Culture Shock Ė Causes & Symptoms

     Contemporary research in the areas of neural, perceptual, cognitive and evolutionary psychology support the idea that we operate within and upon our physical and social environments by way of evolved and hardwired neural-circuits which guide our species-typical behavior at a macro level.  In addition to these are the more plastic neural networks and resulting neuro-perceptual-cognitive maps that allow us flexibility and adaptive variability.  Large numbers or bundles of these species-typical content-specific neural-circuits are what allow for the great problem solving abilities of the human mind and the species-variability of behavior in response to environmental differences.  These patterns of responses we call culture.  Species-variable cognitive maps are both physical networks of neurons in our brains as well as informational networks of content accumulated and defined by sociocultural experiences and stored as memory.   These cognitive maps operate at both the individual and collective levels, and people who share a culture also share aspects of the collective cognitive map. 

     Both the physical neural networks and the informational content of these culturally influenced networks are somewhat flexible due to our neural plasticity and can and do change and adapt through experience and learning and through both conscious and unconscious effort.   But our tendency is to rely on these networks or mental maps in a relatively consistent and stable manner, unless forced to change in order to adapt.  These networks provide proven and somewhat predetermined maps for us to use in the processing of information from our sociocultural and physical environments.  They are more than just memory and they allow our brains to negotiate our environments without having to reinvent responses all the time.  Once these neural networks and cognitive maps are laid down and used for many years they become somewhat difficult to change and require considerable effort to do so.  A mismatch between our neuro-perceptual-cognitive maps and our physical and sociocultural environments can therefore cause considerable uncertainty, confusion, insecurity and anxiety.  The complex of thought, emotion and behavior caused by this mismatch is called culture shock.

     Culture shock is the term used to denote the anxiety and stress reactions that some people experience when they live in a cultural and linguistic environment that is significantly different from their own.  The anxiety, stress and resulting thoughts, emotions and behaviors are caused by cognitive dissonance and uncertainty due to disconfirmed expectancies and ego-identity diminishment.  Cognitive dissonance (uneasiness) occurs when peopleís cognitions about themselves and the world around them are inconsistent with one another.  The disconfirmed expectancies that we experience when living in a different culture contribute to this cognitive dissonance and to uncertainty, insecurity, anxiety and stress.  In addition, individuals also experience anxiety and stress due to ego-identity diminishment.  Our identities are rooted in our home culture and its particular physical and sociocultural environment.  When we leave that particular complex of sociocultural and physical environmental factors we also leave the roots that support and nourish our personalities.

     Frustration, anxiety and stress also occur whenever people canít do all the things they are accustomed to doing in their everyday lives.  These can include work, home and leisure related activities that they are either no longer able to do at all or no longer able to do like they are accustomed to.  For example, sometimes because of differences in transportation services people cannot move around as freely or as widely as they are accustomed to.  When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Fiji we were not allowed to own or rent cars and had to ride only buses and taxis.  When I first moved to American Samoa, Palau and Pohnpei I was always without a car for a while until I could find a suitable one at a good price.   My family and I had to do a lot of walking and riding in taxis.  For things like grocery shopping, getting to work and getting the kids to school on time, not having a car can be quite an inconvenience, particularly for Americans so accustomed to ease of movement via a personal automobile.  Taxi drivers can also be undependable.   You can call a taxi company and they will tell you that a car is on the way but it may arrive much too late for your needs, or after it picks you up it may drive around picking up other customers for a while, and sometimes it never arrives at all.   In Fiji there are a lot of taxis and buses and transportation is pretty good and fares low.  In Samoa it's good to negotiate the fare with taxis right up front or risk an occasional unreasonable fare.  In Palau all taxis have standard fares posted for customers to see thereby removing potential confusion and conflict.  In Pohnpei the number of cars rapidly increased in the late 1990ís and today there are many taxis with reasonable fares and the prices of automobiles have also gone down considerably.

     In addition to transportation constraints, if a person from a large continental urban society moves to a small island society they may experience a sense of social and spatial claustrophobia, more so than someone who is from a rural or small town society.  Pacific islands come in many different sizes, from large islands like the main islands of New Caledonia, Samoa, Fiji and Hawaii, to very small atolls in Micronesia that you could almost throw a stone across.  To a person from a large continental urban society, even the larger Pacific islands can seem quite small.  On the open highways of the United States a person can drive for hours and days on end across the spacious plains, deserts and mountains.  On Pacific islands there is no such driving experiences to be found.  On the other hand, the Pacific does offer weeks and months of sailing across its vast expanses in ships and boats as well as ocean exploration through diving.

     Another source of considerable distress for some people is not being able to eat the foods they are accustomed to.  Anyone who wants to live and work overseas should be prepared to make considerable changes in their diet and get accustomed to the local foods and the sometimes limited selection of familiar foods in the stores and restaurants.   They may not have the nice variety of very large and well-stocked grocery stores they had back home or the many choices of restaurants and fast-food places.   Fiji and Samoa have an abundant variety of foods which can be found in public markets, restaurants, shops and fast-food stores while Pohnpei and other parts of Micronesia are more limited in the types of food you will find on a regular basis.   Palau has a good variety of foods and restaurants due to its tourism industry.   American Samoa is somewhere in between Fiji and Pohnpei with regard to variety of foods.  Fiji has had a McDonalds for several years and one recently opened in American Samoa, while Palau can boast of a Winchellís Donuts.

    When living overseas in a place where the people speak a different language it can be difficult to make yourself understood even in relatively simple but important areas of life such as shopping and getting around town.  It can be frustrating trying to ask for something in a store, to pay and receive change, and to try to tell the taxi driver where you are going.  Sometimes you are certain that people understand you but are just pretending that they donít, and other times they make a very considerable effort to communicate with you regardless of their authentic English language limitations.  In most parts of the Pacific, however, people speak pretty good English and basic communication is not a big problem.  Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Samoa speak British-Australian-New Zealand-style English, while American-style English is spoken in American Samoa and Micronesia.  French is spoken in New Caledonia, French Polynesia and part of Vanuatu. 

     And lastly is the issue of values.  A person can experience considerable stress and anxiety when they are living in a different culture with different values from their own.  A person may find that some of their own cherished and deeply held values and assumptions about life may not be equally important to members of their new host culture.  The areas of religion, moral behavior, justice and fair play, racial equality, work ethic and privacy are areas where there may a great deal of cultural relativism, and people living and working overseas need to learn to deal with these differences in a relaxed and nonjudgmental way.  Throughout the Pacific, you will generally find that islanders have stronger family values than is the norm back in U.S. urban settings. 

      One area of Pacific island culture that some people have a particularly hard time adjusting to is privacy Ė in Pacific island societies there is sometimes none, or at least very little of it.    These are oral cultures where people pass the time of day or night telling stories about the people, places, things and ideas encountered during their day.   Gossiping is a favorite pastime for Pacific islanders and everybody knows a lot about many other peoplesí sayings and doings.  Gossip plays a large social control function and manages to keep people at least publicly in line.  To do something completely out of the public eye is possible but requires considerable cleverness.  Gossip is important in all societies, in fact it is a robust human universal and is considered by some paleolinguists and anthropologists to be one of the major reasons why humans began to speak in the first place.  Gossip transmits important information about peoplesí behavior and moral character and hence its prominent social control function.  Gossip also binds people together socially because you must normally be at least partly accepted into a personís in-group before they will share valuable tidbits of gossip with you. 

       And the list of potential causes of culture shock could go on.  A productive exercise for someone living and working abroad is to regularly explore cross-cultural stress points between their own culture and that of their hosts in order to bring these areas of cultural conflict more into the open where they can be acknowledged and more objectively analyzed and dealt with.

     The specific symptoms that emerge from the stress and anxiety of culture shock include depression and withdrawal, negative stereotyping of the local people, excessive criticism of them, excessive socioemotional dependence upon fellow foreign nationals and expatriates like themselves, and the inability to form socioemotional relationships with members of the host culture.  Other symptoms include escapist behavior such as excessive sleeping, a solitary immersion in reading books or other solitary activities, an all-consuming desire for news from home, daydreaming about foods from home and alcohol and drug abuse.

     Culture shock can be prevented by striving to become more culturally relativistic and flexible in your thinking and behavior, by developing a real enthusiasm for learning about the host culture and by forming real intercultural relationships.  Successful cross-cultural communications is a fairly straightforward proposition.  With the correct attitude, a few good cultural informants, a few cross-cultural communications concepts and some time spent as a participant-observer, a person will quite naturally develop a repertoire of intercultural interaction skills.  And, when a person begins to move further along the continuum of cross-cultural understanding and interaction, they will more quickly put down ego-identity roots in the new host culture and feel more at ease with themselves and their surroundings.  They will become more happy and productive at work, at home or while moving about within the society at large.  They will no longer be negatively affected by disconfirmed expectancies.  They will understand more and be understood more by others.  In short, they will have become bicultural individuals.

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