soon experienced and came to terms with the feeling of uncertainty, ambiguity and loss. She started feeling lonely and was missing her home friends and family. She would tell me, she found people to be distant and individualistic not placing the right significance on the values of family and friendship.

In addition, she perceived the weather to be one of her main concerns as she was used to a Mediterranean climate. As she had to support her studies of the English language she had to look for a part time job. When she started looking, she felt terribly stressed as she could hardly speak the language and people did not seem to be sympathetic with her situation.

Soon she felt anger towards the host people and the new way of doing things which she had to learn in order to carry out daily life activities. She would feel totally lost when taking the bus and the underground. Sometimes, she told me the bus did not even stop because it was too crowed and she was left standing outside in the rain in disbelief as in her home country buses would stop anyway to try to get as many people on. Moreover, she did not pay attention to the queue lines and found getting shouted at for jumping the queue.

The work interviews were a complete failure as her language skills were not good enough. As a result of these incidents, she considered going back home as the stress was too much to bear. Confronted with a sense of failure, she then decided to stay and undertake the challenge of fitting in the new environment, no matter how hard it would have been to succeed. At this stage, she focused more on her language studies and prepared a speech for the interviews. After many rejections, she was so stubborn that she found a job in a fast food chain in central London. She felt reborn, she made friends at work and felt her language skills were improving day by day. She felt part of the host country’s social life and began to embrace those cultural differences which previously made her feel stressed and miserable.

At times she would still experience a sense of loss and uncertainty but she would cope with difficulties in a much better way which did not result in major crises. Over time, this cyclical process of adjustment became more and more rewarding until when she was actually able to master the host country language and deal with people from different backgrounds. Believing in her abilities, she decided to further her studies and ended up going to University and working in a office. Eventually, what it was supposed to be a sojourn of one year resulted in a stay of several years during when she developed valuable new skills and improved her existing ones.

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Moving abroad? No worries culture shock is not a disease


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Some researchers preferred referring to culture shock with the terms of “culture fatigue” (Guthrie, 1975), “language shock” (Smalley, 1963) and “role shock” (Byrnes, 1966) (all cited in Pedersen 1995). From these definitions and early literature emerges a model where culture shock is considered to be a “disease” a specific pathology which generates temporary disabilities, but which might be possibly cured. Furnham (1988), criticised this kind of model after reviewing relevant literature and found eight flaws in this kind of approach. First of all, he argued that the grief-reaction previously described as an unavoidable reaction to culture shock does not always occur and it is not the main focus of the construct. Second, the concept of believing culture shock to be inevitable, does not take into consideration the different levels in which culture shock affects different people and therefore does not provide an explanation why some sojourners somehow do not experience it. Third, he disagreed with the view of culture shock explained as a process of natural survival which suggests that only the strongest individual is able to survive. Indeed, he argued that this kind of concept is simplistic and not supported by research. Fourth, Furnham (1988) argued that there is still no tested relationship between unfulfilled expectations, poor adjustment and culture shock experience and therefore it is not proven that culture shock derives from  sojourners’ distorted expectations. Fifth, the disease model blames culture shock for negative life events which disrupt daily life activities. Furnham (1988), believes that it is complex to measure life events and even impossible to establish causality. Sixth, he argues that the clash of values and conflicts considered the cause of culture shock, are not sufficient to explain this construct. Seventh, culture shock is blamed on a lack of social skills where inadequate or unskilled individuals have a hard time adapting. About this concept, Furnham (1988) argued that the role of personality and socialization is not investigated enough in the literature. Eighth, culture shock is blamed on lack of social support, however Furnham (1988) concludes by saying that is difficult to quantify social support and even more difficult is to create a model able to test this explanation. Despite recognising the negative aspects of culture shock, other researchers also criticised this kind of pessimistic approach and urged other researchers to focus on the potential that culture shock can bring to one’s self-development and growth (Alder 1975, 1987). As a matter of fact, Alder (1987) explains that culture shock, experienced by the individual when sojourning in a foreign country, increases the visitor’s cultural awareness and describes culture shock as an experience which helps the individual to better understand themselves as well as preparing the individual to undertake necessary changes (cited in Milstein 2005).

Culture shock – U Curve Hypothesis weaknesses


Confused

Confused

A. Furnham and S. Bochner (1986) identified a number of problems with the U-curve hypothesis. Firstly, they argued that the adjustment process has too many variables such as homesickness, loneliness and depression and these should be taken into account. Secondly, they argued that the model of the U-curve reviewed in the literature is uneven as culture shock is totally subjective and people start the adjustment process at a different level of adequacy. This process also changes at a dissimilar pace for each individual. The U-curve model presents a smooth linear adjustment process which does not correspond to reality. As a matter of fact, according to Kim (1988) the transformation takes place through a process of generation and degeneration crises or events, where the movement of change differs, according to the variables of the adjustment process and diverse individuals. To sum up, it could be said  that, although the U-curve model is a convenient way to represent culture shock, it cannot provide an accurate measurement of the phenomenon as the latter is too complex and subjective. Moreover, the research carried out so far has been descriptive and did not look in depth at relationships among the different aspects of culture shock. For instance, it did not analyse in which order culture shock events are likely to happen and which groups of people are more likely to suffer from certain types of culture shock.

Beat culture shock (Adaptation stage and U-Curve Hypothesis)


Confidence is the best remedy

Confidence is the best remedy

If an individual manages to overcome the stage of rejection, the adaptation stage begins. This stage is described by Oberg as an achievement as the visitor starts to communicate using the host language and interacts more with the country hosts. At this point, the visitor perceives the daily challenges with less anxiety and is able to crack a joke over the difficulties experienced. Therefore, the adjustment stage has taken place and the visitor feels confident in dealing with daily life situations and embraces the hosts traditions and customs. Sometimes when going back home, the visitor misses the country he lived in, its people and its culture. Other researchers such as S.O. Lesser and H.W.S. Peter (1957, cited in Pedersen 1995), developed a three stage theory regarding culture shock, identifying the first stage as the spectator phase on arrival, the second stage as when the individual cannot stand any longer outside the host culture and needs to get involved and third stage when the individual learns how to cope with difficulties in daily life activity. More recent is the cultural shock stage theory developed by I. Torbion (1982, cited in Pedersen 1995) where he describes the first stage as the tourist phase, the second stage as the culture shock phase, the third stage as the conformist phase and fourth stage as the assimilation phase. Although there are variations in the stages described, culture shock stage theories are largely shared among those writing about this construct. This succession of stages has been referred to a U-curve where the process of adjustment moves from a higher level towards a lower level to then return to a higher level when the ability to cope with the new culture increases. S. Lysgaard (1955) was the first to develop the U-curve hypothesis describing the adjustment process of international students sojourning in a foreign country (cited in Pedersen 1995). This initial curve was then modified into a W-curve by J.T. Gullahorn and J.E. Gullahorn (1963) who pointed out how the adjustment process taking place when back home, resembled the initial adjustment in the host country taking the name of reverse cultural shock (cited in Pedersen 1995). In support of the U-curve hypothesis are eleven empirical studies. However, the results of these studies, support only the general hypothesis but do not prove that a level of full adjustment, comparable to the one the individual experienced back home, can be achieved. 

Read the introduction to this article here

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