Unlike twenty years ago, the majority of people (especially travelers) know the term Culture Shock. However, there still exists an “it won’t happen to me” attitude in many who move overseas. The symptoms can be severe, including difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, paranoia and depression. Denial of the possibility of Culture Shock and ignorance of its symptoms can result in increased difficulty in adjusting to a new life overseas. A basic understanding of the reasons why it happens and what you can do about it are essential when making an international transition.
Culture shock occurs when people find that their ways of doing things just don’t work in the new culture. It is a struggle to communicate, to fulfill the most basic needs, and many find that they are not as effective or efficient as before in their jobs and in their personal lives. All this loss of competence threatens a person’s sense of identity.
The abilities and relationships that we relied on to tell us who we are, are absent, and we find ourselves a little lost in our new homes. To re-establish ourselves in a new context requires proactive planning in a number of different areas of life.
There are four basic areas of Culture Shock, like four legs to a chair. They are the physical, intellectual, emotional and social. To have the smoothest possible transition, one needs to employ a balanced approach in each of the areas.
After a transition such as an overseas move, the rhythms of everyday life are interrupted, including our exercise and eating habits. Often people neglect their exercise regiment because they don’t know where to find a gym or they don’t feel safe running or exercising in public places. Similarly, diets are neglected or some begin drinking too much alcohol. The way that our bodies feel physically directly affects our emotional health. A healthy diet and consistent exercise can help balance our emotional lives when confronting the difficulties of an international move.
The second area of concern is the intellectual dimension. When we step into a new culture we often find that we understand very little about the local customs and history. Due to our lack of understanding we sometimes assume that people think like us and value the same things we do. Reading and inquiring about the history and the culture of Costa Rica can help one to see things from a Costa Rican’s perspective and develop greater empathy for their culture and ways of thinking.
Tending to emotional needs when moving overseas will help us to weather the ups and downs of the adjustment period. Finding people that are in similar positions that you can talk to and confide in helps to alleviate some of the loneliness that one feels.
When a person begins to feel down, sometimes they are listening to negative “tapes” in their head. One’s “tapes” consist of the things we tell ourselves or the conversations that we have in our own mind. The negative tapes need to be consciously changed to positive hopeful messages. From “I am a failure and I hate this place” to “things are getting better every day.” It may seem somewhat Pollyanna, but it really works.
Finding a group of friends, learning the language, and getting involved in clubs or activities helps to fill the social needs that we have when changing our latitude. This requires time and dedication, especially if one wants to meet locals. Meeting locals is essential for long-term happiness overseas, but it can take a long period of time and a great deal of proactive planning. It may sound harsh, but it’s important to remember that the locals don’t really need you. They have their families and friends from their whole lives. You need to insert yourselves in their lives.
In my time working with people in international transition I have seen may cases of fabulous success, but I have also seen many spectacular failures. If a person develops a plan and proactively carries it out, it is very probable that you will find success and happiness in your new Latin home.