Tips to reduce culture shock
Whether it’s a PCS, TDY or short vacation for a few days or weeks, there are simple techniques that will help you minimize the effects you’ll inevitably feel when exposed to a new culture.
To get started, let me share an experience we had last year while visiting Sicily, the Mediterranean’s largest island and home to some of the best beaches and most charming old towns in Europe. We’d stepped off the C-141 at Sigonella Naval Air Station where we were met with crystal blue skies and a gorgeous view of Mt. Etna, the tallest, most active volcano in Europe. For my wife, Elaine, the view was wasted; she was jet lagged, disoriented and too worried about where we’d be spending the night. Instead of booking a nice hotel or base housing, I’d found a room for rent in the old part of the historic city, Syracusa.
Leaving the air terminal, we rented a diesel-powered Fiat and headed south. It was evening by the time we parked in old town Syracusa, and started wandering the maze of dark narrow streets with our heavy backpacks on our shoulders. We walked and searched but couldn’t find the apartment. The streets all looked the same and were rarely marked.
Stopping to rest next to a small, dimly lit café, we I noticed a middle-aged couple watching us as they sipped their wine. The man stood up and approached. In broken English he asked, “Can I help you find something?” I guess it was pretty obvious we were exhausted and lost. We had an address but there was no apartment in sight. I opened on my iPhone the advertisement for the apartment that included a picture of Allison. “Ohhhh, Allison!” he said. “Just walk straight down this street to the other side of the fortress and look for the apartment with all the plants outside; you can’t miss it.” We thanked him, headed off... and missed it, several times. They ALL have plants outside! That was when Elaine had a melt down; I’d pushed too hard and she was exhausted. She blew her top, dropped her backpack to the cobble-stoned street and said, “I’m done! Why do I let you do this to me? I’m not taking another step!!” She was experiencing the initial stages of culture shock; it was too much, too fast.
When faced with the challenge of moving to a new place, the first thing we all want to do is “plan” — plane tickets, passports, lodging, transportation, and places to see. Planning adds excitement to our trip and some stability to counter the stresses of moving. What is often missed though, is flexibility — the planning for a change in plans. In the military, we’re taught to plan for contingencies. But often times, we don’t apply it in our personal lives. We head out with an itinerary and a determination that we’re going to make it work no matter what. Inevitably, plans change. Planes are delayed, luggage disappears, you get lost and your youngest child gets sick.
Incorporate flexibility into your plan. Knowing the available options keeps you flexible when that reservation disappears, the flight gets diverted, or you arrive too late. We’ve found it far less stressful to know of five possible places to stay in a city than relying on one firm reservation made weeks ahead of time. It’s fine to make that reservation, but do a little more research so you know your options.
2. Caring for yourself (and your spouse)
When traveling overseas your senses will be on overload; inundated with new sights, sounds, different languages, smells and people. You might not even notice it, but your brain is running on overdrive. This is all new and it’s going to require some adapting. Allow downtime during travel. Don’t try to do too much in an effort to get to the finish line. Set time aside to adapt to your new surrounding. Add a day to your connection time in Frankfurt, add a few hours when changing trains in Paris, and find a cafe to just take a break.
3. Share control
When traveling as a family a great way to reduce the effects of culture shock is to share control. Each person knowing they own a part of the adventure keeps them engaged and provides some feelings of control in the first few chaotic days. It’s natural for us to have a division of labor, letting one person plan out the details of your trip with only a few suggestions from the other. But oftentimes, the one doing the planning can feel overburdened, and the one not doing the planning can feel out of the loop when plans fall apart. Try splitting your trip into manageable pieces; let everyone have a say in where they want to go and how to get there. Sharing responsibility really helps when navigating the stresses of visiting a foreign land.
Now, back to our story.
While we were standing in the middle of the street in Syracusa, a gorgeous Sicilian woman appeared out of nowhere. Dressed in an evening gown and carrying a glass of champagne, she approached us and asked, “Mr. & Mrs. Foster?” With a look of surprise we both nodded. “Elaine! Joe! I’ve been looking all over for you. Where have you been? You’re late!” It was Allison, our host for the night. The man at the café had given her a call. With a huge smile she gave us a traditional double-cheeked kiss and led us the short distance to her apartment. We dropped our bags at the entrance and Allison led us through her beautiful stone home to the back patio. There, overlooking a dark shimmering bay with dimly lit mountains in the background were her other guests; a British woman, two Australian women and an Italian couple. They all offered us seats at the table and soon, rich Sicilian food and local wine was being passed around. We’d been accepted into their circle as if we were long-lost family. As I sipped my wine I looked over at Elaine and she was smiling; her culture shock had slowly slipped away. I know she’ll be talking with me in the morning about control, flexibility and having a little downtime before arriving to this beautiful city.
Lt Col (retired) Elaine Foster and her husband Joe are adventure travelers and authors of the best selling book, “In Movement There is Peace,” a novel about travel, fear and anxiety while backpacking 500 miles along an ancient pilgrimage route called the Camino de Santiago.