The truth behind culture shock on placements abroad

Posted in: Faculty of Humanities & Social Sciences, Placements

With the end of my Year Abroad fast approaching, I found myself flicking through my photos. This particular moment stood out... pancake day in Germany is NOT what I expected.

I remember heading into Stuttgart’s city centre for pancake ingredients before suddenly stopping dead in my tracks. Everything from witches to goblins paraded through the streets, while literally swinging members of the public above their heads. Everyone was desperately trying to catch the sweets being thrown from the parade floats, even holding umbrellas upside down to catch as many as possible. While the UK traditionally marks the holiday with pancakes, Germany instead celebrates “Fastnacht”, a carnival originating from the Swabian-Alemannic region.

It's only now that I realise what my Placement Officer meant about experiencing a 'culture shock' on a placement overseas - also known as an emotional disorientation in a foreign physical and cultural environment characterised by four stages: euphoria, frustration, adjustment and acceptance. I remember moving to Germany infatuated with my new surroundings but this soon turned to fatigue from not understanding gestures, signs or the local spoken dialect.

However, I noticed these frustrations subdued as I began to feel more familiar and comfortable living in Germany. Eventually, I realised I didn’t have to understand everything completely to reach acceptance. While I’d initially feared having to deal with a culture shock, it turned out to be a good thing.

1.     Culture shock shapes your personality

Culture shock often forces you to step outside of your comfort zone. You have to trust your gut and adapt to unfamiliar cultural situations, discover who you are in new surroundings, and acclimatise in periods of loneliness and homesickness – especially since culture is a huge part of our individual and collective identities.

2.     Culture shock accelerates learning a foreign language

Learning a new language can really help to better understand the people, their lifestyle choices and cultural differences. Immersion in the local culture speeds up your language learning more than anything and encourages you to think on your feet. I’ve arguably learned more German in the last 3 months than in the last 10 years!

3.     Culture shock is a liberating experience

Placements abroad open your eyes to new and exciting ways of life. You’ll have the chance to try out things you can’t necessarily do back home. Whether it’s joining in Oktoberfest or even visiting a pig museum (yes, really!), the opportunities to try something new are endless.

4.     Culture shock encourages reflection on your own culture

There are 195 recognised sovereign countries in the world. If you live in the same place your entire life, you may never fully appreciate your home country’s virtues nor critique its shortcomings. Culture shock on placement allows you to gain different perspectives overall and therefore take a more objective stance when reflecting on your own culture and home country. It provides the chance for you to decide yourself what you truly admire or dislike in your own culture.

5.     How you can adjust to culture shock

  • Learn as much as you can about what to expect in your new environment before you go, from the food to the climate to the religion(s) practiced.
  • Try your hand at learning the local language.
  • Keep notes when you first arrive – this way, you can look back and see what you loved about the country when you first arrived whenever you feel lost or disoriented.
  • Experience as much as possible! The more exposure to cultural events, historic sites or local celebrations, the more you’ll understand about the local culture.
  • Stay in touch with close friends and family back home – whether it’s over Skype, email, social media or even postcards, it’ll also help to minimise reverse culture shock when you eventually return home.
  • Combine elements of your home culture into life abroad – I’ve incorporated my favourite meals back home into life in Stuttgart… one day I’m eating Maultaschen (a type of local pasta), the next I'm eating chips, cheese and gravy.

In a nutshell

Looking back at my placement experiences abroad, culture shock is undoubtedly the perfect opportunity to learn about yourself, think on your feet and emerge with a global perspective of life in general. Stuttgart was similar to Bath in so many ways, but this made it harder to accept culture shock, since I was able to feel at home so quickly. One minute I’d feel like a German citizen, the next I’d feel completely out of place.

This pressure to fit into German culture was amplified, as I was studying German as part of my degree – how could I have studied so much about German culture yet struggle to adapt to the German way of everyday life? Culture shock may always be difficult to accept. Some days it’ll feel easier to accept the seemingly endless cultural differences than other days. But surprisingly, culture shock can be liberating… perhaps knowing that is more shocking than the culture shock itself...!

Emma x

Posted in: Faculty of Humanities & Social Sciences, Placements

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